Lessons Learned from Israel’s Jewish/Muslim/Christian “Peace Village”

By Joseph Andrews


This article originally appeared in and is reprinted with permission of www.SocialAction.com.

Headlines over the past year have detailed a cycle of violence and retribution in Israel during the Intifada: suicide bombings followed by retaliatory armed incursions; deadly explosions met by rocket revenge. Overlooked amid these accounts of dysfunctional relations between Israelis and Palestinians is an unsung, but significant 30-year success story, a “peace village” in Israel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It is called “Neve Shalom” in Hebrew and “Wahat-al-Salam” in Arabic, both meaning “Oasis of Peace” (from Isaiah 32:18) (NS/WAS).

Here, Israeli Jews, and Arab Israeli Muslims and Christians continue to live side by side voluntarily as neighbors. Here, they send their children to the same schools to learn Hebrew, Arabic and English. Here, the School for Peace has trained over 25,000 Israeli Jewish and Arab students, teachers and professionals in effective techniques of conflict resolution and co-existence. Here is a model for future hope that actually works!

What is the secret of this quiet success story? Ever since its founding by Father Bruno Hussar, a Dominican priest, in 1972 as a peaceful alternative to the historic Middle Eastern legacy of hatred and violence, NS/WAS villagers have successfully followed these key founding principles:

*Equality: The fifty village families, about 400 people, equally split between Jews and Arabs, live and work together as complete equals. Shared daily community living allows villagers to see their neighbors as individuals, to get beyond religious, national and cultural stereotypes. This enables them to have genuine friends from different backgrounds and to realize that a lasting peace in the area will result only from successful coexistence and respect for diversity.

*Shared Power: Sharing 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 his living and working in NS/WAS was the first time that he had worked for a boss who was not Jewish, that he did not encounter daily discrimination and that his personal input was valued in important community decisions. For Nava Sonnenschein, the Jewish co-founder and director of the School for Peace, it is important that this leadership position, too, alternates biannually between a Jew and an Arab. Thus, all points of view can be represented in planning and execution of the sensitive Jewish-Arab encounter groups.

*Democracy: Jewish and Arab neighbors at NS/WAS have equal votes in electing the village council and Secretary and equal input in running the day-to-day affairs of the village. Even though Israeli Arabs comprise about 20% (about one million) of Israel’s population, there are no Arab Israeli government ministers or ambassadors, and only a handful of Arabs in the Knesset. By contrast, NS/WAS villagers daily discuss their (often very different) opinions openly as equals, have equal votes, and thus they are able to achieve a workable consensus on key decisions.

*Education for mutual respect and communality: The NS/WAS schools were the first in the Middle East where Arab and Jewish students attend the same school to learn both Arabic language, history and culture from Arab teachers and Jewish culture, history and Hebrew language from Jewish teachers 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 their intertwined (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 a nursery school, kindergarten and primary school. The School for Peace enables Jewish and Arab teenagers and professionals to learn mutual respect and practical negotiation and conflict resolution skills.

*Cooperation: “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,” states a former leader.

*Independence: NS/WAS has no formal affiliation with any religious or political group, which has allowed them to steer an independent course.

*The Future? The Intifada has put a strain on NS/WAS, as it has elsewhere in the Middle East. Jewish-Arab encounter groups have temporarily been replaced by “uninational” groups of teenagers at the School for Peace. However, the village continues to carry out its daily affairs. 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 in Israel and Palestine. The day-to-day life of the villagers of Neve Shalom/ Wahat-al-Salam provides one successful model for what might exist elsewhere in the future.

More information about NS/WAS can be found on the web at www.oasisofpeace.org or by writing to American Friends of NS/WAS, 4201 Church Rd., Suite 4, Mt. Laurel, N.J. 08054; 856-235-6200.






About Joseph Andrews

Joseph Andrews, Jr., M.D. is a physician and writer living in Concord, MA. He is a Lecturer in Medicine at Tufts Medical School, a freelance writer for The Boston Globe and author of Revolutionary Boston, Lexington and Concord: The Shots Heard 'Round the World!