Israeli 'oasis of peace' sets differences aside Diversity: Jews, Christians and Muslims live and work together in this hilltop village outside Jerusalem.

December 13, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NEVE SHALOM-WAHAT AL SALAM, Israel -- When first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton visits this hilltop village outside Jerusalem today, she will encounter a place that embodies the hope for this divided land.

Palestinian and Israeli children learn in the same classroom here, each taught the language and culture of the other. Founded 26 years ago by a Catholic monk whose parents were Jewish, the community of 35 families is unlike any other in the country: Christian, Muslim and Jewish citizens of Israel living and working together.

The village's name, Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salam, means "oasis of peace" in Hebrew and Arabic, a reference to a biblical passage chosen by the village's founder, the late Rev. Bruno Hussar.

"I wanted my children to grow up knowing the other people, the other culture, the other language of this region, which actually is the majority in the region," said Shai Schwartz, an Israeli Jew who moved here 12 years ago with his wife, Dafna. "Knowledge frees you."

"Here you find yourself living with the other side everywhere you go," added Rayed Rizek, an Israeli Arab who is the village mayor. "We have to learn to open a new page every day."

Built on land donated by the neighboring monastery, Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salam may be an experiment in coexistence, but its laboratory is real life. The majority of people who work in the village also live here. Their daily concerns often have nothing to do with the Middle East conflict.

They worry about encroaching development, while at the same time trying to plan for their own expansion. Like many small towns, Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salam rallied against the construction of a highway through the fields that serve as the community's front lawn.

But when the school decided to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Al-Isra u-Al-Meirag, Christmas and Hanukkah with one main event two years ago, the ethnic fault lines appeared. Some parents and teachers objected, fearing the individual character of the holidays would be lost.

"There is no assimilation in this village," said Rizek. "We don't try to be one. We are trying to live with diversity and to live with a conflict that is over 100 years old rather than to fight it."

Request for a memorial

When a son of the community, Sgt. Tom Kita'in, died last year in an army helicopter collision while en route to the war in south Lebanon, the village mourned him as one extended family. But when a request came to put up a memorial to him on the village grounds, "then came the conflict," recalled Daoud Boulos, a 47-year-old father of four who has lived here since 1989.

Some Arabs couldn't reconcile memorializing a soldier who was on his way to fight Arabs, Boulos said. "This was a very difficult time that brought the village to the test," he said.

But the community decided to deal with the issue democratically. Residents put the family's request to a vote.

A memorial plaque erected in Kita'in's name hangs at the village basketball court today.

Since the first family moved to Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salam in 1977, 34 others have joined them. Fifteen new families, after being approved for residency there, will move in as soon as they finish building their houses. And another 300 families are on a waiting list, but the community doesn't expect to expand beyond 100 families, said Boulos.

In the early days, Palestinians and Israelis who chose to live here were viewed with suspicion. The Jews were considered left-wingers, the Palestinians, collaborators.

But those perceptions changed with the signing of the historic 1993 peace accords in Washington. The peace agreement "legitimized the Palestinian-Jewish encounter," said Rizek, whose wife teaches in the village's primary school.

"We like to describe ourselves as an educational project; the whole village is an educational project for peace and mutual respect and coexistence among the Jews and the Palestinians," said Boulos, who works at the village.

The community's three projects include the bilingual kindergarten and primary school, a guest house and the School for Peace, an institution that runs seminars for Palestinian and Jewish youth and adult groups.

Staffed by conflict management facilitators, the institute has served 25,000 people.

A school with balance

When the village's primary school opened in 1984, it had 14 children. Today, 230 students are enrolled, about 70 percent from outside the community. It is the only school in the country in which children are taught in both Hebrew and Arabic.

The school employs an equal number of Arab and Israeli teachers and tries to maintain a similar balance in its classrooms.

Israel for the most part is a segregated society in which Arab and Jewish children attend separate schools.

"We are giving our children a chance to be with the other side from an early age where they get used to each other, accept each other, understand each other, so then later in life they deal with conflicts in a much better way," said Boulos.

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