Our last day of the education seminar. Up until now we only focused on conflict, now we had finally made it to hope. Four days of conflict, a half-a-day of hope.
Our speaker didn’t introduce where we were this way, but I think it is pretty inspiring to. After hearing him speak, we came across a rock with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” engraved into it.
In 2006 Roger Waters had a concert originally planned for a Tel Aviv stadium. Followed by much criticism by fans in Britain and in the Palestinian territories, he decided to change the location to a place that was peaceful between both sides. He chose Neve-Shalom, the village we visited on our day of hope.
We listened to a man named Howard who started out by saying the meaning behind the name. “My people shall live in a Neve-Shalom” [direct translation: oasis of peace]. This comes from the book of Isaiah. Neve-Shalom is in a stretch of no-mans land between Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem. Being in the village is so peaceful, and for a second, you almost feel like a problem no longer exists between Israelis and Palestinians.
When it first started there were some challenges. First, they had to acquire land, and second they had to be able to get people together who would choose to live in such a place. It took quite a few years to become a community, in the early 1970s it was mainly hippies on their way to India. But by the late 1970s families started to come, and they started to settle. Howard arrived in 1984, along with seven other families.
Today there are a little more than fifty families, half are Jewish, and half are Arab. It is a democratic village, the chairpersons of the educational and municipal boards are voted for. In the future it is hoped that 150 families will be living here, and right now they are just beginning an expansion plan.
Neve-Shalom is currently the only village with a deliberate attempt to have Jews and Arabs living together. Elsewhere in Israel, in areas like Haifa, Jaffa, Akko, etc. Arabs and Jews are living together, but the relations between the two are not good. Each side in this village have an equal say in everything, from managing the village to working together for peace.
In the village there is a “School for Peace” which is an institution that brings together Jews and Arabs in their junior year of high school to create a dialogue. Right now, the schools are segregated, so this is a rare occurrence. It is only a few days they’re together, so the biggest question is, How do you make it a worthwhile experience for them? The group dialogue between the identities doesn’t work well if it is approached on a level of forming friendships and breaking down stereotypes. Instead they get challenged, and the experience is difficult, but it makes it a lot more meaningful in the end. They deliberately go deep into the conflict and begin with breaking the ice of trust. On the first day they discover that differences between them are not as great as they thought. Soon, they’re being open and honest with one another, Arabs are telling Israelis how they feel displaced, like they’re living here as second-class citizens. Though they are in a democracy they feel oppressed.
Soon it comes over who is most a victim, as Jews they have suffered through the Holocaust, and many more years of torture and oppression. Which society is more humane and enlightened? Eventually there is role play where a dialogue is simulated between the two sides. They discuss issues such as the character of the state (Arabs have a problem that the flag here represents one group – the Jewish group), and the fact that they can’t serve in the national service. Although Bedouins and Druze can. In Israel, when you apply for a job, you are always asked about what you did in the army during the interview. This makes it hard for Arabs to get good jobs since they, can’t serve in the army.
Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but usually the two groups come up with creative solutions. The only legitimate other place where Arabs and Jews have the opportunity to meet and possibly become friendly with one another are the Universities in Israel. But this is not of significance, as the two groups tend to stay apart.
In the village there is an elementary school [pre-school through sixth grade] which opened in 1984 and is bi-lingual and bi-nationalistic. All the children living in Neve-Shalom attend, and some outside children, within a 20 mile radius, also apply, if they get accepted they come to the school as well. Jewish and Arab teachers work here together, teaching the children both languages. They learn about each others cultures and become comfortable with them. They celebrate all Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holidays together. Here they are during recess, playing soccer together:
Currently there are 200 in the elementary school, and 50 in the pre-school. The children become friends, and visit in each others homes. Since its creation four other schools in the area are now teaching to a similar curriculum.
When the children reach the seventh grade the majority go to separate schools. But they are encouraged to stay in contact. It is hoped that at this school they were given a good basis. Unfortunately, there is really no natural setting for them to meet, and eventually the majority do lose touch with one another.
When the children grow up, many times they ask their parents why they brought them to such an isolated place. But when they get their drivers license and see the rest of Israel, they realize just how good it is in Neve-Shalom. So, who exactly, gets chosen to live there? Families must go through a screening process where a committee goes through their applications. They pick families who are suitable, who they know are not at all racist and who want to live there. Mainly, the families are middle-class professionals. They need enough money to own a car because, due to the location, they have to commute to work.
After we learned a bit about Neve-Shalom, we talked about the impact that it has on the conflict. Howard told us that, “The situation in Israel isn’t yet ready for a Neve-Shalom.” Here they are simply trying to create a future possibility. They are “Not a hippie commune based on peace and love and all the rest.” They are not a utopia. And the community isn’t as close-knit as you’d be led to believe. Many of the families have friends outside of the village as well. In times when there are tension between Israeli’s and Palestinians, there are times of high-tension in the village. “They tend to be polarizing.”
But the difference in Neve-Shalom, is that both sides can’t help but hear how each other feel. Though it can be a long and slow process, nothing has ever broken up the village. The tensions though, are real. And they tend to come up in the most mundane ways, for example, when they are meeting to discuss the village budget talks and an Israeli argues with a Palestinian over it. But really over something bigger lies underneath. “It’s more real world because we can’t run away from the tensions, we have to deal with them.”
Neve-Shalom hasn’t succeeded that well in spreading their message. Many people think they are naive, that a place like this could never work anywhere else. But Howard said, “We are a model, a symbol (of stability), despite everything we stayed together and stood the test of time.” And for that, I think Neve-Shalom is a perfect symbol of hope.