Reflections on a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories with the Council of Christians and Jews
By Phil Rosenberg
In recent years, the pattern of UK Christian and Jewish engagement on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has tended to make headlines for the wrong reasons.
Tensions flare as the central bodies of major churches pass resolutions uniquely condemning Israel, while Christians struggle understand why their British Jewish compatriots seem so thin-skinned in relation to what many of them see as criticism of Israeli government policy.
Rarely are people from the two communities given the space to understand each other, and to give each other the opportunity to find a deeper truth together.
That is why the Council of Christians and Jews’ study visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories is so necessary and so welcome. Christians and Jews from a range of different denominations, organisations and perspectives spent four days together, visiting politicians, officials, faith leaders and NGOs to try and understand why people passionately feel such different things about this land that is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The roster of speakers was impressive, from Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat in Jericho, to Lt Col Peter Lerner, spokesperson for the Israel Defence Forces in Jerusalem, this was a no-holds barred exploration of narratives and hopes the Palestinian desire for an independent national homeland, and the Israeli yearning for security from terrorism.
It is clear that this conflict will have to be resolved by the parties themselves, but what can British Jews and Christians do to support efforts at reconciliation?
For me, three key, unifying messages emerged:
First, do no harm. In approaching the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, too many Christians and Jews engage in the conflict in a divisive manner, actively replicating the divisions of the Middle East in the UK. One Palestinian religious leader we met on the visit said that he felt a personal guilty watching Christians, Jews and others in different countries fall out over the situation in the Holy Land, rather than finding ways to come together and model the better future for Israelis and Palestinians that must be our shared ambition.
Build hope: I confess that I was quite frightened when we went to meet Saeb Erekat in Jericho. This is not because, in entering Palestinian Authority controlled territory, I as a North West London Jewish boy was forgoing the protection of the Israeli army, and putting my life in the hands of Palestinian Authority security forces. The reason for my fear was that I thought I would hear the veteran negotiator give us a message of despair. That he would tell us that he has given up. But, like so many of the people we spoke to on both sides of the world’s most intractable conflict, he was angry, he was a realist, but he could see ways to move forward. His call was for us to keep hope in the minds of young Israelis and Palestinians, because, “if hope is lost, it’s ISIS”. While extremists on both sides see the conflict as a zero-sum game where there can only be one winner, that attitude is a recipe for a lose-lose scenario where the obvious, almost inevitable two-state solution is made a more distant reality, whose delay is paid for in the blood of even more innocents. Christians and Jews in the UK need to come together in a spirit of creativity, thinking about how we can ‘split the Red Sea’ and find a way through seemingly impenetrable paths.
Bridge gaps: I asked many of our speakers what we as British Jews and Christians could do to help, and a near-universal refrain, from Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike, was that we should support those involved in the hard work of peace and reconciliation. Their task is not an easy one, and whether through prayer, charity or action there are ways that we can make a difference. Two weeks’ ago, I was proud of my own organisation, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, partnering with the Christian umbrella body, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to start a programme called ‘Invest in Peace’. This project involves bringing organisations active in reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians to talk to multifaith gatherings, sharing their work and then inviting Jews, Christians and others to come together and donate to their projects. A fortnight ago, we heard from inspiring speakers from the Parents Circle, a charity which brings together people who have lost family members to the conflict, showing if they can forgive each other and seek to make peace, then we who have not lost as personally to the conflict must do the same. On the Council of Christians and Jews trip, we met other dynamic organisations who we could partner and support, ranging from Women Wage Peace, an organisation which puts the often stifled voices of women at the heart of a call for resolution, to the Hand in Hand schools, who daily educate Palestinian and Israeli children alongside one another, modelling the peace that could be.
The message that I took away from the Council of Christians and Jews study visit was that we must stop importing conflict, and start exporting peace instead.
Phil Rosenberg is the Director of Public Affairs at the Board of Deputies of British Jews
Photo: An art project from Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand school that looks to find a constructive way to reflect different perspectives on the conflict. The Hebrew and Arabic both read ‘Heart to Heart’.
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