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To the Editor:

Edward Alexander and Ahmad Yusuf replied to Joseph Montville's fine piece on the village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (all in the December 1998 issue of the Middle East Quarterly). In turn, I would like to comment on their critiques. Both of the respondents make the same mistake, though from opposite directions, seeing the village as the basis for a political solution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

Professor Alexander appears to misunderstand the purpose of the village and its educational institutions. Neve Shalom is a place where Israeli Zionists and Israeli Arabs live and work together while maintaining their language and culture. Alexander states in his first sentence that the village aspires to be a "model for regional peace." But no one in the village today sees this as the purpose of their living together. Alexander's misunderstanding may be due to the fact that his quotations from the villagers derive from news items dated 1987 and earlier. The village is an evolving, growing institution, and yellowed clippings are not a reliable guide to what the village is about today.

Twelve years ago, the village consisted of a dozen families; today, it has four times that number and an equal number on the waiting list. Alexander takes out of context a old quote from the current mayor of the village, Ryek Rizek, about the Jews in the village celebrating Israel's Independence Day with a traditional kumsitz (campfire party) and Palmach songs—but out of earshot of the Palestinian residents. Perhaps so, but Ryek's far more recent letter to The New York Jewish Week seems to have escaped Alexander. Answering critics who pointed out that most Arabs and Jews do not want to live together, Ryek wrote:

We are a laboratory for coexistence, not a model ... Coexistence does not mean that Jews and Arabs should live together as they do in NS/WAS. What NS/WAS shows is that ... a group of Jews and Arabs have been able to create and develop a village together. [Elsewhere] Jews and Arabs should be able to cooperate in less intensive ways and to live as good neighbors in the same land.1

Also, Neve Shalom is not just a village where Jews and Palestinians live together but an educational institution serving others. Two-thirds of the pupils attending the Lurie Primary School are bused in every morning from nearby Jewish and Arab villages. Encounter groups run by the School for Peace bring in teenagers from Jewish and Arab schools all over Israel.

Going beyond the specifics of Neve Shalom, I should point out that one out of every six Israeli citizens is a Palestinian who can vote in national elections. Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians are fated to live together in the same land. When two peoples, an 80 percent majority and a 16 percent minority, share one country, there are only two options: the Rwanda way, with the majority slaughtering the minority, or the Jewish way—peaceful coexistence. There are many problems in the coexistence of two peoples, and Neve Shalom is a laboratory to solve them.

Mr. Yusuf is similarly mistaken when he calls Neve Shalom a "useful step towards bi-nationalism." As it happens, sixty years ago I too favored a bi-national state of Jews and Arabs in Palestine (as did Hashomer Hatzair and such luminaries as Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, and Henrietta Szold). But the United Nations General Assembly had two options on its agenda in November 1947: to partition Palestine into two states or to create a bi-national state. It adopted the first plan and rejected the second. Fifty-two years and several tragic wars later, the clock cannot be turned back. I doubt that Yusuf (or Professor Edward Said, who has also written recently in favor of a bi-national state), really believes that this is now possible. I can assure them that no one in Neve Shalom believes the village serves as a model for a bi-national state.

J. Zel Lurie
Delray Beach, Florida

Edward Alexander replies:

Jesse Zel Lurie makes no attempt to deny any of the quotations or facts cited in my essay—such as Jewish residents of Neve Shalom expressing "understanding" for Arab terrorism or (according to a newspaper account of December 1996) the village school's prohibition of the Israeli flag, or the Arab residents denying the legitimacy of the state in which they live and subjecting visitors to anti-Israel propaganda barrages.

In response to my citing Neve Shalom's Arab mayor insisting that Independence Day campfires be confined to the outskirts of town (as he put it), "out where they couldn't be heard," Lurie responds by quoting a public-relations statement by the mayor in The New York Jewish Week made to potential Jewish contributors in which he expresses the hope that Jews and Arabs can "live as good neighbors." The Neve Shalom example of good neighborliness, unfortunately, is characterized by Jewish self-abasement and Arab extremism.

Lurie complains that some of my examples are from the 1980s. But their date of origin does not undermine their validity unless those who spoke them later denied them or exhibited a change of heart; neither has happened. (Nor can I recall that Lurie was any less fervent a cheerleader for Neve Shalom in the eighties than he is now.) In any case, one of the most troubling, and telling, incidents illustrating the Neve Shalom mentality took place much more recently.

In February 1997, a Jewish resident of the village, Tom Kitain, was serving in the Israeli Army and died in a helicopter accident. The principal of Neve Shalom's school, Anwar Dawud, responded with an obituary in a local newspaper in which he described Tom as "the only Jewish soldier whom I agreed to take in my car when he was in uniform."2 Which is to say that even after all his years living side by side with "good Jews" in Neve Shalom, Dawud still seethes with hatred of the army that protects Israeli Arabs as well as Israeli Jews, and that helps assure the existence of the state of which Dawud is supposed to be a loyal citizen.

If Dawud is the result of the "laboratory of coexistence" that is Neve Shalom—as Jesse Zel Lurie characterizes it—then one can only conclude that this particular experiment has been a less than outstanding success. Is there, I wonder, a plan to expand the curriculum at Neve Shalom's school to include a course in Jewish self-respect?

Edward Alexander
University of Washington

Ahmad Yusuf replies:

J. Zel Lurie's interesting letter makes some very important points. I sympathize with his lack of optimism with respect to a bi-national state solution; but contrary to his comment to the effect that I cannot "really believe that this is now possible," I do indeed see it as the only way toward a realistic solution to the Palestinian crisis.

I would suggest that Mr. Lurie's lack of enthusiasm for the bi-national state solution may result more from the psychologically and spiritually draining Oslo exercise—in which the hopes and energies of both Jewish and Arab peoples were depleted as they struggled to sustain some hope as renewed violence loomed larger—than from the failure of efforts to establish a bi-national state.

Unlike some Palestinians, I do not see Palestinian statehood as a desirable solution, for facts on the ground have rendered real statehood an impossibility. The West Bank is home to numerous Jewish settlements that surround Palestinian towns, separating them from one another to the point that there is no territorial contiguity among the Palestinian areas in the West Bank; this alone makes statehood undesirable. The situation is further complicated by the bypass roads built for Israelis that separate Palestinian territory. There are 160,000 Jews living in more than fourteen urban and eighty-two rural settlements, in addition to eleven settlements in and around eastern Jerusalem that house 200,000 Jews. Once the Jabal Abu Ghoneim/Har Homa settlements are completed to the south of Jerusalem, the separation between Jerusalem and the West Bank will be
complete.

A Palestinian state being out of the question, I see the solution in a bi-national state. Mr. Lurie acknowledges that the bi-national state solution was once considered desirable by European Zionist intellectuals like Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, Arthur Ruppin, and the Mandate-era Brit Shalom group, and even by himself. The members of Brit Shalom and other like-minded Jewish groups generally held that the peaceful development and welfare of Palestine required a political system in which both peoples live side by side and enjoy equal rights, bound through ties of communication, economy, and culture. They made it clear that they were not pursuing a "Jewish-only state" but a bi-national Palestinian community.

This remains a worthwhile goal. In a bi-national state Jews and Arabs (the latter term meaning both Muslims and Christians) would coexist as two separate communities in a federal arrangement. Each people would run its own affairs autonomously and be guaranteed the legal right to use its own language, religion, and traditions. Both would participate in the government through a single parliament that would occupy itself with issues of supra-communal importance, such as defense, economics, and the disposal of resources. As models, I would point to the cantonal structure of Switzerland or Belgium's arrangement between Flemings and Walloons (with its two regional and one central government). In Palestine, the cantonal structure would be based on the country's demographic pattern; densely populated Arab areas would become Arab cantons, and Jewish areas would be Jewish cantons.

Acknowledging that many obstacles must be overcome before a bi-national state can be established, I propose that this solution suits the natural tendency of people to live and let live; it only requires that certain symbols of cultural and religious identity are not threatened. Mr. Lurie sees the bi-national state solution as a lost opportunity; I see it as an opportunity held by time—God knowing that Jews and Arabs eventually would be defeated and humbled by their racial and religious hatreds and other forms of corruption, so that in the end we would all submit to this very natural and honorable solution.

Perhaps this idea of a palestine/Israel bi-national state, a home to two or three varied ethnic identities, is just dreaming. But let us not forget that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all monotheists who jointly find their roots in the common faith of the Prophet Abraham who prayed, "O my Lord make this city one of peace and security and preserve me and my offspring from worshipping idols ... Praise be to God who granted me in old age both Ishmael and Isaac, and truly My Lord is He the hearer of prayer." (Qur'an: Sura Ibrahim 14:39-40.)

Ahmad Yusuf
United Association
for Studies and Research

 

1 The New York Jewish Week, May 29, 1998.
2 The Jerusalem Post, Feb. 17, 1997.