On hearing about our Interfaith Pilgrimage, Martin Palmer, Head of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), speaking on Newsnight Scotland asked, ‘Why on earth did you go to a place in which for three religions you could not find more tension and enmity?’
With this comment (and many others) Palmer seemed to me to miss this point. The reality is that relations amongst people all over the world are affected by the conflict in the Holy Land. As Na’eem Raza and Mazhar aptly pointed out in their reflections, when many Muslims think of Jews they don’t think of them as the ‘People of the Book’ of whom the Qur’an makes many positive statements, but as ‘Zionist oppressors’. Many Jews also formulate their opinion of Islam and Muslims based on their perception of the conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian issue has the ability to fire up tensions with extraordinary speed, and it is therefore understandable that most interfaith gatherings, hoping to foster friendships, tend to avoid the issue as a rule. I agree that it is much more preferable that members of different religions meet each other as people first and foremost, but the issue can’t be avoided forever, and in the right supportive context it must be broached if we are ever to understand each other.
The interfaith pilgrimage provided such a supportive context. I was very impressed at the ease and openness with which such a diverse group, meeting each other for the first time, discussed controversial issues and shared matters of real importance to them. The places we visited and people we met provided a setting in which such conversations evolved naturally and, crucially, all of us were keen to learn, both together and from each other.
As the days went on I realised more and more just how complicated the situation is, and how inadequate my previous thinking had been. Growing up in Belfast, listening to news reports which gave little to no historical context to the conflict, I believed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was similar to Republican – Loyalist fighting in Northern Ireland. I had the impression there was relative equality between the sides in terms of power and arms and I was shocked to discover that this was far from the case. This realisation sent me searching for information elsewhere, and what I found was the Palestinian narrative, which told me of a catalogue of human rights abuses and violations of international law by the Israeli government and military. What I did not find was any kind of historical perspective, and this is what is needed.
Before the trip, like many others, I looked at Israel/Palestine as it is now, and I saw that Israel has the overwhelming advantage in power, military control, command of resources and international backing. From this viewpoint I couldn’t understand Israeli fears.
On the last day of our pilgrimage we visited Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum and something hit home. The State of Israel was formed in the wake of the Holocaust and many of its first citizens were deeply wounded people, but Israel was not the safe haven envisaged. The very day after the declaration of independence, all the surrounding countries attacked. More wars followed, and while Israel was able defeat the opposing armies, it has not been able to prevent the attacks from Palestinians with much more rudimentary weaponry. I was filled with horror as I realised that the Jewish people had gone directly from the experience of Aushwitz to the experience of vehement hostility and continuous attacks on their newly formed state. It suddenly made sense why it is that many Jews and Israelis see the current conflict with the Palestinians as the latest chapter in a centuries old history of anti-Semitism. While I strongly believe that this mindset must be challenged, it was important for me to understand where it came from.
This historical perspective also helped me to see why it is that Israelis object so much to people referring to the occupation of Palestinian lands as the ‘cause’ of terrorism. The majority of Palestinians now want to make peace with the Israelis and are willing to accept compromise in order to achieve this, but this has not long been the case. There is a deep lack of trust on both sides, and not without reason. Whilst many of the surrounding Arab nations have made peace accords with Israel, history reminds us of the fragility of such agreements. With this in mind it makes sense that Israel should wish to have defensible borders.
Visiting the West Bank however, convinced me more than ever that Israel’s current course in seeking its future security is extremely short sighted. As our able guide, Eliyahu Maclean of the Jerusalem Peacekeepers, reminded us on our final night in Jerusalem, the future of the Israelis and the Palestinians is together and all need to recognise this and behave accordingly. Through the people we met, we learnt that, thankfully, there are already many Israelis and Palestinians who are working hard to put the mechanisms for peace in place, which, if supported, will ensure that once a just settlement has been brokered, it will have a good chance of success. This experience has given me hope, a hope which I can now convey to all I meet and talk with about this issue.
I honestly believe that we have, through our example of a close-knit group which is diverse in religious affiliation, ethnicity, age and gender, given real encouragement to those working for peace in the Holy Land. In terms of us back in Scotland, I think we have learnt valuable lessons that will help us to challenge ignorance and prejudice which is not uncommon here. I also look forward to working further with my fellow pilgrims, who share a belief in the value of co-existence and of friendship which can accommodate discussion and mutual learning on even the most difficult issues of religious and political conflict. Let’s keep talking!
Magdalen Lambkin is a PhD candidate in Inter-faith Studies and a member of the Scottish Inter-faith Council. She is Roman Catholic.