Have you Considered Taking a Group to Israel?
I was sitting minding my own business this morning when an email arrived asking "Have you considered taking a group to Israel?"
Given the events of the past 2 weeks, especially the attempt by the Irish ship MV Rachel Corrie to break the Gaza blockade, I thought it was a joke... but it wasn't.
It was another of the invitations I (and every other cleric in world) receives regularly inviting me to a subsidised trip to the "Holy Land" to "walk in the footsteps of Jesus" or "experience the Bible come to life" in the hope that I will then round up another pilgrim band to go back for seconds, thus making the travel company (and the Israeli economy) more money. I have often considered taking advantage of one of these offers, but have never found the appropriate time... And this is certainly not the appropriate time... Not unless the tour is substantially more than a pseudo-spiritual package holiday... Whilst I would love to see the historic remains of sites referred to in the Old and New Testaments, I would also want to explore why the "Holy Land" has become such an unholy mess. Whilst I would like to walk where Jesus walked, I would like walk with and to talk to modern followers of Jesus who live in that land and still find themselves persecuted, along with Muslims... Whilst I would like to see sites that are sacred to Jew, Christian and Muslim, I would like to talk to those who are trying to make that land a place where all can live in peace together.
Given that musical artists such as Elvis Costello and The Pixies have reconsidered whether they should be playing in Israel at the current time, perhaps we need to consider whether this is an appropriate time to be leading groups to go there. I'm not suggesting a boycott, but much more intelligent engagement. Discussions with Jewish and Palestinian peace activists has convinced me that there is a huge naivety in many international peace initiatives, especially regarding Gaza and the Hamas government there. But we had a lot of that here in Northern Ireland over the years, addle-headed international do-gooders coming and telling us how to sort everything out, being very clear about who were the goodies and who were the baddies. But as well as those who I would gladly have had deported as soon as they touched Irish soil, there were other wise international friends who were more interested in listening than in grandstanding, offering questions that only an outsiders perspective can generate, practical support and persistent prayer. Indeed next week I'll be involved with a group of American young people who will be over here looking at some of the ancient Celtic sites... but before I take them on that tour they'll be looking at more recent "historic" sites, on what I describe as "terrorism tours"... and, more importantly, speaking to people on both sides of our community who have been deeply impacted by our divisions, as well as those who have been working to bridge and heal those divisions.
So, have I considered taking a group to Israel? Yes... but I doubt that my travel insurance would cover the itinerary I would have in mind...