An experiment in peace
A community where Jews and Muslims live, work and study together may seem like a dream but it has come true at the Neve Shalom Wahat-al-Shalam in Israel, writes ANANTA KUMAR GIRI.
Facilitating mutual learning.
"(The holiness of the person) is more holy than a land, even when that land is a Holy Land. Next to a person who has been affronted, this land holy and promised is but nakedness and desert, a heap of wood and stone."
THERE is now a renewed effort to establish peace in Palestine. The present road map to peace promises the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005 and there is a ceasefire at work between the State of Israel and different groups of Palestinian freedom fighters and militants. But establishment of peace along with these initiatives in state and politics calls for genuine efforts in co-existence between the Israelis and Palestinians, and among the Jews, Christians and the Muslims.
Twenty per cent of the citizens of Israel are Palestinian Arabs but they conduct their life in segregation: most of them stay in different settlements and all of them study in Arab schools while Jews go to Jewish schools. During my stay in Israel in the Negev desert campus of Ben-Gurion University last year, I asked my host's children if they learnt about the Bible and Christianity in their school. They replied in surprise: "No, we do not study about Christianity in our school. We only read the Torah." While this was the response of these young people, their father complained: "Oh they do not teach anything about other religions in the Muslim countries."
But there is at least one school in Israel, probably also in the entire Middle East, where Muslims and Jews learn about each other's religions and languages together. They celebrate Hannukah (the Jewish Passover), Ramdan and Christmas together. This school is part of a novel community named Neve Shalom in Hebrew and Wahat al-Salam in Arabic.
Here Palestinian Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel have been staying together for more than quarter century. This community was co-founded in 1974 by a Dominican priest named Bruno Hussar who had leased part of the land from the Dominican monastery at the adjacent Laturn. Neve Shalom is situated equidistant from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and stands on the top of a hill with a scenic beauty and holding the promise of peace.
By 2001, 40 Muslim and Jewish families had built their houses there and had accepted this as their intertwined destiny.
During our visit to Neve Shalom, Abdessalam Najjar, the public relations officer, told us that many new families are waiting to enter the community.
Neve Shalom is a unique experiment in peace. It is a cooperative village, governed and owned by its members. But it is not a Kibbutz. Unlike the Kibbutz, the members own their individual houses.
The hallmark of the community lies in its attempt to create a space where Jews and Muslims can stay together based on mutual acceptance, which is facilitated by mutual learning. The nursery, kindergarten and primary school of the community contributes to this process. This idea of creating an appropriate educational network came up with the community's first children.
After years of operation, this school was opened to children from outside the village. Now the school and the kindergarten have an enrolment of 290 children, 90 per cent of whom come from surrounding Arab and Jewish communities. Unfortunately, the fees here are higher compared to other schools and some benefactors from the U.S. provide support to needy parents.
Neve Shalom Wahat-al-Salam... meant for constructive cooperation.
From early on, the Jewish and Palestinian teachers here speak exclusively in their own languages to all the children. Now the members of the village are trying to establish such bilingual schools in other parts of Israel.
In fact, a new non-profit organization named Hand in Hand has, in recent years, opened three bi-lingual schools in Israel. In 1998, this Centre for Jewish-Arab education in Israel opened its first school in Jerusalem and in Mishgav in the valley of Galilee. Now there are well over 200 children in these schools and every year a new class is being added into these.
Neve Shalom Wahat al- Salam has been running a school for peace since 1979. It organises encounter workshops on the conflict for Jewish and Palestinian youth in Israel, encounter workshops and in-service training programmes for adult groups, including teachers, social workers, journalists and university students. Its Jewish-Arab youth encounter projects has now touched over 15,000 youths.
In many cases, this is for the first time that Jewish and Arab young people get a chance to meet with and clarify themselves to each other. The school for peace also has been organising seminars on difficult issues of identity and history and has been pleading with all sides for genuine reconciliation. The community has also a pluralistic spiritual centre dedicated to the memory of Bruno Hussar. The centre is called "House of Silence" and seeks to create a space where people of three monotheistic religions can meet together. The community has a guesthouse on the top of the hill, which is an attraction for the visitors.
For its efforts in creating a space for co-living and mutual understanding, Wahat al-Shalam has received many international awards. There is a growing support for its experiment in peace by peace-loving citizens from all over the world. But it is not an oasis; it strives for peace in a very difficult situation where Jews and Muslims are at each other's throat.
There are challenges all along the way. One of this relates to the annual celebration of land day on March 30, which commemorates the Palestinian uprising in 1976 against land confiscation and the subsequent killing of six Arabs by the police. Since the October 2000 second Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation, it has been more challenging for both the Jews and Palestinians living in this only community of co-existence.
During our meeting, Najjar presented this problem graphically: "My son often asks me about the picture of stone-throwing Palestinian young boys he sees on television. He wonders what kind of Palestinian he is if he is not able to throw stones at the Israeli soldiers."
But, despite this problem of identity,y which is being made more and more rigid with escalation of violence by both Israeli state and militant groups such as Hamas, young people of this community are also realising that their future, like their parents, lies in this community of co-existence. Some of them are making a choice to be members of this community. They know that the larger issues of conflict and suffering cannot be brushed under the carpet but need to be creatively dealt with.
Trying to pull together.
It was a warm Friday morning and was an enriching experience standing on the hill of Neve Shalom. Najjar's wife had picked me up from the nearby bus stop earlier in the morning as I had started for this place of dream and new aspiration from the high land town of Sefad, the centre of Jewish mysticism.
As we were at the end of our conversations, Najjar's wife came by to take her husband to the town for their Friday prayer in the mosque. On the eve of our parting, Najjar told us with a smile: "Neve Shalom was created not to escape from conflict but to creativity handle it. All the difficulties in Jewish-Arab relations that exist outside the village are reflected or still there are important differences. But here there is a constructive cooperation between Jews and Palestinians which has helped us to move ahead."
For the last two months ever since my stay in Israel, my heart was bleeding at the sight of innocent people being killed from both sides and these words of Najjar as well as the dream of Neve Shalom brought solace to my heart. Walking in the dusty road of Neve Shalom across its many bushes and stoned pathways under the scorching Sun
I rekindled my hope that there would soon be peace in this holy land of ours.
The writer is on the faculty of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
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