RIP: A man of peace

RIP: A man of peace

It was great shock that I read, via Twitter, of the death (at age 60) of Abdessalam Najjar, one of the founders and leaders of Wahal-al-Salam/Neve Shalom—the village of Palestinians and Jews located near the Latrun Monastery. I’d interviewed him, in 2010, and found him a remarkable man: super-smart, funny, wise, an engaging storyteller, and a committed man of peace. I spoke to him for more than an hour, and knew throughout talk that I had to try to squeeze as many of his words as possible into my book (should I ever finish writing it). 

Born in Nazareth, Abdessalam—perhaps more than anyone I met on my different trips—exemplified the utopian spirit of the original kibbutzniks. He had taken the path less travelled and chosen to live, in peace if not always harmony, with the people who he’d been taught were his enemy. He had helped to create in the “Oasis of Peace” a model that proved that Arabs and Jews could sit together and talk about their different situations, their competing narratives and grievances, could live together, could go to school together. That the walls of hate (and concrete, too) that had been erected too hastily could be pulled down, brick by brick.

I included a short transcript from our interview earlier on my blog. But Abdessalam had so much more to say—to me, to the world. It is a profound loss to his homeland and for the hope for peace over violence in Israel and Palestine.

Living in Glass Houses

Living in Glass Houses

If it walks like a kibbutz and talks like a kibbutz—or rather, looks like a kibbutz and works like a kibbutz—then surely it must be one, no? That was the question I puzzled over, on my recent trip to Israel, when I stayed for four days and nights on the fascinating community of Nes Ammim.

First a correction: In a blog post from the road, I hastily described Nes Ammim as a “German-run kibbutz”. People there, who had googled my blog, quickly corrected me. Yes, there are Germans among the leaders and volunteers. But Nes Ammim was founded, in the early 1960s, by Dutch and Swiss citizens, led by Dr. Johan Pilon from Holland and Dr. Hans Bernath from Switzerland, both physicians working in the Galilee. Americans volunteers arrived later, as well as a steady contingent of Germans—but only after German nationals were finally permitted to visit Israel. (A basic history can be found here.) But German-run? Hardly! 

A rose by any other name: erecting the “glass houses”

 My confusion, perhaps, is understandable. Nes Ammim confuses the basic definition of a kibbutz. When most people picture a kibbutz, they imagine a rural settlement of secular Jews, founded by blue-shirted pioneers inspired by the ideals of utopian socialism. Marxist farmers with bronzed arms and short-shorts. (Yes, there are a handful of religious kibbutzes, but they never played as large a role—except for Kfar Etzion—in the mystique of the kibbutz movement.) People never imagine a village of blonde Christians growing roses.  

Nes Ammim isn’t even on the radar among kibbutzniks within Israel. When I told Israeli friends and acquaintances that I was visiting a kibbutz of European Christians, they gave me incredulous looks, as though I’d said I was staying with the Tooth Fairy: they had never heard of Nes Ammim. In fact, after four years of intense research into utopian communities throughout the region, I only stumbled across the website for this community by accident, a couple of months before visiting.

On my first afternoon in Israel, in late November, as I entered the grounds of Nes Ammim, it certainly felt like I had arrived at a kibbutz. There were the surrounding fields, the gate (open) and guardhouse (empty), a swimming pool and a carpentry shop, a dusty ring road and winding pedestrian paths, the rudimentary tin-roofed volunteer cabins, with everything focused on the the dining hall and office complex at the centre of the property. The kitchen has a bit of a split personality on Nes Ammim. Most of the kibbutz’s revenue now comes from its guest house, popular with Israelis escaping the summer heat and Europeans escaping their own winter, so the kitchen prepares food for tourists in the restaurant as well as residents and volunteers in a more barebones, buffet-style communal dining hall. 

The original kibbutz movement had two goals: establish the borders of a future state in Palestine for the Jewish people (ie, Zionism) and create a new model for living in equality (ie, utopian socialism). 

So what was the founding vision of Nes Ammim? Obviously not the first: Israel existed by the time the idea for Nes Ammim arose. And the second? Perhaps only tangentially—certainly the spirit of radical sharing was in the air at the time. But the founders of this unique community had a more specific goal in mind: to create a community within the young state of Israel that would help Europeans and Christians, and especially European Christians, emerge from the dark shadow of the Holocaust, from millennia of pogroms and anti-Semitism, and heal the deep chasm of suspicion with the Jewish people. It would be a new community, modeled on the successful Jewish invention of the kibbutz, where dialogue groups and encounter sessions between leaders of the two religions could take place. The name of the kibbutz—Nes Ammim—means “a banner for the nations” and comes from the Book of Isaiah.  It refers to God’s promise of everlasting peace in paradise for all the people on earth, which will be announced by such a sign. 

The idea for Nes Ammim earned the support from kibbutz leaders (it would become an associate member of the movement) and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. However, influential rabbis worried that Nes Ammim would be a front for evangelizing Christians trying to convert Israeli Jews. They opposed the plan—and the community—for many years. Once rumours circulated, thousands of people in nearby Nahariya marched in protest, too. The founders only got government permission to settle the property, purchased from a Druze sheikh, after they signed an agreement that promised never to proselytize. Every new volunteer must sign a similar “no-preaching” contract.

Swiss Family Kibbutznik: the famous bus at Nes Ammim

In 1963, a Swiss family drove a rickety old school bus with faulty brakes—a “gift” from Israeli friends—off the heights of Nazareth and across the untilled fields of the property. They parked on a hill: the bus would become the first building of Nes Ammim. It remains today as a museum and a reminder of its ad-hoc origins. Slowly, residents and volunteers who moved to and lived on Nes Ammim earned the trust of their Jewish neighbours, in part by never abandoning the settlement during the six wars that threatened the nation. Eventually, Germans—who weren’t even permitted to visit Israel during its early years—were permitted to stay as volunteers in the 1970s. 

Nes Ammim developed a communal economy around avocado orchards, olive groves and its famous “glass houses”: greenhouses that deployed the horticultural expertise of Dutch residents to grow and sell roses. Bouquets of Nes Ammim roses became a sought-after decorative element at receptions for visiting foreign dignitaries. While the settlement was always intended to be permanent, residence there wasn’t. Leaders stayed on Nes Ammim for perhaps five or six years at most and then returned home. Volunteers usually lived there for a year or less. The kibbutz followed this pattern for years, slowly growing, adding buildings and residences, while new people cycled through and gave it energy and life.

Like the rest of the kibbutz movement, though, the turn of the millennium saw Nes Ammim suffer an identity crisis. The community could no longer compete with cheap flowers imported from Africa and had to shut down the glass houses—for decades, the signature feature of its economy. The violence of the Second Intifada and the Second Lebanon War cut into bookings at the guest house.The population of European families moving there had declined and many of the houses were being rented out to Israeli tenants.
And there were existential questions, too: What was the purpose and value of this place, 40 years after its founding? The European attitude toward the state of Israel—once wracked with guilt, now more aligned with the plight of the Palestinian people—was also shifting. How should Nes Ammim react to these changes? Could it evolve with the times?

I had walked unknowingly into the midst of this debate. For the last few years, Nes Ammim has focused not only on dialogue work between Christians and Jews, but also between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. The site of the kibbutz, leaders realized, could be used as neutral ground (or as neutral as any ground gets in Israel) for different groups within the country to meet and talk and build trust. 

Nes Ammim had just broken ground on an even more ambitious project. Like almost every other kibbutz in the country, they are building a rural subdivision to be marketed to outsiders. Unlike almost every other kibbutz, Nes Ammim plans to use a new law that allows community settlements, in the country’s north and south, to interview and select residents—to screen newcomers, in other words—as a way to populate a mixed neighbourhood of Arabs and Jews, much like Neve Shalom/Wahat-al-Salaam. (This law has proven controversial, and come under legal challenge, because it has been used to exclude Arab residents interested in moving into Jewish settlements. Of course, membership by vote has been the kibbutz model from the very beginning.)

Not everyone I spoke with at, or associated with, Nes Ammim was keen on these changes. Some doubted that the community would attract enough Jewish residents to balance the population of this new neighbourhood. Others worried that Nes Ammim would lose the European character that had made the place unique, and with it, the focus on healing the division between Christianity and Judaism, between modern Europe and modern Israel, which has only grown in recent years. 

The young Dutch and German volunteers I met on Nes Ammim, however, seemed excited by the prospect of change. Their experiences on the kibbutz had been enriched, they told me, by the opportunities to see and hear about the complex nature of Israel from multiple perspectives: to learn Hebrew from native speakers, to tour the Holocaust Museum at the nearby Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz, to teach English to kids at the next-door Arab village, to meet school groups from both sides of the conflict, to visit the West Bank, to realize how many shades of grey exist behind the black-and-white stories of the region they were fed by the media back home. (I was envious of the rich experience these volunteers were getting on Nes Ammim, a far more intimate and honest look at life in Israel—especially the mixed Arab-Jewish region of Western Galilee—than 99.9% of foreign visitors will ever encounter.)

Nes Ammim was a place, sleepy as it might seem, that will always attract a whiff of controversy. How can you bring different religions together and not expect some friction? Perhaps that tension between its harmonious aspirations and its contentious reality is best symbolized in the sculpture that rests in the foyer of the kibbutz’s “church”. The building itself has been largely stripped of evidence of any faith or denomination. No cross, no icons, nothing but chairs facing a bare altar. The entrance, with a koi pond and rock garden in its centre, has the aura of a Zen Buddhist sanctuary more than anything else.

Then your eye is drawn to the sculpture in the pond, like a nativity scene floating on a disc. Three sets of ten figurines face a central pillar with three doors. The terracotta-coloured figures are arranged in a V-shaped 1-2-3-4 pattern, like bowling pins, aimed toward the three-doored hub. A closer inspection reveals the particulars of each faith in the figurines’ genuflections: Muslims prostrate on the ground, Christians kneeling, Jews—a minyan of them—standing, heads bent, holy books in hand.  
A pool for prayer: the many-layered sculpture at Nes Ammim

The symmetry of the design is meant, of course, to suggest a harmony between these faiths, a place of coming together. It isn’t always read that way: Why does one door look more open than the others? What is meant by the hierarchy of the figures’ stances: standing, kneeling, prone? And as a few visitors have asked: Where are the Druze? The Ba’hai? Aren’t there more than just three faiths in the area?

I was told that the kibbutz members had to erect the low wire barrier that surrounds this installation because curious observers and anonymous sculpture critics, either by accident or design, kept inspecting the set-up and knocking over the figurines. You can see where the heads of decapitated worshippers have been glued back on. So now, in Nes Ammim, a place of faith and healing, a Christian utopia for Jews and Muslims, a fence must guard even this representation of their equality before the Almighty, this microcosm of the community’s higher ideals. 
The sculpture is, quite literally, a “floating signifier”—a symbol even more symbolic than it was originally intended.
Growing Up Canuck: or Bibi and the Bieb

Growing Up Canuck: or Bibi and the Bieb

“How many Canadians does it take to change a light-bulb?” I was once asked by a German volunteer, while living on the kibbutz.

I shrugged my ignorance.

“Two,” he explained. “One to screw in the light-bulb, and the other to point and say, ‘Hey, did you know he’s a Canadian?’”

Even today, 22 years later, I cringe at the memory. The German jokester had hit the mark: Canadians pride ourselves on a lack of pride, a sense of humility in contrast to the chest-beating patriotism of our noisy neighbours to the south. But it’s a thin facade, a defense mechanism that hides a more general anxiety about who we really are as a people, as a country. As the recent Winter Olympics proved, or the maple-leaf stitched into backpack of nearly every young Canuck abroad, we still cling to the fragments of a evanescent national identity.

And as my German friend knew, that nervous tic often manifests itself, when amongst foreign travellers, in the odd parlour game known as “Did You Know They’re Canadian?” On the kibbutz, my next-door neighbour—one of several other token Canucks—played it often. When the subject of our country came up, he would cite the North of 49 heritage of various B-list North American celebrities and pop stars (this was the pre-Celine-Dion era) that his European interlocutors only had a vague recollection of: “Did you know that William Shatner is Canadian? And Michael J. Fox, too. And Bryan Adams and Wayne Gretzky.”

Such trivia rarely impressed the citizens of more established nations, cultures that had bestowed upon the world the likes of Shakespeare and Van Gogh, Beethoven and Chopin, Flaubert and Michaelangelo. When I first met Kurt, a longtime volunteer and a social worker from Vienna, I promptly exposed my superficial knowledge of his country: “Austria—just like Arnold Schwartzenegger!” His smile dropped. “He’s not Austrian,” came the reply. “He’s American.” He clearly didn’t indulge in the “Did You Know They’re Austrian” version of the game.

That joke came back to me again this week in the wake of Israel’s “Bieber-Gate”. The news: Justin Bieber, now the world’s most-famous Canadian (whether anyone over the age of 16 is willing to admit it), has been visiting Israel for a concert. The event, in itself, is a point of controversy. Every major artist booked to perform in Israel gets targeted by the Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which encourages performers not to play, as a protest of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some like Elvis Costello back out; some, like his Canadian wife Diana Krall, still come. And others, like Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, are forced into a compromise—in his case, playing on the “neutral grounds” of Neve-Shalom and later touring (and condemning) the “separation fence” constructed between Israel proper and the West Bank.

Needless to say, bubble-gum pop Christian teeny-bop crooner (and recent memoirist) J-Bieb isn’t the most political musician out there. But he still got drawn into the quagmire of Mid-East debate when he was invited to meet with Israeli P.M. Benyamin Netanyahu (known in Israel as “Bibi”), and then (according to some reports) balked when the P.M.’s office arranged for young Justin to meet with Israeli kids who lived in towns under assault by rockets and mortars  from Gaza. Amid the P.R. fallout, various versions of events emerged: Bieber (or more likely his many handlers) didn’t want his tour politicized; the meeting was never a done deal; he was just over-extended from paparazzi harassment; he had already invited kids from rocket-targeted Sderot to his show; etc..

Amid the recent violence and unrest in Israel, Bieber-Gate was a relatively brief and harmless media tempest. Nobody has been injured, not even by the ravenous hordes of young Bieb groupies trailing his tour as though he were the Messiah. But it was a reminder that, in Israel, everything is political. 

And as several online commenters pointed out, amid the typical tit-for-tat flame wars about the political stalemate in Israel/Palestine: “Did you know Justin Bieber is Canadian?”

That’s a light-bulb I’d prefer we’d keep dimmed.
Q&A with Abdessalam Najjar, Oasis of Peace, Part 1

Q&A with Abdessalam Najjar, Oasis of Peace, Part 1

I’m going through transcriptions of my interview from June 6, 2010, with Abdessalam Najjar, one of the founders of Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom (aka the Oasis of Peace), who now works in the community’s Communications & Development Office.

 Part 1: History of
Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom
Tell me about this place.

Our name is Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom. It started as [a] dream more than 40 years ago. What I know from the founder Bruno Hussar, a Dominican priest, he was active in a interfaith dialogue in Jerusalem, and this group was created in the end of the 60s, beginning of the 70s, and as a result of this dialogue, he had an idea to create a community where people from both sides of the conflict can live together, make their daily life decisions, and by that way maybe he will put a practical basis of the dialogue he was participating in Jerusalem. … The first group that came to live with him here in this piece of land, it was, in the end of the seventies.

I remember myself meeting Bruno when I was a student at the Hebrew University and I was active with the Jewish-Palestinian group dialogue. And he invited us to come to his village Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom because we had in—I can’t say we had—we played with an idea of having school, bilingual school, Arabic and Hebrew school.

And there wasn’t one before then?

No. He invited us to make our school in his village Wahat Al-Salam/Neve Shalom, and we came to visit him. I remember myself coming in the beginning of the ‘76 and the first surprise that we didn’t find any village. 

There wasn’t anybody there?

Nothing. Just Bruno was waiting for us, and a bungalow of bamboo. He was sitting on a stone just like this and we  ask him, “Where is it? Let’s go to it.” And he said, “Ah, you are here. Now we have Neve Shalom.”

We were studying agriculture in the faculty of agriculture in the Hebrew University and we were trained to make a practical steps of creating a new village and all of these things and not to relate to dreams and something like that. But, it seems that his personality was so charming, so attractive, and when he saw that we were hesitating, he went with us or with our hesitation. In the end after some months, we had here very big summer camp for Arabs and Jews.

What were the ages of the people?

It’s mainly adults. Mainly adults—students and up. From that summer camp, a nucleus group was created to start this community.

And what year was that?

The summer camp, it was in 77. In 78, the first families came here. We were five families in six months we came together here. And since that time, this community’s growing, slowly slowly, but all the time, growing up. Today we have 55 families living already and, in the last month, we accepted another 30 new families.

Review: First Lesson in Peace

Review: First Lesson in Peace

Last summer, during a month travelling in Israel, both my first and final stops were at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam—AKA, The Oasis of Peace. This unique intentional community of Israeli Arabs and Jews, about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has existed since the 1970s. Its foundational myth involves Father Bruno Hussar, one of the most fascinating individuals in a land that produces eccentric visionaries as quickly as it grows olives. The Oasis’s philosophy of co-existence and its programs in education and reconciliation have made the community a beacon of hope even in the divided nation’s darkest moments. I plan to devote at least a chapter of writing to examining the complex challenges of making real the idealistic vision of this community’s founders. But not today.

Instead, I want to reflect on the fascinating 56-minute documentary made, in 2005, by director Yoram Honig about the experiences of his daughter Michal, age 6, during her first year as a student at Neve Shalom’s school. It’s an illuminating insider’s look at the tension between the dreams and the reality of teaching Arab and Jewish children to see eye to eye—let alone their adult teachers and their parents—especially during the unpredictable violence and repression of the Second Intifada. First Lesson in Peace isn’t a standard-issue, at-a-distance objective documentary. Instead, Honig offers a memoiristic account—addressed as a video letter to his daughter—of his thoughts and even ambivalence about using his daughter as something of a guinea pig for his own progressive ideals.
The tensions are real. On her first day, his daughter joins Jewish and Arab kids in a playground with rainbow-painted monkey bars; their family lives in a rural house with sumptuous views of Israel’s central plains and eye-blinding sunsets. But when they watch the carnage of a terrorist attack on TV, Honig uses his documentary-making as an excuse to double-check the security at the school. On the one hand, he hopes that no terrorist would risk the backlash of attacking a school with both Arab and Jewish children; on the other, he realizes that Neve Shalom might make an even more tempting target to extremists who want to destroy any hope for peace between these two tribes.

Honig films one in-class first grade exercise to promote sharing in which his daughter and her classmates are asked to figure out how to distribute fairly a limited number of chairs. The whole scenario, however, spirals out of control, as Arab and Jewish kids split into ethnic divisions, squabble over who gets which chair, start to brawl—and one boy breaks Honig’s camera with a punch to the lens. So much for childish innocence. 

Despite these setbacks, Honig claims that his family has “found a little isle of sanity” amid the crazy politics of Israel. Sanity doesn’t always prevail, though, as the school tries to strike a delicate balance that will unite its two constituencies. One PTA meeting is conducted in Arabic—which none of the Jewish parents speak. At another meeting, administrators discuss a policy that will require all Jewish teachers to pass an exam in Arabic if they hope to stayed employed at the school. 

The need to address the competing narratives at the core of the conflict, in the form of Israeli Independence Day vs. The Arab Nakba (or “Catastrophe”), pulls the united classrooms into two separate camps. One Arab teacher asked her class to draw for an hour and then crumpled up the children’s work: “This,” she explained, ”is what it was like for the Arabs.” But when another Arab teacher is moved to tears by the discussion of this painful moment in her people’s history, her young Jewish pupils encircle her with their small arms in a tender embrace.

The tensions extend into Honig’s family. His wife’s father was killed in the Six Day War, when she was just a child. Her brother—Honig’s brother-in-law—Eyal blames the Arabs for his death, happily accepts the label of “extremist” and thinks that Honig is a left-wing wacko for sending Michal to school with Arab kids. “It’s a problematic school—I hope it closes one day,” he admits, and pledges to straighten out Michal about what’s right in Israel after she graduates from the brainwashing sessions at Neve Shalom. Uncle Eyal can barely contain his glee when he learns that other Jewish parents have pulled their kids out of the program. “What don’t they like: the school or the Arabs?” he asks.

Michal’s grandfather is a more complex figure. He immigrated from Australia and is an ardent Zionist who wants to pass along a strong connection to Jewish history and ritual to his granddaughter. He seems skeptical about her schooling, but his shell is less hardened than Eyal’s. “You will teach me Arabic,” he tells Michal near the end of the film, “and I will teach you Yiddish.”

The children at the school talk with a disarming honesty about their own attitudes. “I like Jews but not Zionists,” says one Arab boy. “The Arabs are annoying,” offers Michal, when asked why she doesn’t play with the Arab girls at her school or want to invite them to her birthday. Her dad invites them anyway, only to watch the Arab-Israeli conflict played out again in an escalating match of Musical Chairs that leaves his daughter in tears.

And yet the children also offer hope. Honig worries about how teachers will explain the roots of the Purim Festival to the Arab kids and who “evil Haman” was. It doesn’t matter. Like all kids, they love the excuse to play dress-up. Honig’s camera captures them playing in the schoolyard, their ethnic identities hidden from view, in this school, for this one day, under costumes as Robin Hood, witches, señoritas…except for one Jewish kid, who has come—ironically—dressed as a right-wing settler: he plays the bad guy for the festival. The funniest costume has been designed by a pair of friends, Jewish and Arab, who have come as Siamese twins. “We have to get along,” they explain. “We were born this way. We have no choice.”

It’s a perfect metaphor for the seemingly intractable conflict that roils this tiny nation. And it’s to the great merit of Neve Shalom/Wahat-al-Salaam that its residents have created a community and a school in which the next generation can realize their interconnectedness.

Did Michal go back to the school for grade 2? Is she still there? She would be nearly 12 now. How have her dreams been changed by living together with people whom her uncle considers “the enemy”? And what has she brought home to share with her own family from the Oasis of Peace? First Lesson leaves a viewer thinking about these questions and many more, thanks to its intimate portrait, through the life of one young girl, of this imperfect utopia built by Arabs and Jews alike.

The First Week

Day 1

Neve Shalom/Wahad al-Salam

It’s been a hectic first week of my research trip in Israel: I arrived with Jerry, my research assistant and cultural guide, Sunday just before noon. We grabbed a rental car and drove to Neve Shalom/Wahat-al Salam, where we stayed for four nights at a guest house at this unique community. After dropping our bags, we got an introduction to Neve Shalom/Wahad al-Salam from Abdessalam Najjar, one of the earliest residents. The community was founded about 30 years ago, just off the Tel-Aviv/Jerusalem highway, as a place where Arabs and Jews could live in peaceful co-existence, while also running programs that encourage dialogue to help others do the same. Today, there is a long waitlist of other Arab and Jewish residents of Israel keen to take up residence. (Space on the limited amount of land, donated in a covenant by the nearby Latrun Monastery, is the main issue holding back expansion.) Abdesssalam admitted that his community is far from typical in his country; in fact, the government likes to use Neve Shalom in its feel-good press relations while giving no financial or other support to the community itself. Rather, it’s something of an isolated island of middle-class professionals who have managed to find a way of living with the conflict that divides this country while not ignoring it. It’s also a beautiful neighbourhood in an idyllic rural setting where the coastal plains start to rise toward the hills of Jerusalem—a soothing setting to sleep off some jet-lag while still running around and doing interviews.

Kibbutz Revadim

Next, we had tea at Kibbutz Revadim (where Jerry’s sister, a ceramics artist lives), and spoke with Uri Pinkerfeld, a founder as well as an activist who acts to protect Palestinian olive groves from destruction by settlers. He told us about the early history of the kibbutz, which was originally near Jerusalem but captured and then relocated during and after the War of 1948, and the process of privatization that it underwent, after careful consideration by its members. This “change” was less traumatic at Revadim, which wasn’t in as deep financial crisis as many kibbutzim.