Each time I visit Israel-Palestine I come home with a renewed sense of expectation: a deeper willingness to learn more about the people who live there, their memories, their stories, and their hopes for the future. And, of course, more questions than answers!
This year’s CCJ Jewish/Christian Leadership Study Tour was no different. We were a group of Jewish and Christian community leaders from a number of different denominations and perspectives. Some had never visit the region before, others represented organisations and communities with a significant presence in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Our purpose was not to travel with an agenda nor to seek to change people’s minds when it comes to long-held positions on the conflict. We travelled to listen and to learn, to meet and hear different perspectives from individuals and communities on the ground, and to find ways for our own communities to engage in dialogue on the difficult issues relating to Israel-Palestine.
We met Dean Hosam at St George’s Cathedral and heard a comprehensive breakdown of the internal and external dilemmas facing Israel from David Horowitz, Editor of the Times of Israel. Rabbi David Rosen KBE, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, spoke of the importance of compromise on equally valid claims. We met representatives of both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government and Ayman Odeh MK, Head of the Joint List, the third biggest political grouping in the Knesset. The UK Ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, reflected on the legacy of a century of British presence in the Middle East and emphasised the still real potential for a Two State Solution. He encouraged us to return home and to continue the conversations which we had begun in the region.
We also experienced some of the grassroots initiatives in both Israel and the West Bank which are creating small but lasting opportunities for change at a local level. At Roots we heard from Nur and Sha’ul, a Palestinian and an Israeli settler, who regularly meet in dialogue to share each other’s narratives. And at the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem we saw how Jewish and Arab children are taught alongside one another and how the school organises regular opportunities for their parents to meet and share their stories. On walls outside their classrooms the children’s artwork displayed, in both Hebrew and Arabic, the words: ‘Dialogue is a way of life’.
I could go on in sharing some of the profound, inspiring, and tangible ways in which Israelis and Palestinians are reaching beyond division and finding new opportunities to share in living together.
But every time I felt inspired by this activism on the ground, I was also frustrated by more examples of good people doing good things and yet themselves being disillusioned by political leadership on all sides. In Ramallah a young activist and start-up businessman gave us a fascinating account of how he is helping local individuals get their projects underway in Palestine. It was a wonderful example of grassroots change. Yet when we asked him about his hope for a future Israeli-Palestinian settlement? He laughed, waved his hand, and dismissed politics as something far away, irrelevant, a waste of time.
This deeply affected me. It moved me that such an inspiring and active person in his community could at the same time be so put off by those in positions of power. It also reminded me very much of the reality of politics for many of us around the world. So often we see good things happening in communities—efforts to make life better in small ways in local contexts. But we feel entrenched in an unsatisfactory status quo and don’t feel able to trust in politics to achieve real and lasting change, no matter how much we might want to.
It’s not my place to ask that that young Palestinian community leader trust in politics again. Our place is only to listen and to learn. But witnessing both the change that is being made in Israel and Palestine, and the frustrations along the way, is a powerful message for us in the UK to remember. We need to hold on to the ability to hear the other’s story with respect and understanding, and to be willing, even if not to change our own deeply-held convictions, at least to recognise that we all have to live with each other’s truths if we are to forge a world capable of embracing this diversity in security and in peace.
Acknowledging this might not make the change that is so needed a reality but it is the first step and at least might go some way in beginning to turn our persistent questions into an enduring reply for peace.
Senior Programme Manager, CCJ