In March 2008, I returned to Scotland after a year and a half of travelling around the world. I planned to stay put for a while but within weeks I was offered the chance to join a forthcoming multi-faith pilgrimage to the Holy Land and I couldn’t say “No”! My feeling that it was an opportunity not to be missed was more than borne out during the course of a fascinating week spent in the most interesting of company.
Bearing in mind that we only had one week in The Holy Land, we managed to meet an amazingly wide variety of people with many different viewpoints. We were ably guided by Eliyahu MacLean whose credentials couldn’t have fitted the aims of our trip much better – he is a Jewish citizen of Israel, with paternal Scottish ancestry who is a member of the Jerusalem Peacemakers organisation, and he introduced us to some of his vast network of contacts amongst Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs. We were able to encounter people and places that would otherwise not have been accessible to us on a personal basis.
We came across extremes, of course. They were most obvious in Hevron and Ramallah where we were exposed to the opinions of a hard-line Jewish settler and a member of the Palestinian parliament. There were difficult truths to be faced, too, when we met Jewish parents whose children had been maimed and killed by suicide bombers, and when we heard about the severe restrictions that Palestinians have to face in their daily lives.
However, we also encountered Palestinians and Israelis who are anxious to find non--violent means to reach a peaceful settlement. We learned that, apart from the security issues, people at grassroots level on both sides are very anxious about the water shortage which they see as the most pressing problem facing the whole area. Worryingly, this did not seem to be high on the politicians' agendae and there is great concern from the people on both sides about corruption within political organisations.
I think it’s fair to say that we all came to appreciate that there are rights and wrongs on both sides and many shades of grey in between. I felt overwhelmed by it all and could never presume to offer any solution to a conflict which has lasted for 60 years, but there were inspiring insights into how good people can work through tremendous difficulties in the search for understanding and peace. Our presence as a group of many faiths, travelling in a spirit of friendship and candour, did seem to give inspiration and encouragement to many people whose paths we crossed. This was one unexpected, but very welcome, outcome of our pilgrimage, as far as I was concerned.
As the week went by I became increasingly aware of how lucky I am to live in Scotland, in a settled society mercifully free of the kind of tensions that face the peoples of the Middle East, and of how important it is to work at keeping our society free of such pressures. We all have suspicions of people who are different from us in some way or another and have a tendency to huddle in the comfort of our own community of like faith or like race, but keeping our distance usually only ends in entrenching suspicion and hostility. The most refreshing and hopeful aspect of the whole trip was reaching out to meet the “others” who were reaching out to me and finding that we could form another community of trust and commonality while openly acknowledging our differences. I learned so much and have great hopes of continuing to learn and share with the friends I was privileged to find amongst my Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish travelling companions. The most particular pleasure was to witness the companionship that developed between the younger members of our group – there lies the greatest hope for all our futures.
Fiona Brodie is treasurer of the Scottish Jewish Archives Committee, Co-Senior Warden and Executive Member of Glasgow Reform Synagogue, past Chair of Limmud Scotland, and past Hon Secretary of Glasgow Jewish Representative Council.