A reflection from Peter Colwell, Deputy General Secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, on four recent ‘Invest in Peace’ events including one in Birmingham last week, republished from the CTBI website
For more than two years now, CTBI in partnership with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, have been rolling out meetings across the UK for the “Invest in Peace” programme. This means that two major faith community umbrella bodies are working together so that we may hear the stories of Israelis and Palestinians who are looking for alternative ways to engage with one another, rather than violence and aggression.
At each meeting a synagogue and a church have jointly hosted an event that is attended not only by members of those congregations but a diverse range of people from the locality and quite often by local politicians and MPs. In 2016 and 2017 we have held events in Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, London and in 2018 in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff and Oxford.
Every time we have done this the response has been overwhelmingly positive and has in many cases changed the way in which people think and act around Israel and Palestine. Many incredible things are said, and two comments in particular have remained with me. One was an older Jewish man who remarked that this was the first time in his life that he had ever heard first-hand the experience of a Palestinian and how much it had affected him. The other was a Christian clergyman who was left wondering whether the way he had campaigned on behalf of Palestinian people hadn’t always been the most helpful approach.
The meetings in 2018 were arranged, in partnership with Solutions Not Sides, and featured two young men from the region who spoke powerfully of their experience: one out of a need of security for his country and for an end of militarization and another for the end of the occupation, the ending of settlement expansion and to become a flourishing nation state. One spoke of his experience in the Israeli army, coming to aid of wounded civilians as a result of the Syrian civil war, and losing friends in the military incursions into Gaza. The other spoke of all that his family had lost under occupation and of his shock at encountering an Israeli interested in the same sport as him, when “Israelis” usually mean soldiers and checkpoints.
The most common reaction I hear in Britain and Ireland to the Israel-Palestine conflict is how hopeless the situation seems, with the Two State Solution a long way out of reach. However, what was striking about these two speakers was their sense of hope that things could and would change and how much they wanted to be part of the solution and not the problem. How much we can learn when we listen to the voices of young people in the region!
There was something besides. Here were Christians, Jews and others too (including some Muslims) in listening mode rather than declaring their firmly held points of view, listening to the stories of young people from the region, about what matters to them and how things might change for the better. Were these speakers typical of Israelis and Palestinians? Probably not, but part of what is revealed by these testimonies is that there is no “typical”, that Palestinians and Israelis are as diverse as any nation, with vigorous debates about the past, present and future. We do a disservice to people’s humanity, when we presume that all Israelis are more or less the same and all Palestinians can be characterized in a particular way.
“Invest in Peace” is not trying to find solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is trying to find a new way for Jews and Christians in Britain to have a meaningful engagement around Israel and Palestine without relationships being fractured. At every event we close by encouraging church and synagogue to continue to have these conversations. The challenge for us all is how we continue to listen and to learn.
See CTBI’s Invest in Peace page for forthcoming events.