NEVE SHALOM-WAHT ES-SALAAM, Central Israel – "Once upon a time," the educator tells Jewish and Arab five-year-old children, "a plant laid dormant, holding its life on the darkness around it, beholding the night. Butterflies, flowers and leaves, their caress, were laid to rest. Dewdrop beads, tears in an ocean of hopelessness, enchanted the plant that grew and grew into a strong tree, into an oasis of peace in a land of conflict", into a community of two peoples, Jews and Palestinians.
This is no fairy tale, but a story about them…
The "Oasis of Peace" (Neve Shalom-Waht es-Salaam in Hebrew and Arabic) is the only place in Israel where, 35 years ago, Jewish and Palestinian Israelis chose voluntarily to live side by side; the only place to raise Jewish and Palestinian children together.
Eyas Shbeta is the village’s secretary. He explains the basic principles of this unique endeavor: "Each one of us keeps his own identity, cultural heritage, space, place. We’re not trying to create a new identity. The opposite – as you interact with someone different, you get empowered."
Full equality – in numbers, rights and power – is the guiding principle of this community of 60 families.
Nava Sonnenschein is a facilitator in the village’s School for Peace, an institution that has conducted conflict-group encounters for over 50,000 Israelis and Palestinians: "We wanted to build a social, cultural, and political framework of equality because, with all good intentions, living together is an issue of power," she sums up in an unsentimental manner.
Decisions are taken democratically.
One in five Israelis is a Palestinian. It’s not easy when your state and your people are at war. Much like their Palestinian brethren in the occupied territories, Palestinian Israelis all-too-often suffer the brunt of exclusion, of discrimination, and the suspicion that they are a ‘’fifth column’’, disloyal.
Broad historical and political stances are accepted in the village. For instance, terrorism is condemned; the end of the occupation is the solution to the conflict.
But once this general proposition is agreed, disagreements appear. "Some believe in a two-state solution, others in a bi-national state," says Sonnenschein.
"This is not about kissing and hugging," says Shbeta. "Yet, each one of us has decided to give up something for the common purpose of living side by side, but not one on top of the other. This is a model for existing together, not a model of coexistence."
Other ideological arguments evolve around the questions which have haunted Israel since its inception: Is it legitimate for Israel to define itself as Jewish, or is it the homeland of both peoples? Are the Palestinians the only indigenous group while the Jews are settlers, colonizers? Should the Palestinian refugees be allowed back to Israel?
The solution is to decide not to decide.
"We don’t have to agree on everything," acknowledges Shbeta. Sonnenschein chimes in: "We are constantly grappling with how to translate ideology into everyday life. I wish goodwill was enough!" Learning to live together begins with learning to learn together. The primary school, the first such bi-national school in the country, is a microcosm within a microcosm.
Only 30 of the 250 children learning here live in the community. The majority are from surrounding Jewish and Arab towns and villages. Parents don’t have to be committed to the village’s credo, but they do have to accept it.
The school curriculum is a remarkable, albeit universal, set of formative and informative values, such as mutual acceptance, respect, patience, and tolerance, "and the value of peace. We teach our children that it is normal for us to live together," explains Rim Nashef, a teacher at the village school.
"They grow up together thinking that they’re equal, not knowing that the world is different. As they reach 6th grade, they start learning the history," she says.
Treading through a complex history, balancing two conflicting national narratives is also a challenge for the children.
"During the Gaza war," Nashef recalls, "We had children whose fathers were in the army; we had children whose families lived in Gaza. We sat in class very quietly, asking them about their concerns. At this age, whatever concerns them concern them about their own family."
Not surprisingly, language is the primary tool for forging identity, Although Arabic is an official language Hebrew is the lingua franca, even here. "Most Palestinians are bilingual. Some Jews know Arabic but not enough, and most don’t know," concedes Sonnenschein. "On this issue, we failed."
Other issues remain unresolved, such as whether Jewish Israelis should do army service. Sonnenschein has two daughters and one son: "It’s painful. You grow up with Palestinians – how can you fight Palestinians? It contradicts your inner belief."
So firmly anchored are convictions here that they risk contradicting the basic purpose of living together. When Jews celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, Palestinians have a different commemoration: al-Naqba, the catastrophe. The kids are separated into national groups.
Moral negotiation in the village continues at all levels of discourse. The "Oasis of Peace is thus not just an experiment in living together but in conflict resolution.
"We are constantly negotiating the space between the tensions of competing national aspirations and our personal attempts at coexistence and goodwill," says Abdessalam Najjar, another founding member of the community.
"Frankly speaking, I came here with the absolute disbelief in the ability to live together. I wanted to prove that it’s impossible – even as neighbors," admits Shbeta. "Yet, people ask me, ‘You’re still there?’ Ninety more families want to join us," he adds proudly.
With the constant social and political tensions that arise out of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict, they believe in their own strength, and in the strength of the young generation, to free themselves – and others – from the diehard prejudices which the conflict sustains.
A mariachi tune announces recreation time, a welcomed escape from the reflection on the meaning of living together.
"The good thing is not what happens inside the class but outside, during free time. The children play without borders," smiles Najjar.
Yet, neither home, nor the outside world, is heaven on earth, the "Oasis of Peace" villagers are ready to recognize that.
"The real test is when they finish 6th grade. Arabs move on to Arab schools. Jews move on to Jewish schools. But they know both cultures, they know both languages. They spread the word around us. They become our ambassadors," says Nashef, "I’m hopeful."
(Inter Press Service)