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Lessons learned from Israel's Peace Village. (Alternative Voices).

Headlines over the past two years have detailed a cycle of violence and retribution in Israel during the intifada: suicide bombings followed by retaliatory, armed incursions and deadly explosions met by rocket revenge. Amid these accounts of dysfunctional relations between Israelis and Palestinians is an unsung but significant thirty-year success story--a peace village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in Israel. It is called Neve Shalom (NS) in Hebrew and Wahat-al-Salam (WAS) in Arabic, both meaning "Oasis of Peace" (from Isaiah 32:18).

In this peace village Israeli Jews, Arab Israeli Muslims, and Christians continue to live side by side voluntarily as neighbors. Children attend the same schools to learn Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Its School for Peace has trained over 25,000 Israeli Jewish and Arab students, teachers, and professionals in effective techniques of conflict resolution and coexistence. For the past thirty years NS/WAS has been a model for future hope in the Middle East that actually works.

What is the secret of this quiet success story? Father Bruno Hussar, a Dominican priest, founded the peace village in 1972 as a nonviolent alternative to the historic Middle Eastern legacy of hatred and aggression, and NS/WAS villagers have successfully followed key founding principles.

The fifty village families--about 400 people equally split between Jews and Arabs--live and work together as complete equals. Villagers share daily community living and regard their neighbors as individuals, moving beyond religious, national, and cultural stereotypes. This enables them to maintain genuine friendships with those of different backgrounds to realize that lasting peace in Israel will result only from successful coexistence and respect of diversity.

Shared power contributes greatly to these feelings of equality. For example, the position of secretary, or mayor, of NS/WAS alternates annually between elected Jewish and Arab leaders. Former Secretary Ahmad Hijazi--a Muslim, originally from a segregated Arab village in the north of Israel--observed that for him living and working in NS/WAS was the first time he worked for a boss who wasn't Jewish, didn't encounter daily discrimination, and was valued for his personal input in important community decisions. Nava Sonnenschein, the Jewish cofounder and director of the School for Peace, believes it is important that the position alternate biannually between a Jew and an Arab. Thus, all points of view can be sensitively represented in the planning and execution of the School for Peace's unique Jewish-Arab encounter groups.

NS/WAS has no formal affiliation with any religious or political group, which has allowed it to steer an independent course. Jewish and Arab neighbors at NS/WAS have democratic and equal votes in electing the village council and secretary and shared input in running the day-to-day affairs of the village. Even though Arab Israelis comprise about 20 percent (about one million) of Israel's population, there are no Arab Israeli government ministers or ambassadors, and there are only a handful of Arabs in the Knesset. By contrast, NS/WAS villagers discuss daily and openly their--often very different--opinions as peers, and thus they are able to achieve a workable consensus on key decisions. Hijazi says, "I learned to appreciate the fact that NS/WAS is first and foremost a community based on human resources, that its strength lies in the fact that in times of crisis everybody lends a hand."

The schools of NS/WAS are the first in the Middle East where Arab and Jewish students go to the same school to learn both the Arabic and Jewish language, history, and culture from Arab and Jewish teachers, respectively--all in the same classroom. There still are very few schools where this bilingual, bicultural learning takes place. Students and villagers are encouraged to openly explore the common roots of their Semitic languages, customs, and intertwined--and often bloody--histories. They learn about and grow to respect their different religions and traditions, while their own beliefs often become stronger. Children from NS/WAS and from neighboring villages attend nursery school, kindergarten, and primary school. The School for Peace run by NS/WAS also enables Jewish and Arab teenagers and professionals to learn mutual respect, practical negotiation, and conflict resolution skills.

The intifada has put a strain on NS/WAS, as it has elsewhere in the Middle East. Teachers at the primary school have to work harder to maintain balance and handle children's questions about daily violence in the surrounding region. However, they continue to work within the constraints of the situation. Encounter groups between Jews and Arabs at the School for Peace have temporarily started working with groups of Jews or Arabs separately to lay a framework for both sides to meet together later on.

Meanwhile, the village continues to carry out its everyday affairs and there are over 300 families on the waiting list. Finances are always a problem; the village relies on outside contributions. But the fact that NS/WAS has survived--and thrived--for over thirty years by following its founding principles successfully gives courage to those who believe that achievable solutions do exist for the long-standing problems between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The life of these villagers provides one successful model for what hopefully might exist elsewhere in the Middle East in the future.

Joseph L. Andrews, MD., is a physician living in Concord, Massachusetts. He is a lecturer in medicine at Tufts Medical School, a free-lance writer for the Boston Globe, and author of Revolutionary Boston, Lexington and Concord: The Shots Heard Round the World! More information about NS/WAS can be found at
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Author:Andrews, Joseph L.
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:May 1, 2003
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