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In Israel, an oasis of peace

Neve Shalom is a village founded on the principle of coexistence. But its residents, half Jews and half Arabs, know getting along is hard work.

September 25, 2007|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

Neve Shalom, Israel

The music blared in Arabic as a knot of women twirled slowly around the bride-to-be. Well-dressed onlookers, some in traditional Muslim head scarves, clapped and swayed.

On this evening of celebration, the fireworks sizzled, sweets beckoned and jubilant guests congratulated the Arab bride's parents with a double kiss and hearty "Mazel tov!"

Mazel tov?

"It's very normal," said Nava Sonnenschein, one of the Jews clapping at the edge of the dance circle. "For here."

The usual rules of the Middle East often don't apply in Neve Shalom, founded in the 1970s as a utopian village on a hilltop in Israel's midsection. For nearly three decades, its inhabitants have sought to defy the polarizing tugs of politics and nationalism.

Though most Jews and Arabs in Israel are kept apart by segregated communities and long years of mutual mistrust, Neve Shalom and its 250 residents -- half Jews, half Arab citizens of Israel -- represent a living experiment in integration.

The tree-shaded hamlet, whose name means "Oasis of Peace," is defiantly mixed, its bougainvillea-splashed lanes a mishmash of stone Arab-style houses and boxy, modern Jewish homes.

Schoolchildren learn Hebrew and Arabic together, a rarity in Israel, and play at one another's homes. Residents enjoy an equal say in running affairs and have elected Jews and Arabs as mayor. They also share management of the 120-pupil elementary school, which draws many students from outside the village, and a separate School for Peace, a well-known training center for activists.

The community's name is in both languages. In Arabic, it is Wahat al Salam (though the Israeli government has never recognized that part).

"We don't go out and protest in the classic way," said Ahmad Hijazi, a 40-year-old Arab who moved from northern Israel with his wife in 1992 and is now Neve Shalom's development director. "We live, and put into practice, what we want to see."

A half-hour's drive from Jerusalem, Neve Shalom is both a functioning community and a peace movement showcase. It has a website -- http://nswas.org -- and a parking lot for buses.

But this is no theme park. The affections and hurts are real, the gains and setbacks intimately felt. Alongside its taboo-breaking, the community has shown how hard it can be for Jews and Arabs to fully understand each other, even when they are trying.

Few know better than Abdessalam Najjar, a 55-year-old village leader with a balding head and pencil-thin beard tracing his jawline. Najjar, the father of the bride, moved to Neve Shalom in 1979 with a new wife, Ayshe, and a heart full of hope.

He was 27 and willing to take a chance, she 19 and in need of some persuading. Najjar, a devout Muslim, had been involved in discussion groups with Jews while studying at a branch of Hebrew University in nearby Rehovot. Clashes between Arab demonstrators and Israeli authorities a few years earlier that left six Arabs dead had generated new urgency over trying to improve relations.

The Najjars were the first Arab family to join Neve Shalom. Almost 30 years later, they are mainstays, well-liked and respected across the community. Najjar has been mayor and is working with a Jewish colleague in developing the community's new spiritual center for interfaith conferences, lectures on peace topics and prayer.

The couple built a life and home in Neve Shalom, "slowly, brick after brick," Najjar said. After the arrival a year later of the first of their four children, Ayshe watched over the village's growing crop of babies -- Jews and Arabs -- and he turned his efforts to helping start the village's bilingual school. He was one of two teachers.

He says residents have succeeded in creating an environment for raising tolerant children. For the grown-ups too there have been learning opportunities and innumerable debates, important and petty. Najjar, for example, has argued with his mostly secular Jewish neighbors over his right to pray at work and over whether he could keep a few sheep at home, as many rural Palestinians do. (He lost that one.)

Najjar said he once believed that conflicts break out only "between bad people." No more.

"This conflict can be between two good guys," he said.

Neve Shalom's residents, mostly left-leaning professionals and academics, have been tested by two Palestinian uprisings, war in Lebanon and a steep deterioration in relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. At times, the two groups here triumphed over those divisive pressures. At others, they fell prey.

To much of the rest of Israel, Neve Shalom is a harmless if worthy novelty. But Jewish extremists once declared the Jews here traitors and sprinkled nails on the road to pop tires. The village's Arab residents, who refer to themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel, often are asked by fellow Arabs if they really believe that Jews can accept them as equals.

The village today carries tempered aspirations and scars from past political fights. Not all of these are over yet.

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