In January this year, a group of 22 Australian Jewish and Christian community leaders sat around a table with Dr Rami Hamdallah, the Palestinian Prime Minister, in Ramallah. Later that day they shared dinner with members of a group of Israeli and Palestinian ex-fighters, Combatants for Peace that works across borders for an end to the Occupation and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   

So what brought the Australians to this part of the world and this kind of encounter?

A few years ago tensions emerged between Uniting Church and Jewish organisations in Australia—specifically related to their positions on Israel and the Palestinians. Israel /Palestine is a place of intense meaning for both Jews and Christians (as well as Muslims)—but in different ways.

So with care and some trepidation, the groups set up a dialogue.  The purpose was not to debate or win each other over but to listen and learn about each other’s points of view—including the sometimes sharply differing opinions within each group.

After two years of dialogue, the Uniting Church and Jewish community representatives decided to travel together to Israel and Palestine.  The January 2017 visit was the result.  The study tour did not include Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims or any other group besides Uniting Church and Jews—because of the particular history of the dialogue.

The group learned together first hand about the land and its conflicts, spending equal time in Israel and the West Bank and hearing equally from Israelis and Palestinians. The focus was to learn about efforts at peace-making, especially from grassroots NGOs meeting Ali Abu Awad from Roots and Gidon Bromberg from EcoPeace and others working to change the status quo.  The title of the tour was “Give Peace a Chance” —pro-Palestine, pro-Israel and pro-peace.

There were meetings and briefings with over 50 individuals and groups in Israel and Palestine, visits to historical and holy sites, and with this, a deepening understanding of the strong desire for a just and secure peace in the region, and the challenges that have stymied efforts so far.  Political leaders and negotiators gave insight into the conflict, but it was meetings with Israelis and Palestinians of different backgrounds, religions and professions who were working creatively for change that gave inspiration and a glimmer of hope.

For example, the group visited an education field centre near Jericho run by EcoPeace. EcoPeace has Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian branches that employ over 100 people who have worked successfully separately and together, along with many hundreds of volunteers, to rehabilitate the Jordan River and on solutions to the inadequate and unequal access to fresh water.

The study tour was facilitated by Christina Samara and Elisa Moed of ‘Breaking Bread Journeys’, a joint Palestinian-Israeli tour company that is itself an example of cooperation, despite obstacles.