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.
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.
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.