Twenty-five years ago, early in November 1995, I led my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As it happened, it was at a crucial moment in the history of the place of our Lord’s birth, death and resurrection, that had seen so many critical things happen during the course of some millennia. We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on the day after the funeral of the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. He had been assassinated by a man, Yigal Amir, who opposed the road that Rabin was walking - as he was taking both Israeli and Palestinian to a place where the moderates of both nations could see a way of compromise, hope and peace. Jonathan Freedman, writing in the Guardian, has summed up what happened in the words, “two bullets altered the destination of two nations.” The Oslo accord had been signed two years earlier. The hope was that life could be different, but it was not to be.
Our parish party was put up in a temporary hotel, as all the rooms in our designated accommodation had been taken for foreign delegates attending the funeral service. The mood was sombre. We were staying in a Palestinian area, but had an Israeli guide. We were learning swiftly of the politics of a country not our own, bringing, as we were, our own baggage from a divided Northern Ireland. At the end of one of our days in Jerusalem, our guide asked us if we would like to go to Rabin’s grave. We readily agreed, and parked the coach some way off, walking to the place of burial. Many young people were about; those whose hopes for a future together had taken a severe knock. It was a sad day, and as we gathered around the grave, alight with many candles, we knew something of the grief of those whose ideals had been trodden down; but also of the fears of those from either side who could not face the path of compromise; giving as well as receiving; conceding seeming to them defeat. The world has seen similar scenarios in many places. This was one we felt deeply, even as we knew there was nothing we could do.