Putting the ‘friend’ back into ‘critical friend’
As the time drew near for my visit to Israel Palestine last month, I was aware of an immense sense of privilege combined with a worrying burden of responsibility. This was a trip organised by the Council of Christians and Jews for 16 Jewish and Christian leaders together to look to the situation there and compare our reactions. I was praying for honesty and empathy.
In a packed three day programme we met a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, the Dean of the Cathedral, visited a West Bank settlement, and met a huge range of Jews, Christians and Muslims working for change on the ground. These included Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer who has mapped the growth of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem; Daoud Nasser, a Christian whose farm, though threatened by the spread of settlements in the West Bank, has become a centre of peacemaking, and Ayman Odeh, who as the leading Arab member of the Knesset is working within the parliamentary system for justice and equality for Palestinian Citizens of Israel.
Most important were our daily de-briefs, carefully facilitated by the CCJ officers so that everyone should feel safe to speak freely, and the conversations with each other on the coach, over meals and in the bar, where we began tentatively to share our different reactions and analyses. Unsurprisingly, the Christians tended to be sceptical distrustful of the ‘pro-Israeli’ presentations and the Jews of the ‘pro-Palestinian’ ones. I came to feel in my own bones some of the intense anxiety that Israeli Jews feel about security, the fear of the loss of their dream, the terror that Jews might again become the victims of planned extermination.
And I realised that Christians and Jews need to have those conversations back here; and not let fear of disagreement keep us stuck in a toxic silence. I realised that our Jewish colleagues, who may or may not sympathise with Israeli policies, must feel as though everyone is talking about them rather than with them. We need to renew our local friendships. We need to keep challenging the kind of supersessionist theology that is still all too alive and that feeds antisemitism.
I’ve rather taken for granted that Christians and Jews have made good progress in understanding each other over the last fifty or sixty years. We could lose all that if we don’t go on renewing our friendship and looking at the world together. We may be critical friends to each other, but being friends is as important as being critical.
My tour group, though many have very senior responsibilities, has agreed to go on meeting and talking.
I was proud that the URC contributed to the funding of this study tour and hope that many more will have the opportunity for a similar experience.
URC minister at the London Inter Faith Centre
17th June 2016