As we start out on 2019, complete perhaps with some New Year’s resolutions, allow me please a few linked stories from the holidays which combine to give us a message for the year ahead. In the week before Christmas, I was lucky enough to spend some time travelling around Israel. What an amazing place! I had never been there before, and it is fair to say that I can imagine few more extraordinary countries to explore, given the length of its history – some of the remains of the port of Jaffa go back to the 20th century BC – its geographical significance as a gateway from West to East, its significance to three of the world’s most important religions, and its modern-day political significance to the peaceful stability of the whole planet. I will no doubt speak more about it in the coming weeks. However for today, three brief stories. Driving out of Tel Aviv on our first morning, our guide headed north. The first town was an obscure one, almost a suburb of Tel Aviv itself, called Natanya. I had never heard of it, and indeed from the motorway as we drove on past, it looked pretty non-descript, but my son quickly piped up from the back seat “I’ve got a friend who lives here”; and it turned out that one of his peers at boarding school spends most of his holidays between Russia and Natanya in Israel. I have spent a lot of time telling prospective parents how a boarding education is special for its diversity and for the number of friends you can make from all around the world, but here was living proof of that – if he were to find himself midway up the Israeli coast in a few years’ time on his own, he could, and would, look him up.
Later in the trip, we drove through Cana on our way to Nazareth in the region of Galilee. Cana was the site of Jesus’ first miracle, the turning of water into wine at a wedding that he had been invited to. You can see a church on the site of the wedding now, surrounded, rather comically these days, by a whole host of wine shops. The story goes that the host ran out of wine halfway through the wedding and that Jesus not only turned six huge stone jars full of water into wine but in fact turned it into the best wine of the night, thus inverting the usual protocol of serving the good wine first and the poor wine later when the guests had had too much to even realise what they were drinking. Jesus was making the point that the best in fact often comes last. The Romans went one further: they usually categorised the guests at a dinner party and served the best wine to their most favoured guests and the least good to their least favoured. It is probably hard to imagine that now, the production of different quality wines for different guests around the same dinner table; but it is entirely possible to still see good wine brought out for a dinner party with guests you are trying to impress, but less good wine for those you are not so bothered about. Is that right? Should that be the case?
Finally, we saw two walls. The first, between Israel and Lebanon, was put up to mark the border and to stop a terrorist organisation called the Hezbollah from making incursions into Israel to kill its citizens. We saw the tunnels that the Hezbollah have been building under the wall just recently and which you may have read about in the news in the last few weeks. The second wall was more contentious, set up to divide predominantly Jewish Israel from the predominantly Arab West Bank territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 War. I have no time to talk about this now, as it is a vast topic, but this wall has been hugely controversial and, for many, symbolic of the messiness of this region. But, as Tim Marshall tells us in his excellent book called “Divided” which I also read in the holidays, the walls in Israel, and the equally famous historic Berlin wall or currently topical US/Mexico wall, make up only a minuscule percentage of the world’s most divisive walls. No fewer than 65 countries, more than a third of the world’s nation-states, have built barriers along their borders; and half of those erected since the Second World War, many of which you might have expected to appear around the Cold War, have in fact been built since 2000. We are, says Marshall, becoming a world of walls – and his book goes on to describe the geo-political reasons why that might be the case.
Which brings me to the point of today’s talk. Barriers, both physical and mental, are by their very nature divisive, but can be both put up and taken down; and indeed they do not have to exist in the first place. They are set up largely out of fear or misconception but do little to promote long term peace and understanding. They are not constructive constructions. Boarding school, whether you personally are a day boy or a boarder in that boarding school, provides you with an opportunity to explore difference in a safe place, to seek global understanding and friendship on a planet that struggles to live together harmoniously, to build lives on shared principles and accepted differences. In boarding schools, the Arab and the Jew live in the same corridor, play for the same football team and learn the same history; the wealthy share the same food and drink at lunch and dinner with those of more humble backgrounds, through a school’s bursary provisions and selection procedures, both for pupils and staff; the monitors and the sports captains share a meal and communal space with fourth formers. And from boarding schools, young people like my son can drive past unheard of towns in far off lands and say “my friend lives here”.
So if you are still short of a New Year’s resolution, try this one: get rid of all barriers, fears and preconceptions. Be constructive at all times. Aim to understand those with whom you do not share backgrounds. Seek to explore, be curious and open-minded; and seek, too, those who are not in the limelight, who may usually be last and not first. Ask the questions and listen to the answer. In short, whether day boy or boarder, make the very most of your immense good fortune of being at a boarding school. The world needs you to take this opportunity.