As one of the organisers of the pilgrimage I was delighted by the way everything worked out. The group itself was tremendous, bonding very quickly, mixing well and developing a real co-operative spirit. This stood us in good stead as we listened to the various narratives and members of the group saw things from different perspectives.
In planning the pilgrimage we realised that balancing cost, duration and itinerary was never going to be easy, but I think we got it about right. Certainly each day was very full and there was not much time at the end of each day for processing what we had seen and heard. However, it is not easy to see what could have been dropped, and extending the duration of the pilgrimage would inevitably have added to the cost.
I was struck by the significance of the different historical narratives and the way the history still impacts hugely on the current situation. The 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron powerfully informs the current settlers' view of their Palestinian neighbours today, and the creation of the State of Israel itself in 1948 remains a source of strong and simmering resentment for many Palestinians.
I was impressed by the insight of someone we met who has lived with this history and who observed that much of the violence is purely retaliatory, with no strategic benefit whatever. In his opinion the sooner both sides realise that the other is not going anywhere, but is there to stay, the better. It seems to me that this is what has happened in Northern Ireland. The peace process there gradually helped people move from a backward looking perspective on dates like 1690 and 1922 to a focus on a future that had room for both sides. I wonder whether there are lessons from that process which can be applied to the present Middle-East conflict.
We set out as an interfaith group, with the emphasis on religion rather than politics. It was not always easy to maintain the separation in our minds and I am quiet clear that religious leaders have their part to play in a political solution. Simple assertions of a God-given right to land, or a theology which promises glorious martyrdom to suicide bombers, both need to be challenged strongly. We need also to remember that alongside the religious and political dimensions is the personal one. Too many people continue to suffer on both sides of the divide. We saw that also and were deeply moved by it.
Finlay Macdonald is a Church of Scotland minister, Principal Clerk to, and former Moderator of the Church’s General Assembly, is active in inter-faith dialogue and is a member of the Scottish Religious Leaders’ meeting.