Friday, May 28, 2010

Neve Shalom Wahat Al Salam and Non Violent Resistance

Today we visited the Jewish Arab village known as Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam, which means Oasis of Peace. This is a small, intentional village in which the families who comprise the village have made a conscious decision to raise their children in a place that is both Jewish and Arab and where both Hebrew and Arabic are spoken. The school is completely integrated and bilingual giving the children the unique opportunity to grow up knowing people from the “other side” of the conflict here. Israeli schools are segregated – either Jewish or Arab and children who grow up in the Israeli public schools never meet people not like them. There are 55 families living in the village at this time, although they have enough room for 90 more and they are continually growing. The village also sponsors a School for Peace which offers programs and institutes both in Israel and around the world on peacemaking, conflict resolution and the like. They have offered these programs to professionals of all stripes – teachers, lawyers, doctors, politicians and civil servants and others. They are now involving Palestinians from the West Bank in their programs but have to conduct those programs outside of Israel because the West Bank Palestinians cannot enter Israel.

The village was founded in the early 1970s and was the dream of Bruno Hassar a Roman Catholic monk who was born a Hungarian Jew and raised Jewish who converted to Roman Catholicism in college. He dreamed of starting a community where Jews and Arabs could live together in peace and his dream, through his very hard work and persistence became a reality. The land for the village was originally donated by Trappist Monks from a monastery nearby.

Touring the village we had a chance to see how very possible it is for Jews and Arabs (both Christian and Muslim) to co-exist and live in peace together. The members of the village who spoke with us about their lives and their mission were inspiring to hear. They acknowledge that it is not easy in this country where the tensions are so high to do what they are doing, but that they hope that they can prove by example that peace is possible. They told us of some of the tensions, most particularly the difficulty that the children in the village face when the Israeli Jewish youth become of age to do their obligatory army service. The Arab kids are not required to do Army service and, indeed, the Arabs are ambivalent at best about the Army since it is the tool by which the Israelis enforce their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Apparently, when the Israeli Jewish kids are ready to go off for their Army stint it sometimes causes sadness, tension and strain with their Arab friends. Many of the youth in the village opt for community service rather than the Army, which is only an option for the girls. Some kids from the village have refused to go into the Army, but that then means they do time in jail.

The school in the village is intentionally bilingual and binational and they told us of how they have to create their own curricular materials to supplement the official Israeli public school curriculum to correct for the Zionist bias in the official curriculum. They have had to be creative to find ways to teach the history of Israel and Palestine that honors both narratives. All the children learn both Hebrew and Arabic and all classes have either a teacher who is bilingual or two teachers so that all classes are taught in both Arabic and Hebrew. Since we were visiting on a Friday, classes were not in session, except the kindergarten. The “weekend” in Israel is Friday/Saturday. When I inquired about whether this school had classes on Sunday they said yes, and that school starts at 8. When I then asked how Christian children can go to church if they are supposed to be in school, the principal admitted that this is a problem. In Israel, Christians are really marginalized, because Sunday is a regular workday, so schools and businesses are open. It makes it very hard for Christian communities to function when they are not able to worship on their holy day.

They also have created a Pluralist Spiritual Centre where people of the three religions can share a sacred space. They have built a “House of Silence” on a hill overlooking a valley, which is a place for prayer and meditation for people of all faiths or none at all. We stopped in there for some silent prayer and it was truly a holy space. It would make a wonderful place to do a retreat. I’ve included a picture in the House of Silence and some of the children’s artwork that is displayed near the school complex as well as a shot of the kindergarteners we met today at their storytime.

It was heartening to see that peaceful co-existence really is possible and to realize that at the grassroots people truly are capable of living peacefully together. The status quo does not have to remain the status quo.

We then went to Abu Gosh, a Muslim Arab village where we had lunch in a little restaurant that claims to have the best hummus in the world (??!!?? –Actually, it was pretty delicious!) and while we sat eating our lunch we listened to the sermon and prayers from Friday Ummah, as the mosque was right down the street and the Friday midday prayer service was broadcast from the minaret. Dr. Shafiq and Mustafa stayed with us through the sermon and then ran over to the mosque when the prayers began so as to meet their Friday obligation.

This evening we had a fascinating meeting with a Palestinian woman who works for the NGO Justvision, which is active in fighting for Palestinian rights. She is an Israeli Arab but works closely with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. She showed us their most recent documentary, entitled Budrus, which chronicles the non-violent resistance movement of Palestinians in a West Bank village where the Israeli government was taking land from the villagers, specifically their olive groves from which they make their living, in order to build their Separation Wall. This was a “good news” story in that the resistance by the local Palestinians along with Israeli activists and international activists who supported them in that work actually caused the Israelis to pull back and erect the wall closer to the Green Line leaving 95% of the olive groves to the village. The woman who spoke with us was very articulate and quite outspoken about the need to raise up a new generation of leaders both for the Palestinians and for the Israelis. She was quite clear that neither set of leaders are going to manage this conflict in a productive way and that they do not have the interests of the people on the ground at heart. She believes strongly in grass roots work and in training and raising up a new generation of leaders who will not be as corrupt as the current group. By the end of her presentation we were all ready to vote her into office!! The film she screened for us is doing the film festival circuit all over the world, but should be available for purchase on DVD in about a year. (This is the same group who produced the documentary “Encounter Point” that has been released in select theaters in the US in the past couple of years.)

So now I’m off to bed. I’m mostly recovered from my desert experience, except for very sore leg muscles used on the descent! Apparently my regime in the gym doesn’t work out those particular muscles!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a wonderful day in the intentional Arab/Israeli village. Truly they are doing the work that needs to be done all over Israel and Palestine. God bless them.

    Abu Gosh. There is a lovely monastery there, with monks who sing a wonderful Evening Prayer. And I think that I remember that it is one of the several places thought to be the Village of Emmaus. It just might be because it is on the old Roman Road down from Jerusalem, about the right distance mentioned in Scripture.

    Thanks for the post regarding Bethlehem. I have had the same experience. While riding on the Golan Heights I asked, "What are those tents over there?" The Christian Israeli guide (licensed by the Israeli government to be a guide) said, "What tents? Look over at the other side of the bus. There are no tents." He was being absolutely careful not to break protocol to point out that the tents were Israeli soldiers positioned on the Heights towards Jordan. If he wanted to keep his license as a guide, he had to be careful. One never knows in Israel who might be watching, listening, or following you.

    Your trip is a fascinating mixture of holy sites, hopeful and promising conflict resolution, and intellectual conversation with those 'on the ground' there. This is what so many pilgrims miss when the just 'visit' the Holy Land. They are overwhelmed with the holiness of the sites, and miss the context that the people live in.