To be quite candid, I never expected our expedition to be met at all turns by flights of white doves bearing olive branches, swords spontaneously turning into plough-shares, or lambs rushing into the embrace of lions.
We had a more limited aim: to develop a better understanding of one another; and to demonstrate wherever we went that mutual respect is possible without unanimity, and that it is possible to disagree without coming to blows. In that I guess we had some success - most of the people we met were surprised and impressed by the enterprise itself, by the diversity and cohesion of the group, and by the sense of common commitment to that purpose. Many, including those with long experience of interfaith and intercommunal work both here and internationally, said we were unique in their experience, and expressed the hope that we had started a trend. That itself is promising, and justifies the support of the Scottish Government and First Minister personally for the enterprise in line with his vision (4 February 2008) of "Scotland, as a small country, ... as a peacemaker - providing the facilities and the opportunity for conflict resolution".
Of course peace-making is a tall order! A more attainable aim is the biblical injunction to "pursue peace". The difference is nor just semantic - it measures the distance between idealism and realism: very few of us are fated to make peace, but none of us has any excuse not to pursue it. Even if we fail, the reward is in the trying.
So we were not here to make peace, but to promote the possibility of peaceful coexistence. We were constantly reminded, from both sides - both within and without - of the fragility of the membrane that prevents suspicion degenerating into enmity. A wise man once said that one can only make peace with one's enemies - with one's friends one doesn't need to. But to do so, one first has to see them as more than just enemies, but as people with their own attitudes and beliefs and ambitions. One does not have to come to love them, or even to trust them, but one has to engage with them, or at least with those beliefs, attitudes, and ambitions. Only then can compromise emerge.
To reject compromise is to reject human nature. Obliterating the opposition may give temporary respite, but unless that obliteration is literal, the remnant that remains will regroup with even greater determination, and so the vicious, truly vicious, circle will continue to turn. That is not the way, and it was infinitely depressing to meet those who either could or would see no alternative, no accommodation. Fortunately, that was far from the majority view. Of course no two of them would agree on precisely the compromise they favour, but that is less important than the underlying aspiration. For me the optimistic highlights were the rabbis who are active in promoting dialogue, and the Palestinian students of One Voice, who are forming, with their Israeli counterparts, a formidable vehicle for peace.
Probably the most positive and fulfilling events were those at which the speakers recognised that what brought us together as a group was faith, not ideology or affiliation, and addressed us in appropriately spiritual rather than political terms. Of course our diversity created challenges too - what headgear is appropriate for what visit; what food can we all eat? Sociologists (and theologians) make much of commensality, the importance of sharing food and companionship with one's fellows, so I find it bizarre that there are interfaith activists who pride themselves on providing kosher and halal meals separate from other participants (perhaps they would also like to label them with yellow stars, as one airline actually did!). Our group cracked it - on the first night kosher food was provided for the Jewish participants at one designated table, and it was one of the Church leaders who suggested we collect our plates and sit amongst our fellows; and when that proved impossible because of the utensils, we simply arranged for disposables, and on Shabbat we all shared kosher food. If only all our differences could be so easily resolved!
But this was also a reminder that we were an interfaith group, embodying the paradox that it was our very differences that brought us together. These are differences that cannot be papered over by sharing platitudinous cups of tea; it is of the nature of religion that each of us believes that the others are in some deep, basic, and even metaphysically self-deluding way fundamentally wrong. And yet we can discuss these very differences with mutual respect; we can come better to understand each other's beliefs, even if what we believe we are exploring is why they are wrong. This is the model that we as a group tried to bring to bear on our political disagreements too, and I believe we succeeded, at least for ourselves, and insh'Allah, im yirtse HaShem, as an example to others too.
Perhaps that really was a flight of white doves!
Ephraim Borowski is Director of Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, Vice-Convener of BEMIS (the Scottish minority umbrella organisation), former treasurer of the Interfaith Council, and member of the Scottish Government Faith Liaison Committee.