By Joseph Millis
Half way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv there is an Israeli community that appears to be immune from the cycle of violence engulfing the country.
Neveh Shalom -Wahat al-Salam – Hebrew and Arabic for Oasis of Peace – was jointly founded in 1969 by Israeli Jews and Palestinian-Israeli Arabs in an attempt to show that the two peoples can live side by side peacefully, as well as to conduct educational work for peace, equality and understanding between the two peoples.
It has a population of about 240, equally divided between Jews and non-Jews, and that balance is always maintained.
Educator Bob Fenton, one of the community’s residents, was in London recently with Jerusalem-born Palestinian Israeli Rami Manar to explain how Neveh Shalom-Wahat al-Salam (Nswas) works.
Mr Fenton said: “Israel is a small country, but we don’t talk to one another. But I am totally amazed that despite all that is going on around us, Jews and Arabs have chosen to live together.
“When I emigrated to Israel from the US in the 1980s, living in the community helped me to get rid of my fears and stereotypes.”
Manar, who was born during the first intifada in the late 1980s, was taken to Nswas by his parents because they wanted “to raise their kids in peace and quiet. Jerusalem at the time wasn’t a great place to be a Palestinian”.
Nswas was the brainchild of Bruno Hussar, an Egyptian whose parents were Jewish. He converted to Christianity while studying engineering in France, but wartime anti-Semitism in the country heightened his awareness of his roots.
He joined the Dominican Order and was ordained into the priesthood in 1950, and sent to Jerusalem to establish a centre for Jewish studies in 1953. He became an Israeli citizen and bought some land near the Latrun Monastery where Nswas is now situated.
The community has a guest house, a school of peace, a children’s educational system and a pluralistic spiritual centre.
One of the main problems in Israel, said Mr Fenton, was that “Israeli Jewish and non-Jewish youth hardly ever meet before they go to university, and by then they are set in their ways. What we try to do is humanise the other side, and one of the ways is by holding courses for mental health professionals from both sides to show them how to combat violence on both sides, which is affecting both peoples.”
As day-to-day life in Israel has become tenser, he added, “we have started working in mixed cities – Haifa, Nazareth, Acco, etc – because people there might be living together, but they certainly living apart. We are helping people to move away from fear, guilt and victimisation and to develop feelings of solidarity, to help people get unstuck.”
During Israel’s onslaught on Gaza this summer tensions at Nswas might have reached breaking point. However, as Manar, 33, explained everyone – Jews and non-Jews – was “depressed by the war”.
However, he added, “we were able to sit down and discuss the situation calmly, without resorting to playing the blame game, but to see how we can help both sides.
“So we organised meetings outside our community and worked to set up an organisation called Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies, which held some successful demonstrations and rallies in Israel during the war.”
He said he felt that “Palestinians aren’t comfortable telling Jews how they feel – and Jews aren’t comfortable hearing it, and vice versa. But the main thing is we can talk, as equals in the same room.”
Perhaps there’s a lesson there for the rest of the population of Israel – and or the British Jewish community too.
It’s good to talk.
Perhaps there’s a lesson there for the British.