Just like the twelve spies who set off, under the leadership of Moses and later Joshua, to scout the land of Canaan in the book of Numbers, I was on a group study tour to Israel and Palestine in June this year.
Though rather than being twelve in number we were sixteen and instead of being heads of tribes we were community and religious leaders from Christian and Jewish denominations, expertly stewarded by Elizabeth Harris-Sawczenko and Rob Thompson from the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ).
Yet, despite the differences between our trip and our sacred story, as many of us kept pointing out, the mission of our trip was close to that of the Israelite spies.
We were tasked with going on an intensive four trip to Israel and Palestine to learn about the conflict, to deepen our knowledge, hear from people outside of our usual echo-chambers and to bring back our learnings to our communities.
As this was the fourth trip by the CCJ, and given both Rob and Elizabeth’s intimate knowledge of the area, we were gifted with an extraordinary insight into a variety of narratives and contexts.
As Elizabeth said, this trip reflected her 23 years living in Israel during various intense periods such as the second intifada.
The diversity and depth that we explored was dizzying. As such the trip took us on many literal and symbolic journeys. For instance, we spoke to leaders of Christian communities who are a minority in Israel, visited the controversial City of David archaeological dig, met various mayors and deputy mayors in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, visited the settlement of Efrat and spoke to settlers, went to Ramallah to meet representatives of the Palestinian Authority, heard from journalists, IDF majors, young people, academics, diplomats and so on and so on.
As we know, the spies who searched out the land of Israel came back with differing views. Ten of the spies gave a report of doom and gloom and two brought back positive news.
Unlike these binary views we experienced a mix of positive and negative realities, reflecting the complex picture in this Middle Eastern land. As one of our speakers said – ‘welcome to Israel where confusion is part of the conflict’.
We saw how emmeshed many people were in their own narratives. A comment we heard from a young woman trying to tell her people’s history illustrates this perfectly – ‘let me tell you what they did to us.’ Whether it was the 1948 declaration of independence, the Naqba or the violent year of 2000, people were rooted in their own history and experience.
We heard, on the same day, people who held seemingly antithetical views, quoting from the book of Samuel to prove their God-given right to the land we were standing on.
We witnessed poverty in Israel.
We heard about the plights of Israeli Palestinians – separated from families, unable to drive and the impossibility of securely owning and building property.
We listened to the pain from the intifada, the withdrawal from Gaza, the rockets pounding the streets of Israel.
We heard again and again the separation between Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Jews – disconnected whilst only a short distance apart.
We paid attention to journalists and scholars who told us that peace was dead and that trust not only was broken, it was never there in the first place.
We felt the pain of the failed Oslo peace process and the one uniting reflection that in Yitzchak Rabin’s death the peace process was killed.
We picked up jigsaw pieces from Jerusalem and nearby, though wondered at times whether the pieces we were holding were from separate puzzles and whether they could ever be unified.
Yet, as we sat on our bus we spoke of our ties to Israel – the places where we fell in love, got married, engaged, had our first kiss (I am naming no names!) – and as religious leaders we delighted in being in a holy land with thousands of years of history.
We also saw seeds of hope.
Be that in schools doing vital work on educating Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians together (Hand in Hand) or the extraordinary charity Roots which brings Israeli religious settlers together with Palestinians living the West Bank to listen to each other, take on local activism and attempt to change the discourse in the country.
As Roots said, ‘we belong to the land not the other way around.’
We came away with a strong message about the importance of dialogue and taking personal responsibility.
We realised the power in our group experiencing these encounters together, being able to meet each other and hear each other in challenging spaces.
We spoke about UK politics and the rise of antisemitism and the persecution of Christians around the globe. We listened and we heard.
Whilst I cannot declare that I found a land solely of milk and honey I can bring back seeds of hope and attest to the power of dialogue, listening and effective action.
Like the spies, it is for us all to learn and hear, to listen to voices that we find challenging, be committed to opening our hearts, escaping from the limiting stories that we are telling ourselves and taking action one injustice at a time.