Sunday, 13 July 2008

Like a bridge over (very) troubled water

Neve Shalom offers both Israelis and Palestinians a ray of hope; a glimpse into what is possible and achievable between the two opposing sides. Ori Golan

AT a time when buses explode in Israel and Palestinian homes are reduced to rubble, thoughts of coexistence between Jews and Palestinians seem unrelated, irrelevant and detached from reality. One terrorist attack is followed by a retaliatory response, followed close at heel by yet another murderous response. Calamity is heaped upon calamity, while each side is keeping score and counting its dead. And the respective lists grow daily, at a punishing pace.
And yet, in the sea of hopelessness, there exist a small island of sanity; a tiny glimmer of hope. Perched on a hill, midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and reached by a winding road traversing ragged land, Neve Shalom - Wahat al Salam, is a communal village where Jewish and Palestinian Israelis live together.
IT is a small community of people who have chosen to build a bridge; a collective committed to coexistence. Democratically governed and owned by its members, the community is not affiliated to any political party or movement.

At present, 40 families live in Neve Shalom - 20 Arab, 20 Jewish - in keeping with the demographic equilibrium, and the running of the place is conducted in Arabic and Hebrew. The village has a nursery and a primary school numbering around 400 Jewish and Arab children, from around the country, studying together, side by side in both languages.
BY now, the villagers and school pupils are used to living in a fish bowl as a stream of fascinated journalists, educators and TV crew-members peer at them and ask questions in an attempt to get a first-hand feel for this extraordinary village and capture the essence of this place.
Founded in the early 1970s by Father Bruno Hussar, an Egyptian Jew who converted to Christianity, Neve Shalom offers both Israelis and Palestinians a ray of hope; a glimpse into what is possible and achievable between the two opposing sides.
"This is not to suggest that we are sailing smooth waters," says Howard Shippin, a resident of Neve Shalom. "The current Al Aksa Intifada has taken its toll on us too."

Shippin, a British-born non-Jew married to a Jewish Israeli, does not attempt to belittle the crisis. "There are many tense moments here: we all watch the news, read the newspapers and are gripped by feelings of despair, as the terrible events unfold. Last year, when a violent demonstration by Israelis Arabs was brutally quelled by the police, resulting in the death of 13 Arabs, the Arab residents here were outraged. And then, when two reservist soldiers were lynched to death in Ramallah by a Palestinian mob, the Jewish residents here were equally bitter."
NEVE Shalom, explains Shippin, is not a cocoon and the community does not live in isolation. Each community has close contacts and filial relations outside, and they retain their national identity.
There are neighborly relationships among the villagers, but each community lives according to its traditions and faith. The Palestinians in the village are either Christians or Muslims but the residents are not religious and there is a secular feel to the place.
"Our aim," Shippin emphasizes, "is not to create a cultural mishmash, but to recognize and respect both cultures. A Jewish child may go and visit a Christian family here to celebrate Christmas with them, while still maintaining his Jewish identity, just like Muslim kids who celebrate Hanukka with their Jewish friends, maintain theirs."
THE children who go to nursery or primary school in Neveh Shalom, become bilingual to varying degrees of proficiency. They are taught by both Jewish and Arab teachers and the school's curriculum covers plenty of enrichment classes, including music (both Arabic and Hebrew), drama and media.
"If anything, the current situation has had a much more adverse effect on us, the adults," explains Shippin. "To live in mixed Jewish-Palestinian community is to be constantly reminded of and exposed to the current crisis between Jews and Arabs."
BUT the community has lived through difficult times in the past.
In 1997 Tom Kitain, was killed in a helicopter crash while his unit was on its way to Lebanon. The tragedy put the daily paradox of the community in focus. Here was a young man living alongside Palestinians on his way to fight Arabs in Lebanon. After Tom's death, his family wanted to build a memorial for him in the village. The Arab residents saw this as an affront, insisting he should not have been in the army and willing to attack their brethren in Lebanon.
"I was deeply upset about Tom's death, but I thought it wasn't right that Tom, a boy from my village, my neighbor, was sent with the army to Lebanon where he might be asked to blow up my cousins," Nasser Srour, a doctor, said at the time in a newspaper interview.
The Jewish residents believed they had a right to remember a child of their village, killed in such tragic circumstances. The incident threatened to cause a rift in the community which was finally resolved when a memorial plaque was placed at the basketball court where Tom used to play. It reads: "In memory of our Tom Kitain, a child of peace who was killed in war."
BUT it is the children of Neveh Shalom who make this place so inspirational. Jewish and Arab kids don't make a big deal of the fact that they can speak each other's language; they don't regard the fact that they learn and play together as anything extraordinary. Anyone who knows anything about Israel knows that it is. Hearing Arabic interspersed with Hebrew, in the familiar clamor of school children, and seeing young boys from both communities playing basketball during their lunch break, is a novel experience in itself.
"THERE are tensions, and genuine concerns from parents who send their children here," explains Boaz Kitain, Tom's father and principal of the community's Primary School, as he walks around the school ground, "but the children learn to talk to each other."
The children sometimes talk about the situation and express their fears, says Jasmine, an Arab teacher at Neve Shalom. "We all have our own opinions and feeling, but the common line we take is that violence is wrong."
Batia, whose children go to the Neveh Shalom nursery school explains: "I decided to send my children here for the idea of living and learning together. I came to understand that this idea is not as 'rosy' as I thought at first. It's a complex idea with many difficulties. However, by dealing with these difficulties we are doing our share in building a 'rosier' world for the future."
THE last 18-month violent Palestinian uprising has dealt a devastating blow to supporters of the peace process from both sides of the divide. It may also prove to be a turning point for Neve Shalom, although, for the time being, the community remains intact. The biggest event in Neveh Shalom during these calamitous times, has been a non- event: So far no one has left the village or the school because of the situation.
"We had one set of parents who wanted to remove their daughter because of their anxieties," recalls Kitain, "but the girl was adamant that she wanted to stay and, finally, the parents relented."
"WE are constantly walking a tight line here," says Shippin, "but so far we have weathered the storm. Jews are still speaking to Arabs, and although the dialogues are now often acerbic, both sides believe the only solution to the problem is to talk, not shoot, and that is paramount." [Illustration]7 photos

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