Seven Jews and eight Christians visiting one land, two nations and three religions in four days. It’s amazing how simple numbers can mask a depth and breadth of both complexity and riches.
On the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ)’s recent Jewish/Christian leadership study tour of Israel/Palestine, we began to understand how our identities and experiences shape our understanding, we saw too how identities and experiences shape the understandings of people living in Israel/Palestine.
As a white, middle-class woman I have rarely had to think much about my identity. Being a committed Christian is perhaps the most unusual aspect of my identity and that is something I choose to incorporate into my life. In the Holy Land faith is more than belief and practice – it is a ‘peoplehood’.
But in Israel-Palestine too there are identities that are chosen. Medical staff at the Shaare Zedek hospital chose to put their calling to heal above any other identity. Arab and Jewish staff in the trauma room care for perpetrator and victim alongside each other. The medicine comes first – everything else is secondary.
Hand-in-Hand School seemed to me to give a new identity to Christian, Muslim and Jewish pupils, parents and teacher who wanted to form and educate children who were committed to ‘shared society’ between Jews and Arabs.
What I saw at Hand-In-Hand was education that facilitated the opening of hearts and minds to the ‘other’ and it was beautiful to see. By resourcing the school well, with two members of staff in each classroom (one Arab, one Jewish), by teaching about identity, politics and civic society in a facilitative way, by engaging parents and teachers in dialogue and by creating a culture of trust, this school was equipping a community who would not let their religious or ethnic identity become a barrier for shared lives.
I loved the equitable structure of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality. Their proactive approach to identifying the causes of inequality and working with institutions to implement more just systems was inspiring to see and much needed here in the UK as well.
There was more: the Palestinian activist who had visited Auschwitz and asked us to think of a peace more radical than the two-state solution. There was the commitment from Women Wage Peace to always speak for something and never against. There was the cleric who reminded us that we could not be fully human if we were alienated from our neighbour and the young politician who called us not to stand up for Palestine when we returned home but to stand up for peace.
What gave me the most hope on this trip was that some people had chosen a new identity that they privileged over all others. This identity has trumped the desire for revenge, the pain of oppression and fear-driven defensiveness. Some people, most people that we met, had chosen to be peacemakers – an identity they expressed in every word they spoke, in small and large deeds and in their determination to choose to love when they could have chosen to hate.
In the UK today we are shaken by what has happened in Manchester and we mourn the senseless loss of lives, we weep with those who are injured and grieving and we are bewildered by the callousness of the attack. As a parent, I resent the reminder that I cannot promise to keep my children safe – and at the same time I acknowledge that for many people around the world our levels of security are an unimaginable privilege.
Birmingham and Jerusalem are two very different places but both need people of peace, people who have decided that creating a just, shared and equal society is a lifetime’s calling. When I imagined my children among the dead or injured at the arena I was tempted to hate. But, inspired by the peacemakers I met last week, I have chosen to keep on loving and to work for peace with all who long for justice and righteousness, all who want to welcome the stranger, all who will embrace the other and all who have a vision of shalom, all who identify as peacemakers.