I return to Scotland from the first Scottish interfaith pilgrimage to Israel feeling inspired, educated, and empowered. Inspired, because I now see the unique value and purpose of interfaith work in society. Educated, because the trip put learnings about other religions into
their ideal context, where we could get a more intuitive sense of their complex nature. Empowered, because I now feel determined and able to engage the profound potential of interfaith work in order to preempt and resolve points of conflict between groups of people. As one of the most entrenched and prominent sites of faith based conflict in the world, if we could see it working in the holy land, we could see it working anywhere.
I found my intellectual experience of the pilgrimage was one of working out what exactly the meaning of the pilgrimage should be. The idea seemed laudable enough, but muddled. We knew we had the seed of something important but there were just so many questions. Why Israel? Should it more diplomatically be called a Pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine? Or even the "Holy Land"? Why "interfaith" and not simply a more general interethnicity? What should we try to obtain from our experiences? Inspiration? Facts?
Answers came, with time, and they came because we were "doing" rather than simply "thinking". Arguably the most fruitful experiences were the in-betweens, the moments of shared reflection, trekking down the powerful, exquisite gardens of the Baha'i Temple in Haifa, or weaving our way through the culturally wild streets of the old city of Jerusalem.
Our schedule was intensive; really that of a conference, but because we visited speakers in context rather than at an arbitrary central location, the experience was made real, visceral. We were on this pilgrimage not to make a symbolic statement of interfaith harmony in Scotland (though certainly we often served to inspire those that we met on our journey) but because we felt compelled to by the social demands that exist in our world. In the self-aware times in which we live it is easy to contrive images of coexistence, and all of us were aware of the danger of falling into this trap. But the sheer amount of time spent together, and the intensity of the experiences made superficiality impossible. We were to a large extent in the centre of our spiritual world, and the places we visited carried real meaning for us.
Many of those on the trip had taken brave, independent steps in coming on the pilgrimage. They had fought against opposition within their communities to justify engaging with outsiders, non believers, the "other". And in Israel of all places. But that's because those who work in interfaith bear a secret. We know that multiculturalism is a fact of the world, it always has been. And we know that averting conflict is not a matter of tolerance, of agreeing to disagree. Most importantly we understand that harmony is made pro-actively, by engaging, explaining, understanding, doing together, living together. To exist in the 21st century we need a radically different model for our social interactions. We need to learn to have the humility to put our egos aside and not to see differences as threatening, but instead as enriching. A model of pluralism and multiculturalism is not enough anymore - we must unite our spiritual forces, actively learn about each other, and find justice beyond our own communities.
In Israel, the parochialism of the various peoples has marginalised religion from the political domain - it has come to seem counter-productive, an insult to rational man, the problem rather than the solution. But perhaps the most important thing we have learned is that without a spiritual dimension to co-ordinating our affairs politics becomes unstable, even coercing; it becomes a case of each party trying to squeeze out as much as they can with no thought for the other. Interfaith politics broadens our sense of justice because when you involve faith suddenly there is something more important than me versus you, my interests against yours. For Scotland the message is to get us talking to each other and having shared experiences together. Religious education in High School is not enough. We must have the resources to explain how things are for ourselves and learn from others how things are for them. The interfaith pilgrimage is a major step for Scotland on this exciting and profound journey.
Samuel Danzig is a Jewish student at the School of Oriental and African studies in London. He is active in student inter-faith dialogue and a leader in 'Maccabi' youth movement UK.