A response to Neve Shalom: A Model of Arab-Israeli Coexistence?, by Joseph V. Montville.
If the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict were a misunderstanding, dialogue between Arabs and Jews might be the solution, and a village where Arabs and Jews live side by side, such as Neve Shalom, would indeed be the model for regional peace. Unfortunately, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the equivalent of an American-Canadian tariff dispute, where two parties have legitimate but differing points of view, whose premises can be understood, if not acquiesced in, by the other side. In the Middle East, the two sides do not misunderstand each other at all, but, rather, understand each other only too well. The Arabs do not accept a Jewish state in their midst, and the vast majority of Israelis refuse to yield up their national sovereignty.
A village such as Neve Shalom can exist only if its Jewish residents are prepared to suppress their Zionist identity, and if its Arab residents are able to restrain their laughter as they watch their Jewish neighbors engage in self-debasement. Both types seem to abound in Neve Shalom. "If I organize an evening of song, I am careful not to choose nationalistic songs," explains Jewish resident Etti Edlund.1 No Israeli flags are displayed in classrooms in the village school.2 When the Arab residents objected to the celebration of Israeli Independence Day in Neve Shalom, the town's Jews agreed to go "to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to partake in the nationwide celebration." When they returned to Neve Shalom later that night, Arab resident (now mayor) Rayek Rizek recalls, "they made a campfire -- out where they couldn't be heard."3 Such scenes recall the stereotypical trembling ghetto Jew that Zionism was to supplant.
The Arabs of Neve Shalom may be willing to live with Jews, but have they reconciled themselves to the Jewish state? For Elias Eady, one of Neve Shalom's leading Arab residents, Israel's War of Independence is "the symbol of the tragedy of the Palestinian people." Jewish resident Daniella Kitain notes with discomfort that "people who I like" -- that is, her Arab neighbors --"defend acts of terrorism or express understanding for such acts."4 It comes as no surprise to discover that at a poetry reading in Neve Shalom an Arab poet recited a litany of grievances about Israel persecuting Arabs in "the wounded homeland"5; or that a speaker at a political rally suggested it would be better for young Israelis to leave the country rather than serve in the army;6 or that a group of psychologists who visited Neve Shalom found themselves subjected to two hours of what they called "one-sided Palestinian political propaganda" from their Arab hosts.7
Years of living in this environment have taken their toll on the village's Jewish residents. Daniella Kitain now finds that "terror is difficult to define" and that Israeli behavior may also be "the way of terror."8 When the intifada erupted in 1987, Ariella Bailey expressed her hope that it would compel Israelis to accept the principle of territorial surrender, while Eitan Kramer speculated that Israelis in Tel Aviv find it difficult to recognize that Palestinians have rights if they too "don't feel the pain and pay a heavy price."9
Joseph Montville's own account of the village's history underscores this phenomenon. Assessing the impact of meetings between Arab and Jewish high school students, hosted by Neve Shalom, Montville quotes from what he calls "typical letters" written by a Jew and an Arab after four days of meetings. The Jewish youngster declared that meeting Arabs "changed my entire outlook regarding Arabs . . . I don't know how I could live and study under the conditions they live and study under . . . I hope they can improve their lives in Israel and that they won't curse us -- the Jews -- every day of their lives." In sharp contrast to this prodigious feat of imaginative sympathy, we get the Arab youth's letter of accusatory hatred and rage. He showers upon his Jewish counterparts the epithets "extremist" and "racist" and claims that "they don't want to grant us even basic rights . . . Someone who thinks like this needs a doctor." To Montville, such statements exude "genuineness." To a less partisan observer, they suggest that Neve Shalom's concept of Jewish-Arab dialogue amounts to little more than an exercise in Jewish self-abasement.
There are, of course, those to whom Jewish weakness is precisely the quality most attractive about Neve Shalom. The village's loudest cheerleaders are to be found in quarters never famous for friendliness to Israel: at the State Department, where not only Montville but more senior officials, such as Assistant Secretary Martin Indyk, have lavished praise upon Neve Shalom;10 among Western journalists in search of a ready nostrum for the woes of the Middle East, such as David Shipler of The New York Times and Linda Gradstein of National Public Radio11; and among Jews who prefer universalism to that peculiarly Jewish form of parochialism known as Zionism. It is also telling that several ferocious anti-Israel polemicists in the United States publicly praise Neve Shalom, and that one, John Woods of the University of Chicago, sits on Neve Shalom's board while remaining active in the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, which busies itself in depicting Israel as the devil's own experiment station.12
In his conclusion, Montville points hopefully to what he describes as "the Neve Shalom spirit" in a recent meeting between an Israeli Knesset Member and Marwan al-Barghuti, the secretary-general of Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement in Judea-Samaria-Gaza. Montville is deeply impressed by the fact that Barghuti used the Hebrew term "Shabbat Shalom" to wish his Israeli counterpart a peaceful sabbath. Perhaps Montville should have investigated Barghuti more thoroughly before declaring him an exemplar of Arab-Jewish coexistence. In fact, Barghuti typifies the shrewd Palestinian Arab politician who speaks to Israelis and Western journalists about "peace," then goes home and preaches the virtues of war to his own constituents. On April 16, 1998, not long after he so impressed Montville by heaping sabbath greetings upon his Israeli interlocutor, Barghuti declared on the Voice of Palestine Radio: "The rifle of Fatah, the rifle carried by the Palestinian people which ignited the revolution, will not be buried. . . . Brothers and sisters, I swear, I swear, I swear by the blood of the jihad and the blood of our nation's martyrs."13
These touching sentiments remind us of what Montville has forgotten: namely, that (as the sequence of events from May-June 1967 will recall) it was not the Israeli occupation that led to Arab hatred, but Arab hatred and aggression that led to that occupation.
Edward Alexander's most recent book is Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew (Indiana University Press, 1998).
1 Ha-olam Hazeh, Apr. 3, 1987.
2 The Washington Times, National Weekly Edition, Dec. 29, 1996.
3 The Jewish Floridian, Dec. 18, 1987.
4 Kol Ha'ir, Apr. 3, 1987.
5 The Jerusalem Post, Aug. 19, 1977.
6 Al Fajr English Weekly, Dec. 6, 1987.
7 The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 4, 1986.
8 Kol Ha'ir, Apr. 3, 1987.
9 The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 21, 1987.
10 Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam: Oasis of Peace, Fall 1997.
11 For Shipler's account, see the The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Aug., 10, 1986; Gradstein's report is described in the Neve Shalom newsletter, Fall 1997.
12 The Jerusalem Post, July 17, 1987.
13 Israel Government Press Office bulletin, Apr. 28, 1998.