Ten years ago, to mark the opening of the LSE Faith Center, I led a group of 18 students—predominantly Muslims, Christians, and Jews—on an educational visit to Israel and Palestine. The two objectives of the trip were (1) to better understand the religious dimensions of the conflict and (2) to meet religious and interfaith leaders in the region demonstrating how faith can be the inspiration and vehicle for peace-making. Working with the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue, our partner in Jerusalem, this evolved into a program that has taken six trips and over a hundred students on weeklong visits with four preparatory workshops in London and a closing workshop upon return. The last of these trips ran before the pandemic in December 2019, and in recent months, I have been working with colleague and former participant Cameron Howes to evaluate the impact of the program through surveys and qualitative interviews with representatives of the different cohorts.

While the pausing of the program was, in part, a result of the deteriorating political situation since 2021, we could not have known that the period in which we chose to carry out this research would see the most dramatic escalation of the conflict in a generation. Most of our interviews were conducted after October 7, 2023. We had feared that this would distort the evaluation process, making former participants less willing to be interviewed or less able to be nuanced in their answers. In fact, we found that the context of the Gaza War sharpened their responses and placed the whole rationale for the program at the forefront of their minds. Although the publication of the research is forthcoming, here we share some of our key understandings for those seeking to make similar interventions in other conflict zones, and as a basis for interfaith engagement with the region when we emerge from the current crisis.

The research found that the program followed a pattern of convergence and divergence. The preliminary workshops before the trips focused on building relationships of trust within the cohort. A very diverse group came together for a shared experience that would stretch the limits of their engagement, without triggering defensive responses. We already had some practical understanding of this convergence process, but the research also enabled us to look deeper at an aspect we knew less about—the point of divergence when participants returned to friends, communities, and families. Some interviewees had taken part in the program several years ago and were able to share the evolution of their experiences and its meaning to them. I will briefly explore three aspects of convergence that emerged from the research and then two aspects of the post-trip divergence.


Convergence 1: Safe-Stretch Container

The program invited students of widely diverse perspectives on a journey (literal and metaphorical) to explore what is perhaps the most divisive issue on university campuses today. For many participants, some encounters were not merely intellectually challenging but emotionally destabilizing and even frightening. The fundamental responsibility of the program leaders is, therefore, to enable an ethos of trust and mutual support to develop within the cohort that can allow for worldviews to be stretched, while supportively containing the reactions to difficult experiences and allowing them to be received positively. An example was given by one of our Jewish interviewees as he recounts the experience of visiting the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem:

Refugee camps are places that many Jews are made to fear because of the place they hold…as the forefront of resistance to Israeli occupation. That carries a lot for people who are brought up in Jewish/Zionist frameworks and who visit Israel in those frameworks. So it was a bit of like an opening up of a black box of something I hadn’t been exposed to before, been shielded from. And it was the perfect environment to do that in, in a group and an environment that I felt very safe in and then going to a place that at least psychologically I had been made to feel was not safe for me.

Many elements go into creating the safe-stretch container. The preparatory sessions establish boundaries and are designed to build relationship across the different groups. Crucially, they also allow participants to build their trust in the leadership so that they can enter into the program with confidence that it has been thought out and will not place them in situations of unrealistic emotional labor or danger. Nonetheless, challenging and provocative encounters are integral to the experience, and regular sharing circles allow difficult experiences to be aired through the course of the trip. The informal sharing and support across difference within the cohort is perhaps most important. One Muslim participant remarked on the importance of the bus journeys. “It was in those rides I had really deep conversations with everyone and properly got challenged on my views and the fact that we were able to connect with each other on a human level, which I think is the first step before you can consider changing your view.” Safe-stretch is experienced through challenging encounters within the supportive framework of peer friendship and trust in leadership.


Convergence 2: Firm Listening

At its heart, the program is an invitation to listen. On an issue where positions are entrenched and people are frequently told that activism is a moral imperative, simply listening to different voices and reflecting on them is counter cultural. It perhaps invites students to recognize the limits of their own agency and experience deeper understanding of the competing perspectives as the basis for a new kind of engagement with this and other conflicts. Central to that is the realization that understanding a position with which you disagree does not make you complicit in it or even any less opposed to it. A female Muslim student who acknowledged growing up in an antisemitic environment where Zionism was viewed as an unjustifiable evil, described the profound impact of the program on her approach to disagreement through the simple experience of listening:

I feel like I want to listen now. I want to listen more… Just in the way I see the world, it’s transformed it, in a lot of ways. The way I see people. Maybe before I used to demonize people or dehumanize people. Now I don’t. The biggest evil I ever knew, I’ve been able to understand it.

Nonetheless, within the shrill campus debates about free speech, this listening is not without conditions; hence the term “firm listening.” Our participants felt that they benefited from being exposed to positions they found objectionable, but in no way did they want to legitimize them or support the general promotion of these views in uncontrolled contexts. A female Armenian Christian remarked, “I think free speech is a fundamental right, and real reconciliation only comes after hard, messy, and honest conversation. But, without the right format and common goals, perpetrators of social injustice can ignite violence and more injustice with their stories.”

Building the courage and confidence to listen to an opinion that angers or disturbs us is central to the program. It seeks to replace certainty with a curiosity that grows as we learn to calm our emotional responses and pay attention to our opponents. As one Pentecostal Christian participant said, “we were there as a group of people who had a curiosity.” Another commented, “The program showed me that everyone has their story. All have their narrative and reasons behind their views and perspective.” But our firm listeners were keen to avoid the relativization or equivalence of any opinion expressed.


Convergence 3: Strategic Empathy

This firm listening is clearly not oriented toward conclusive resolution of disagreement. There was evidence of a genuine empathy that participants developed with people of opposing views, both within the group and among those they met on the trip. A female Muslim described the Israeli occupation saying, “I can both firmly oppose it, and even take actions to undo this act, while placing myself in the head of the perpetrator to try to understand why this might have been done.”

There was, therefore, more pragmatism than sentimentality about this empathy. Interviewees described how this limited form of empathy has not led them to a place of agreement but rather might be harnessed to foster peaceful relations. A male Muslim student with strong pro-Palestinian sympathies recognized this limited empathy as a tool for moving things forward: “I did understand the Israeli-Zionist perspective much more than I had before, not that I agreed with it, but I could understand where they were coming from.”

An Evangelical Christian participant identified the building of empathy as a project of building relationships rather than resolving disagreement. Asked in general terms about how we should engage with perpetrators of injustice, he responded,

Of course, often there is a clear perpetrator and a clear victim. But even in these situations it is worth asking, why did the perpetrator commit the crime? Is he simply evil? Or, while still guilty, were there forces outside of him that urged him into that action? Without these questions, without hearing all perspectives, our understanding of a situation will be limited, and therefore our ability to achieve justice hampered.

A female Muslim participant placed a similar emphasis on the necessity of understanding for sustainable justice. “It is counter-productive to ignore the perpetrators. Their justifications need to be effectively counteracted in order to ensure an enduring peace. Their fears need to be understood.”


Divergence 1: Balanced or Normalizing?

Naturally, participants’ feelings about their experience would not remain static from the moment of their return, and better understanding the divergence that occurs when people return to their lives and communities was important in evaluating the impact of the program for the longer term. Representatives from some groups spoke about a phenomenon of resistance from within their communities to their insights and a perception that they were now somehow “compromised.” This was true in communities suspicious of interfaith initiatives more broadly:

I was surprised at some of the negative comments that I got from some of my evangelical colleagues at the time who effectively criticized me for engaging in an interfaith trip. They said that the very fact that the word interfaith was used was an admission that all faiths are equal and that there’s no absolute truth. And here I am thinking that’s not what it means and not what we were taught.

This was also experienced by those whose co-religionists felt they had been duped by more political agendas in the trip, whether they were perceived to be pro-Zionist or pro-Palestinian. A male Muslim reflected on his return, “People thought I did have that sort of opinion, that’s much more pro-Israeli and much more empathetic toward Zionists than I really did… the suspicion was that it’s Israeli propaganda.”

But the post-program criticisms were not merely externally influenced. Some students themselves looked back uncomfortably on elements of the trip that they now felt masked the reality of the conflict from view. A female Muslim student remarked, “There was so much that was normalized that should not have been normalized.” Another female student of color felt that it was easier to feel positive about both sides since the most extreme positions in the conflict were absent from the program. “It kind of makes you feel like there’s no issue. If everyone you meet seems reasonable, where is it coming from?” Another participant remarked simply, “Academically and emotionally, I felt uneasy about the program.”

Nonetheless, this same student did not regret taking part and was strengthened in her interfaith commitments as a result:

It also helped to shape my own interfaith work afterwards. I wish perhaps I had been doing more interfaith work before going on the trip to understand the religious dimension of things, more than just the political… I had many lovely memories and made good friends as a result of the program.

This was indicative of those participants who found the program challenging. There were no students in either our interviews or survey who regretted taking part, despite a clear invitation to express that view if they wished. Most recognized the constraints within which such a program operates (security, counter-terrorism law, limits of time, and feasibility) and felt it had been a formative experience, shaping how they view this conflict and life more broadly. Even those who had become more engaged in activism on one side since returning understood the balanced approach of the program and saw its benefit: “The Faith Center understands what a high stakes issue it is and it wants to help people engage with it in a healthy way rather than taking any particular position on things.”


Divergence 2: Optimism, Pessimism, and Hope

A second aspect of post-trip divergence was the differing views participants developed of the possibilities for the region, based on the same experiences. Common among participants was a sense that the intractable complexities they had encountered had taken away any optimism they may have had about sustainable peace in the future. This was particularly true among participants who had previously been shielded from the scale or strength of an opposing view. Having engaged with Palestinians for the first time, one male Jewish participant reflected that, “I had become much more pessimistic and anxious about the future.” This kind of confrontation with reality is, of course, no bad thing, and contributed to a sense that much campus activism is naïve in its reinforcing of simplistic one-sided solutions. A female Muslim participant felt that the experience “made me feel more hopeless about there being a meaningful way to bring about change.”

However, if these “easy answers” were lost, most participants expressed the sense that they had encountered—in each other and in those whom they had met in the region—new modes of engagement that presented possibilities for a shared future. If conventional liberal peacebuilding method were deemed to have failed, the centering of the interreligious encounter represented a new approach that did offer hope for the future that motivated participants themselves to new kinds of action beyond the partisan campus activism. A female Armenian Christian participant said that the program “makes me hopeful by reminding me that at our core, in our most innocent state, we want to find kinship not adversaries… I have so much hope and inspiration for action fostered by this program.”



Our research helped us understand this program as an intervention that gathers, funnels, and releases a cohort of students in a process we have described as convergence and divergence. An important final observation is that the shared identity of our university itself was critical to holding this process. The groups never ceased being extremely diverse—religiously, culturally, internationally—but they had a tangible stake in one another’s lives through this shared belonging. One participant remarked,

I think the one thing that tied it all together is having something in common, there has to be something in common at the beginning, and all of us were LSE students, and we had that shared approach to learning, that brought us together in a way.

The process of convergence required the shaping of a safe-stretch container that allowed students to build the skills of hard listening and strategic empathy. These skills and experiences allowed them visions of peace, beyond the obvious divisions, through the eyes of those they encountered and their peers on the trip. After the encounter, the visions for peace endured or receded in the event horizon as they returned to their communities and continued to process their experiences. But for all participants, some kind of hope in the promise of possible new pathways to peace remained.

As such, for many participants it was personally transformative as well as educational. One female Jewish participant said, “I continue to think about this trip all the time. It has heavily influenced how I think about the conflict, and it has allowed me to share more perspectives within my own community.” A male Christian concluded,

This program was transformative on both an academic and personal level. From an educational perspective, it provided a chance to comprehend the deep integration of religion with political, economic, social, and cultural aspects, demanding a holistic approach. On a personal note, this journey became a pilgrimage to myself and a connection with the sacred.

In the months since October 7, hearing testimonies such as these has been an encouragement in dark times. Whether we are able to resume our own program in the years ahead, we hope that our learning from these extraordinary journeys will be of benefit to other educators and interfaith activists seeking to give students new understanding of intractable conflict and glimpses of pathways to peace.