Since returning from my trip with the National Interreligious Initiative for Mid East Peace in December, many people have asked me, “how was your trip?”  I have found it difficult to sum it up in a word. With a month of introspection I have come to it: “worthwhile.”  I’d like to share some of it with you.

Since NILI initiative began in 2003, we have been hoping to meet with religious and political leaders in the Holy Land. We felt that by adding a strong American religious voice for peace, representing many major Christian, Jewish and Muslim national organizations, we could lend support to the various civil society and government efforts working for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Most Israelis and the Palestinians, when polled, support a two-state solution and want to see an end to the conflict. Despite all of the wounds and mistrust, the vastly differing narratives that underlie the various views on the causes and effects in the conflict, when it comes right down to the core, everyone wants to reach a solution. And solutions to conflicts this complicated necessarily involve compromise on all sides. Our message is intended to help aid the emotional and spiritual exploration that will enable both sides to let go of some perceptions and even some hopes, in the process of coming to terms with those compromises.

Fifteen religious leaders went on this mission.  The trip was worthwhile for its ability to expand the NILI mission and deepen the relationships that are at the core of NILI’s success. We learned more about each other and about the conflict’s core issues. We heard many reflections on solutions to the problems that have for so long held final peace at bay: Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Palestinian refugees.

One particularly valuable conversation was with the American Ambassador to Israel. We wished we could have had meetings of this nature with Israeli and Palestinian government officials. Insofar as we were not able to secure meetings with high-level political leaders in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a part of our initial vision for this trip did not come to fruition. This was a learning experience for us.  But another significant goal was realized – we met with our counterparts, the Council of Religious Leaders of the Holy Land.  The frank conversations with the representatives of the Chief Rabbinate, the religious leaders of the Palestinian Authority, and the leaders of the major Christian groups in the region were a successful example of collaboration and partnership. We had been looking forward to this for a long time, and it was well worth the wait.

The trip was intense –we focused on difficult issues and worked to appreciate the various points of view. We held an important discussion to enable the members of the group to hear each other on deep questions that tend to reverberate below the surface: What does the Holy Land mean to you? What challenges you about this place? What delights you about this place?  This open and honest discussion prepared us to process the challenges that we faced when the issues became very emotional.

As we processed the lessons from our speakers, we came to understand how the difficult unresolved issues have solutions that a growing number of people on both sides are beginning to embrace. The division of Jerusalem into East and West Jerusalem, with the future Palestinian and Israeli in capitals in the two newly bordered cities, makes abundant sense. Many Palestinians are beginning to accept that most refugees cannot go back to towns and villages that are now in Israel. And many Israelis understand that the resolution will involve compensation to Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948.  Finally, the West Bank must return to Palestinians, in a viable contiguous area that is shaped by Israel’s withdrawal and negotiations over land exchanges to accommodate some of the largest settlements that may remain within Israel.

We learned a great deal on this trip. Through active listening, compassion and cooperation we were able once again, to agree on a joint statement at the conclusion of our trip. This reflects consensus views that we shared through this journey.  We are anxious for a continuation of our work together, building on the strong foundation that we built during this trip.

You can find more information about NILI and our trip statement at: http://www.nili-mideastpeace.org/.

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