Jack Palmer is a MSc Religion in the Contemporary World candidate and works part time as the Parliamentary Assistant to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Here he shares his experience as a participant on the LSE Faith Centre’s interfaith trip to the Holy Land…
It is hard to put into words an experience that you have been waiting much of your life to have. Normal language seems to fall short of explaining the profound impact that last week’s LSE Interfaith trip to the Holy Land has had on me. My own personal reflections, written at the end of each of the eight days we spent in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, both inspired and frustrated me, as I was never quite able to explain the emotions that were running through my body or ask the questions I wanted to articulate (let alone answer them). I think that must just be what the Holy Land does to you.
Unexplainable emotions and unanswerable questions aside, our week in the Holy Land was a powerful event for all involved. As a young person raised in the church, I have spent countless Sundays, youth groups and summer camps hearing the stories of Jesus’ life in the Holy Land. And when you are told stories that happened two millennia ago, it is easy to disassociate them with a physical place. They happened so long ago, that you almost imagine them happening outside of time and space. Whilst Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth are well known places to me as locations of stories, this trip made them more real and more significant than I could have ever imagined.
One of the most profound aspects of this trip was sharing it with people of other faiths, both those who were members of the group, and those we had the privilege of meeting during our time in the Holy Land. For my own part, a Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land would have been enjoyable and I am sure life-changing in many ways, but it would have left too much unsaid. When you are in a place where so much of the history, the politics and the society is bound up in the story of multiple groups (religious and non-religious), it would be impossible to truly appreciate the whole story without this interaction with those who view the story through a different lens. To explain, or even mention each shared experience, would take up many, many pages – but a couple of specific examples stick in my mind…
First, and perhaps the most encouraging from an interfaith perspective, was experiencing an Arabic-speaking, Roman Catholic Mass. Not only was the service a great celebration in and of itself (the church was celebrating Epiphany on the day we visited) but it was also a moment of revelation for the group as so much of the liturgy of the service was recognisable to our Muslim brothers and sisters in a way that wouldn’t be so obvious in an English-speaking service. Hearing words like Salem and Isa throughout the service was a surprisingly profound moment of connection, and certainly one that will stay with me for a long time.
Our visit to Yad Vashem was also an important moment. Sharing that experience – as we passed through rooms that depicted unimaginable horrors and memorials that sent chills down the spine – was unlike any other experience I have had of visiting a Holocaust memorial. Being part of a group of self-identifying peacemakers made it a place of action and resistance – with conversations continuing long after we left as to how we actively stand against such acts.
Those were just two of many moments in the week that touched me and left a lasting impression.
At a simple level, this trip was eye-opening in terms of how much I learned about the region. I still consider myself woefully ignorant about much of what has happened and is happening in Israel and Palestine, but this trip certainly gave an impressive introduction – thanks to our incredible guides. Their wisdom and the care with which they presented a balanced view of the place they call home was something I had expected to be impossible, but they somehow managed to navigate difficult subjects with a real desire to model peace and reconciliation – even when ‘simply’ explaining historical events. This way of presenting the region to a lay group had such a profound effect on the way we approached the trip as a group – not feeling like an ideology or agenda was being pushed on us meant that we asked difficult questions without feeling like we needed to avoid, qualify or apologise for asking them.
This way of approaching the trip had a profound effect on my own experience. Prior to the trip, I had expected – and maybe even hoped – to have my own views on the politics of the region clarified or affirmed in favour of one ‘side’ or the other. It is a region and a topic on which everyone has an opinion – and I questioned whether my inability to come down firmly on one side or the other was a failing of my own intellectual and explanatory powers. Surely, so my argument went, my heart will be moved so profoundly by one person’s (or peoples’) story, that it will be impossible for me not to identify with them more than others.
How wrong I was. Ultimately, when I left the Holy Land after a week of intense learning, I was more confused than ever. My argument had failed, dismally. My compassion for all those I met, even those with whom I disagreed profoundly, dramatically increased. Which led me to realise, in my reflections, that this trip was about opening my eyes and those with whom I will share my experiences, to the inadequacy of the paradigm and narrative that we are presented with when we are asked to understand the situation in the Holy Land.
What became clear through the conversations we had and the experiences we shared is that interfaith work, reconciliation and peace-making is a long and arduous road. It involves the deepest and most dangerous emotions – anger, regret, vulnerability. But even just seeing the shoots of reconciliation was a profound event. There is so much beauty in those moments. My hope, and where I see this trip being so significant for taking interfaith work forward, is that people in similar situations will trust that the beauty that comes in reconciliation is worth the fight through the garbage and refuse that comes before it.
I would encourage anyone with any interest in interfaith work, conflict resolution and reconciliation to spend time in the Holy Land. Yes, there will be a lot of refuse to fight through; but to witness those seeds of peace and reconciliation is like a shot in the arm to encourage you that reconciliation between very different groups of people is possible.
This trip was run in conjunction with the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel
With many thanks to the Annual Fund for their generous sponsorship of this trip