For all the gloom surrounding Israeli-Palestinian political relations, there is encouraging evidence of a genuine, grassroots peace process whose influence is spreading among Jews and Arabs. The School for Peace (SFP), located at the voluntary Jewish/Arab village of Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam1 (literally, "the oasis of peace"), is building a network of Jews and Arabs who are committed to co-existence and community, and who are determined to succeed despite any political setbacks. It began just with Palestinians in Israel proper but since Oslo also includes those from the West Bank.
The philosophy and methodology of the School for Peace have had an impact on the slow and painful process of peace-building between Israelis and Palestinians. The School for Peace teaching and modeling of face-to-face dialogue between Jews and Arabs has been replicated in the countless other unofficial dialogues that ultimately bore fruit in the Oslo agreements.
Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam was founded by Bruno Hussar, an Egyptian-born Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a Dominican monk. Father Hussar had come to Israel in 1960 to establish a Catholic center for the study of Judaism. He believed that the Arab-Israeli problem was religious, and he sought to build a Christian-Jewish-Muslim spiritual community that would model peaceful coexistence.
He founded Neve Shalom in 1972 on 120 acres of land leased from the nearby Latrun Monastery, half way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In its first years, Hussar lived alone on the hilltop in a bus without running water or electricity. He had many Israeli and Palestinian visitors, but few of them wanted to settle on the hillside. Interest in his project grew over time, however, and in 1977, it held the first course in conflict resolution for Jewish and Arab high school students. The first five families settled in 1978, four Jewish and one Palestinian. In 1988 Neve Shalom's residents consisted of twelve families (all with children) and twelve individual members; seven families were Jewish and five Palestinian. By 1998, the village had grown to thirty-five families with another twenty families approved for membership. The Jewish-Palestinian breakdown remains roughly equal.
The village lacked an economic base, so funding came almost entirely from "Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam" in Europe. An American Friends group got under way in 1981. Ironically, the Israel Friends' Association was founded only in November 1997 after the villagers concluded that they needed a broader base of support in the home country. There has been no similar Palestinian initiative; for Palestinians, it is considered quite enough just to participate in the Neve Shalom experience.
From the beginning, the founding families emphasized the preservation of their ethnic and religious identities, although most tended to be secular in outlook. They recognize each other's holidays and their children learn each other's language. The village's primary school has 115 students from kindergarten through sixth grade. When pre-school is added, the number reaches 160, two-thirds of whom come from neighboring villages. The primary school is the only example of Jewish-Palestinian bilingual education in Israel. The Jewish and Palestinian teachers speak only their own language to all of the children. There are plans to offer this model to other mixed population communities in Israel such The village's primary school has 115 students from kindergarten through sixth grade. When pre-school is added, the number reaches 160, two-thirds of whom come from neighboring villages. The primary school is the only example of Jewish-Palestinian bilingual education in Israel. The Jewish and Palestinian teachers speak only their own language to all of the children. There are plans to offer this model to other mixed population communities in Israel such as Ramla, Jaffa, Acre and Haifa.
From the start, Neve Shalom sought to offer an alternative model for life in Israel, one based on cooperation and equality. The village governs itself democratically, with decisions made democratically by Arabs and Jews. Some fifty-two voting members elect a governing board and a secretary or "mayor" who heads an administrative secretariat. The secretariat submits major proposals to the village as a whole for approval.
In 1979, realizing that it needed to advance the goals of cooperation and equality to reach out to the Arabs and Jews of Israel, the village established the School for Peace, which has become its centerpiece. It started by bringing together Arab and Jewish high school students and later added university students interested in the concept of Arab-Israeli dialogue, as well. During an intensive four-day set of encounter workshops moderated by a team of an Arab and a Jew, the participants came to see the complexity of the conflict and, it is hoped, become committed to its resolution. Some of these students became the first residents of the village.
Before going into details, it may be useful to place Neve Shalom within a broader theoretical context of the art and science of peacemaking.2
This writer was a career American diplomat serving twenty-three years in the Department of State, much of that time in the Middle East and North Africa. I realized after years of experience in official, conventional -- or "track-one" -- diplomacy that something important was missing from American efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Painful underlying issues of loss, humiliation, fear, and mutual disdain defied the cool logic of diplomats trying to make deals. There seemed to be a need for some kind of supplementary, parallel diplomacy to deal with the psychological obstacles to resolving deep-rooted ethnic and sectarian conflict. With this in mind, I joined an experiment with American psychiatrists keenly interested in applying their emotional-healing skills to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
One result of our work was the concept of unofficial, informal, "track-two" diplomacy as perhaps the decisive element needed to make progress in protracted ethnic and sectarian conflicts that defy track-one diplomacy. Track-two diplomacy begins with a few select participants who have unofficial and informal interactions with their opposite numbers. It aims to develop strategies, influence public opinion, and organize human and material resources to help resolve the groups conflict. When politically respected members of groups in conflict meet in small, track-two workshops, usually with a third-party facilitator, their goal is to develop a decent working relationship, understand the dimensions of the conflict from the other side's perspective and start evolving a joint strategy for dealing with the conflict as a shared problem that requires cooperative solutions.
The Oslo process started out as a track-two initiative, at least on the Israeli side, and evolved into a full-fledged track-one dialogue between the government of Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In fact, it bears noting, there had been track-two encounters between Israelis and Arabs for some twenty years before Oslo, most notably Herbert Kelman's Arab-Israeli dialogues at Harvard University; these in fact generated many of the ideas encapsulated in the Oslo accords.
Once the initial and select stage has been reached, the track-two process next aims to influence the larger body of public opinion among the adversaries; this in turn creates a climate that makes it safer for political leaders to take risks for peace. This later stage is a large-group psychological task that aims to reduce the sense of victimhood that nourishes aggressive self-righteousness or a desire for revenge. Its goal is to humanize the image of the adversary, making it possible to conceive of peace and even a community made of former enemies. A strategy to influence public opinion might include the use of television and print media, plays, poetry, short stories and novels, even music and the fine arts.
The School for Peace at Neve Shalom fits this approach of track-two diplomacy. The school chose a painstaking, systematic process of transforming attitudes and belief systems, one that involved sixty Jews and Arabs, evenly divided, all in the eleventh grade. They were all put through a highly refined identification, recruitment, and preparation process before meeting the other side at Neve Shalom's four-day encounter workshop. The students were nominated by their classmates, with the concurrence of their teachers, on the basis of the established leadership skills.
The Encounter Workshops
The workshop sessions are not fantasy events but honest and often painful undertakings. An Arab-Jewish team usually co-facilitates, though sometimes the Jewish leader meets alone with the Jews and the Palestinian meets alone with the Arabs. Hebrew and Arabic have equal status but the Arabs almost always resort to Hebrew, in which they are fluent, whereas the Jews know almost no Arabic. In joint sessions, students are encouraged to define themselves as individual personalities with their own stories, fears, and aspirations; nonetheless, it usually does not take long for current political realities to close in on the discussions.
Jews and Arabs who truly face each other for the first time at the school take on the tough tasks of overcoming fear and destructive stereotypes. The depth of the encounter is impressive. Grace Feuerverger, a Canadian researcher who has analyzed Arab-Jewish exchanges,3 recounts an exercise in which the Arabs and Jews examine photographs and comment on them. One photograph shows a young boy crouched near a window with bars. An Arab says, "this is what is happening every day in the [Occupied] Territories. Young children are being thrown into prison. There is no hope for a future." A Jew then points to a picture of a train wreck and says:
This reminds me of a terrorist bomb which blew up a bus in my neighborhood, and many people were killed and even more were injured. I was supposed to be on that bus to go visit a friend but changed my plans at the last minute. I still dream that nightmare. The bomb was planted by someone in the Territories. How can we trust the Arabs?
An Arab participant tells Feuerverger in a personal interview:
I couldn't believe how cavalier some of the Jewish participants were with regard to the terrible treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. It just made me feel sick. I have relatives who were badly injured in certain fights. I do see Israelis, therefore, as aggressors. I can't help it. But I never thought of the mass murders of their people in Eastern Europe. They are more traumatized than I ever imagined. We have to learn about each other's pain and acknowledge it. It's the first time I've ever considered that.
In a workshop session, a Jewish Israeli shares his introspection:
To tell the truth, I feel very ambivalent about being here. How can I trust people who want to destroy me and my people? I am terrified of Arab terrorists. . . . I feel like a betrayer to be discussing coexistence with Arabs who have wreaked so much violence on us. But I guess I was enticed by these workshops because I wanted to see my enemy close. I feel . . . battle fatigued. Can there be a way out of this awful mess? But to say that I can become friends with Arabs, I don't know. But I'm willing to listen and see what they have to say . . . I am learning to question if we Jews have any responsibility in this conflict. I know now that not every Arab wants to blow up innocent people. And its true that the situation in the West Bank is desperate.
The school's most recent annual report4 reprints typical letters from a Jew to the Arab students and an Arab to the Jewish students after the completion of their workshop, letters that seem to encapsulate the process and its outcome. They reveal the relationships established, the insights into each others' emotions and identities, and the politics of survival and community-building, and so are worth quoting at length. The first is from Ronen, a Jew:
Those four days I spent at NS/WAS changed my entire outlook regarding Arabs. I never thought I could live with them in peace, happily, and that we could be friends. Every day I hear through the media and on the street that there was another terrorist attack, that another bus exploded, and it made me hate the Arabs more and more. I didn't know that they aren't all like that. That not all of them are murderers and terrorists. I discovered that they also have children, boys my age who like to have a good time, listen to music, play football and basketball -- exactly the same things I like doing. I also discovered that they have different feelings and political opinions, and that they also have something to say and contribute towards improving the current situation . . . I don't know what I would do if I were in their place. I don't know how I could live and study under the conditions they live and study under . . . During these four days I discovered new people, a new culture, a new world, and I really hope they can improve their lives in Israel and that they won't curse us -- the Jews -- every day of their lives.
Yusuf, an Arab, is less introspective than Ronen. The workshop encounter seems to have emboldened him to lay out his grievances to his Jewish counterparts:
Although in general the group was fairly moderate, more than a few people -- mainly on the other side -- had extremist and racist opinions . . . On the one hand, they say they want peace and equality with us, but on the other, they don't want to grant us even basic rights. They tell us we should be happy that we are allowed to live here. My answer to them is that if this is the opinion of the Jews, it will not lead to peace, but to disaster (I hope this doesn't happen). I turn to one of the participants, Esti, and I tell her that we, the Arabs, will stay here forever -- we will never leave -- neither to Egypt nor to Jordan. Your picture of us is mistaken. You relate to us as you relate to another wave of Jewish immigrants: we should assimilate ourselves within your society and forget our language and our culture. Someone who thinks like this needs a doctor. A person who aspires to peace needs an open mind, must be ready to make sacrifices, and trust the other side . . . Thanks, till we meet again.
These statements reveal a genuineness; their words reflect the cultural conflict that has gripped Arabs and Jews for a century.
Leaders at the School for Peace say their aim is to heighten awareness of the complexity of the relationships between the two groups and to improve understanding between them. The school has credibility precisely because it does not aspire to heroic transformations at its encounters. Together, the young Arabs and Jews grapple with difficult political issues and confront their own values and identity. In general, the workshops give Arabs a stronger sense of their own power and Jews move from a position of simple fear to working with Arabs as equals and, potentially, as partners.
Neve Shalom's Expanding Influence
Neve Shalom was for many years an orphan community, unrecognized by the Israeli government and lacking any state financial support for its schools and other community services. In 1994, however, the Government of Israel had a change of heart, because of continuous lobbying by the village and its foreign supporters, including the respected former American ambassador, Samuel Lewis. Today, Neve Shalom is officially recognized, which brings subsidies for its schools, utilities, and legal status as a municipality with its own zoning rights. The School for Peace now trains some 2,000 participants each year in the art and science of humanization and coexistence, so that by now some 24,000 Israeli Arabs and Jews have gone through the workshop.
The respect this school has won can be seen in the dissemination of its learning and methods throughout the Israeli university system -- and more recently with institutions under the Palestinian Authority. The school is now in its seventh year of offering courses jointly with Tel Aviv University and has expanded in recent years to conduct similar courses at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Ben Gurion University in the Negev.5 In all cases, roughly half the students are Jews and half Arabs. School for Peace facilitators run experiential workshops for the Arab and Jewish university students while their professors present companion lectures on such subjects as personal and social identities, majority-minority relations, stereotypes, cognitive schemes of conflict, group process and inter-group conflict. This expansion of the school's influence through the social science departments is significant in terms of intellectual and academic legitimization.
The creation in March 1997 of a course for Israeli and Palestinian school teachers, given by the school in conjunction with the Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy in Ramallah, offers a major symbolic breakthrough for the Neve Shalom approach. Eighteen teachers came from five Jewish schools in various parts of Israel and twenty-two came from eight schools under the Palestinian Authority. The course focused on the conflict and the possibilities for teaching peace in the classroom.
The organization at Neve Shalom of two university-student-level workshops is another exciting development. Sixty-two students (thirty Israelis and thirty-two Palestinians) participated; the former came from the Hebrew, Bar Ilan and Tel Aviv universities, the latter from Bir Zeit and Bethlehem universities in the West Bank. The second of these workshops occurred during one of the closures of the West Bank (meaning that its residents may not enter Israel), so it was held near a roadblock between Jerusalem and Bethlehem; the Palestinian students could only circumvent the roadblock by arriving on foot. The dialogue was conducted in English and focused on conflict-related issues. The Israeli students tended to be more interested in future solutions, while the Palestinians were preoccupied with their difficult experience of that day. But the students expressed interest in further meetings.6
This growing interest in the Neve Shalom approach clearly shows that it resonates among the Jews and Arabs of Israel. The expansion of the School for Peace is grounds for continued hope in the creative possibilities of human beings to make the transition from enmity to coexistence, if not community. That said, there has been little notice so far of the school's ideas by strategic think tanks like the Jaffe Center or the Begin-Sadat Center, nor by such Middle Eastern institutes as the Moshe Dayan Center, but efforts are being made to interest them.
The Test of Reality
For all their idealism, the brave, unpretentious, and noble residents at Neve Shalom and the teachers at its school are also realists, and they are worried. If their intercommunal experience confirms their conviction that real peace is possible, the trials of everyday hardball politics between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority can lead them to despair. The Oslo stalemate and terrorism by Palestinian elements have inevitably taken their toll.
The village of Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam and the teachers at the School for Peace are waging a desperate battle for the hearts and minds of Palestinians and Jews who struggle with a desire for peace, constantly reaffirmed by their willingness to come together for dialogue. But Neve Shalom has its opponents -- religious and secular extremists among both peoples whose visions of the future are apocalyptic and utterly uncontaminated by the existence of the detested "other." Other Israelis do not oppose the village so much as consider it a naïve fantasy without possible effect on the bitter Arab-Israeli relationship.
After the March 1997 course for Israeli and Palestinian teachers noted above, School for Peace director Nava Sonnenschein reflected on her feelings:
I came back with worries and concerns for the future of the relations and the agreements between the two peoples. It was not the meeting itself, but the hard reality reflected in it and the things people said. The meeting took place in a difficult atmosphere, with a feeling that we are at the end of the Oslo process; that the Agreements have no future.7
Given the recurrent problems, Sonnenschein asks whether it is worth continuing the school's work despite all the pain and trauma. To which she replies, "probably that we should, as long as the two sides are willing. The determination of the educators who take part in the work is a source of encouragement, and perhaps of hope."8
Can this effort withstand the violent Arab-Israeli confrontation that some pessimists are predicting? The record to date points to the Jews and Arabs of Neve Shalom enduring. They made it through the intifada, took shelter together against Saddam Husayn's Scud missiles, and have managed through the terrible stresses of terrorist bombings and assassinations.
Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam and the School for Peace present a choice between courage or fear, hope or loathing. Serious people are voting for hope. As Faisal al-Husayni, the prominent Palestinian leader, wrote in the visitors' book at Neve Shalom, "I would like to see the moment when there would be such a thing not only between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but between all the people in the Middle East." Elie Wiesel adds: "When Jews and Arabs get together, work together, live together, they create their own miracle: Neve Shalom is such a miracle -- it deserves our warmest support, for it justifies our highest hopes."
The Neve Shalom spirit is not just a carefully protected, hothouse flower, unconnected to the harsh realities of Israeli-Palestinian politics. Symbolic of this, in late 1997, several Palestinian leaders came across a group of ultra-Orthodox Knesset members at the Pentalicon Hotel in Athens, eating the sabbath dinner on Friday evening. On seeing them, Marwan al-Barghuti, secretary-general of the Fatah movement in Gaza, wished the Israelis "Shabbat Shalom," the traditional Jewish greeting that means "a peaceful sabbath to you," and his Palestinian colleagues repeated the greeting. In response, Yitzhak Vaknin from the Sephardi Shas party stood up and placed his hand on al-Barghuti's head and blessed him, saying, "May He who blessed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, also bless this esteemed man, Marwan Barghuti. May God grant him a long life and give health to him and his family." The other Palestinians also asked for blessings and Vaknin blessed each of them.9 Peace between Israelis and Palestinians can be made and those who dream of this peace must be prepared to support the peacemakers in every way possible.
Joseph V. Montville is director of the preventive diplomacy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
- Edward Alexander: No, an Exercise in Jewish Self-Debasement
- Ahmad Yusuf: No, but a Useful Step toward Bi-Nationalism
1 Although formally known by both its Hebrew and Arabic names, and abbreviated as NS/WAS, the Hebrew name is better known in the United States, so we use it here.
2 For more detail on track-two diplomacy, see Joseph V. Montville, "The Arrow and the Olive Branch: A Case for Track-two Diplomacy," in Vamik Volkan, et al, eds., The Psychodynamics of International Relationships, Vol. II, (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1990), pp. 161-175.
3 Grace Feuerverger, "Oasis of Peace: A Community of Moral Education in Israel," The Journal of Moral Education, 24 (1995): 113-141.
4 The Annual Report of the School for Peace, September 1996 - August 1997 (Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam: The School for Peace, 1998).
5 In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the courses are given through the social psychology departments and, at Ben Gurion, through the behavioral sciences department.
6 The Annual Report of SFP, pp 14.
7 Ibid., p. 15.
8 Ibid., p. 16.
9 Ha'aretz, Dec. 24, 1997.