The Village That Could
Imagine a village that is home to 55 families with a waiting list of more than 300 families hoping to become part of the community. Parents choose to raise their children here because they want to break down barriers of fear and mistrust while building bridges of respect and cooperation. Imagine that this village has hosted more than 45,000 visitors over the last 30 years. These visitors have traveled from all over the world to take part in seminars and projects that examine how our world came to be so fractured through miscommunication and preconceived ideas, and how we might heal and find new directions for living together. Fortunately for all of us, this community is real.
This cooperative village is called Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, also known as Oasis of Peace. The name itself is an act of cooperation because the residents of this village are 50 percent Jewish and 50 percent Palestinian, all with Israeli citizenship. Oasis of Peace, which in Hebrew is Neve Shalom and in Arabic is Wahat al-Salam, is located in Israel and despite the continued conflicts between Israel and Palestine, the residents remain committed to choosing respect over fear and cooperation over isolation and opposition.
The village began in 1978 when the first family joined Father Bruno Hussar who had been living on the land for six years. Father Hussar was born a Jew in Egypt and later converted to Catholicism. He has dedicated much of his life to establishing peace between Arabs and Jews. His vision included a community where the primary focus is the education of children. "For years there have been academies in the various countries where the art of war has been taught," Father Hussar wrote. "(W)e wanted to found a school for peace, for peace, too, is an art..."
The Primary School located in Oasis of Peace offers bilingual and bicultural classes for students from Kindergarten through 7th grade. The environment is one of mutual respect in which the students learn about each other's heritage, beliefs, language, and cultural narrative in a way that offers legitimacy to that narrative without needing to agree with it. Most of the school's more than 200 students come from surrounding towns, and the first graduates of the school are now in their 20's. "I think it's an achievement," says Ranin Boulos, a graduate who creates summer camps for Palestinian refugee children. "When you see people from outside the Village sending their kids to a school that is not in their area, it means the message of the school is really working."
Another educational center, the School for Peace, extends the learning far beyond the boundaries of the village. Over 45,000 youth and adults have taken part in workshops that provide communication tools as well as opportunities for dialogue in an effort to understand personal roles and responsibilities in conflicts. In memory of Father Hussar, who died in 1996, the Pluralistic Spiritual Centre was also established to provide a space for study and reflection while drawing inspiration from spiritual traditions from around the world.
Noam Shuster, another graduate of the Primary School, eventually attended an all-Jewish high school. "I would get questions like, 'What! You're living with Arabs? Aren't you afraid they'll throw stones at you?' And I was like, 'WHAT! You're talking about my best friends!' Then I realized that (my classmates) didn't meet people from the other side."
In this village, learning the art of peace requires more than just meeting people from the other side. Day after day, the residents of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam prove that Arabs and Jews can live side by side.