THE Israel-Palestine conundrum can seem complex and emotive, as well as distant from our experience in Britain. There are, however, helpful ways in which all of us — Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others — can learn to talk about it more constructively, and so develop a more positive approach.
Israel is so intensely engaged with its multi-layered history that many of its mainstream newspapers have their own archaeology section. This attests to a wider truth: that Israel is a country where the past has never been, and can never be, put to rest.
Like the archeological sites, where stratas of ruins are built on top of one another, the current political situation is the subject of multi-layered narratives and national stories. Their awkward co- existence means that the past is present in a visceral and unresolved way.
EARLIER this year, I visited Israel and Palestine with the Council of Christians and Jews to explore these multiple Israeli and Palestinian narratives as part of a joint trip of British Jewish and Christian leaders.
No matter how many times I go there, there is always another extraordinary set of stories to hear. By speaking with stakeholders and peace activists on the ground, we wanted to think more critically about how our own communities talk about it.
One message that came out of our trip is important for all of us in Britain: if people who live in the coal-face of conflict can see beyond the tribal approaches that so often plague discussion of these issues, then those of us who live thousands of miles away surely have no excuse. As Jews and Christians, as international stakeholders in the region, we have a responsibility to temper our debate, to embrace the complexity, and to see the other point of view.
We met the Very Revd Hosam Elias Naoum, the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. He serves as pastor to the cathedral’s Arabic and English-speaking congregations, and works with a panoply of different organisations that promote co-existence. Dean Naoum’s politics are characterised by nuance, but he deals in a number of absolutes; one is his willingness to welcome anyone, to carry out his post as if his congregation were not on the front line of a bitter, decades-old conflict.
His church is a short walk from the protests and stabbings in the Old City — he lives the conflict as much as anyone — and yet he is prepared to engage in dialogue any who leave violence and confrontation at the door.
The Abraham Fund (which promotes equality among Jewish and Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel) showed us a Muslim and
a Jew working together to improve the lives of Arab citizens in Israel. Their priority is peace and co- operation, driven by a belief that people-to-people contact will bring down barriers. The pair, Thabet Abu Ras and Amnon Be’eri Sulitzeanu, stand together because they focus on the need to overcome the social and historic hurdles that hinder the search for a peace agreement. They prioritise people, not politics.
THE Jews in our party felt like exhibits as well as participants. As leaders of communities with huge emotional and historical investments in Israel-Palestine, at times our narratives became the story..
I am a dual Israeli-British citizen, who lived in Jerusalem for 15 years, working with Palestinians and Jews; so I felt a particularly acute sense of being part of what we were experiencing. Such an emotionally and politically complex trip was anything but “tea and samosas” — the kind of interfaith work where we share in pleasant but superficial dialogue about our similarities and differences.
And yet meeting people such as Dean Naoum and the peace-activists was salutary. If they take part in dialogue with anyone and everyone as a matter of course, how can we in Britain account for the incendiary, accusatory, and simplistic tone of discourse online, on campus, or at public events?
When the next big conflict arises — and, sadly, it will — we should acknowledge what is in our hearts, but act with our heads. Sensible responses come from practised conversations, not waiting for a heightened state of tension before actively voicing our views.
The only way to do this is by forcing ourselves to have those conversations that we often avoid. The beauty of our recent trip was that we could discuss the conflict, including its impact on Christians, at a relatively calm time.
It means that we have built the relationships we need to co-ordinate measured and calm social-media responses and combined statements when the next outbreak occurs.
RELATIONSHIPS and robust conversations should be the driving force of our approach to Israel-Palestine. Relationships are vital for lay people, and not just community leaders. The next time we feel passionate about Israel-Palestine, we don’t have to think immediately of the images on our screens.
You could think about the Jewish people you have met who care deeply about the State of Israel: speak to them; find out what they are thinking. My message for Jewish people is the same. Some groups do this formally, through networks such as the Council of Christians and Jews; other relationships start with a meet-and-greet between a church and a synagogue.
It is a conflict defined by shades of grey. Defining it in terms of simple dichotomies, clear-cut solutions, and perpetrators and victims is a strategy that is doomed to fail.
Conversations built on better relationships in Britain can boost those already engaged in constructive dialogue in Israel-Palestine. And even where such interaction is lacking, surely our own behaviour can set a positive example. We should not import conflict. We should do what we can to export peace.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism, and a President of the Council of Christians and Jews.