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Middle East: Israeli-Arabs, Jews Try Living Together

  • Charles Recknagel

Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, Israel; 4 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Throughout Israel, Jews and Arabs deliberately live apart either in separate villages or -- in a few towns like Jaffa and Haifa -- in separate neighborhoods.

But halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, some 30 Jewish and Arab families have chosen to live together in a shared village which they have named Oasis of Peace, known as Wahat al-Salam in Arabic or Neve Shalom in Hebrew.

The community is unique in Israel because the families living here -- half of them from each side -- jointly elect their own officials and send their children to their own bi-lingual Arabic-Hebrew school, the only bi-lingual school in the country.

The village began as a utopian experiment in 1972 using land leased from a nearby Christian monastery and is affiliated with no political party or movement. It attracts mainly professional people who say they come because they are exhausted with living in hostility and with pre-conceived notions about their enemy and welcome the chance to speak with one another constructively.

Rayek Rizek, an Israeli-Arab who currently is the general secretary of the village, says that the community is the only place is Israel which offers Jews and Arabs the chance to do that.

"It is the only place where you can live with the other side. More people want to talk directly face to face from both sides but, I mean, [the daily] reality [of the country] doesn't offer such a chance. There is no possibility for the majority of the Palestinians and the majority of Jews to meet face-to-face and to talk about their lives and I think there is a need for both sides to talk."

Rizek says that the community hopes to demonstrate to Jews and Palestinians outside that the two sides can live together peacefully if they come to know each other on a personal basis. To do that, it operates a bi-lingual kindergarten and primary school open to students from surrounding villages and an institute for peace which conducts seminars for visiting Palestinian and Jewish groups.

The bi-lingual school teaches some 220 children, 80 percent of them from outside the village. There the Jewish and Palestinian teachers -- most of them also from outside the villages -- speak exclusively in their own languages to the pupils. The atmosphere of tolerance is designed to encourage the children to accept and appreciate each other.

Ety Elund, one of the Jewish teachers in the primary school, has lived in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom since moving there sixteen years ago with her husband. She says that most of the children in the school come from nearby villages which are exclusively Jewish or Palestinian and must learn to give up the prejudices they bring with them.

"Most of the children ... come from places where they live only Jewish and only Palestinian [lives] and they go back to their own villages, and they absorb in their environment all the conflict, all the stereotypes ... and for them it is a very special [experiment in] being together, of seeing that there [are] people behind the definition of Palestinian or Jewish." The Israeli education ministry gave the primary school the status of an "experimental school" two years ago, raising hopes of village officials that it may serve as a model for other bi-lingual schools in the future.

The community's other outreach program, the School for Peace, conducts encounter programs for Palestinian and Jewish youth and seminars for adult groups including teachers and social workers. To date, some 25,000 people have attended the programs, which also have been recognized by the Education Ministry.

Residents say that although the village is utopian, it is not a commune and operates much like any other community. Those who decide to live here build their own houses, own their own property, and about half of them commute to work in nearby Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Located in the center of the village is a "house of silence," a large white-domed building where the villagers can come to pray or meditate. How they pray is left up to the individual, as long as it is done in respectful silence.

Residents say they do not believe the solution they have found to the Arab-Jewish problem can or should be adopted by everyone in Israel. They say that most people want to live in their own communities. But they hope to show that the two sides can speak together. Rayek Rizek:

"I don't see myself this example [shown by the village] as an example of a solution between the two peoples, that all the Jews and Palestinians should live together in mixed villages and towns. For cultural and social reasons, it's much more comfortable for them to live separate. But what we are calling for is to create the conditions to start more contact between the two sides, to make them know each other on a personal basis, not through the TV and radio and stories from their parents and grandparents."

He says that the Israeli government's attitude toward the village is ambiguous. On one hand, the village's experiment with bi-lingual schooling has attracted the interest of some government educators. On the other hand, the government has not been enthusiastic about the village's plans to grow. The community hopes to expand over the next few years to 150 families on the land it has now, but still larger if it can obtain surrounding land owned by the state.

Rizek says that the government does not want to see Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom grow because, in his words, the village includes Arabs and the government's main plan is to settle Israel with a Jewish population. But he says he hopes the government ultimately will accept the villagers' philosophy that neither Jews nor Arabs will disappear from Israel and the two sides eventually have to learn to live together.

Much of the costs of the village -- such as construction of the schools and facilities for outreach programs -- are supported by foreign donors who believe in the example it sets. The village has a network of associates in 11 European countries and the United States and has received generous endowments from private individuals and institutions.