Jewish-Arab coexistence groups tested during unrest

NEVE SHALOM, Israel — In the playground outside the mixed Jewish-Arab school of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, Arabic and Hebrew weave together indistinguishably as children swing and seesaw during the late morning recess.

But these days, even a school that symbolizes coexistence and is located at a unique community of 20 Jewish and 20 Arab families, and whose name means "Oasis of Peace," cannot remain isolated from the turmoil that has engulfed the region over the past month.

Most of the 300 children in the school are not from Neve Shalom, a village perched above the Latrun monastery midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and some Jewish parents have suddenly expressed concerns about their children being exposed to Arabs.

On particularly difficult days, when Israeli troops killed many Israeli Arab or Palestinian rioters, some Arab teachers had trouble facing their Jewish colleagues.

And sometimes, during recess, the children here play "intifada," hurling pine cones at one another. Although Jewish kids do not necessarily challenge the Arabs — more often, it is boys against girls — it is a chilling depiction of the new regional reality. Chants of "Death to the Jews" or "Death to the Arabs" have also been heard.

It may all just be child's play, but for Boaz Kitain, the school's Jewish co-principal who has spent a lifetime working for coexistence, it is an alarming sign of the times.

"I do not see this as a failure on the part of our school; rather, it is an opportunity for the school, teachers and parents to talk about the meaning of these things and what we have to say about them," said Kitain. "We are a clear alternative to what is happening outside, and we must try and show ourselves and others that it is possible, even in these times. That is our mission."

For Neve Shalom and other organizations that have flown the banner of coexistence for years, the breakdown of the peace process and the eruption of violence have been particularly difficult to swallow.

Yet like Kitain, many activists involved in Jewish-Arab dialogue feel the latest events have created an even greater urgency for their services, although the game plan needs to be tailored to address the new reality.

For example, the School of Peace at Neve Shalom, an institute that promotes dialogue between Arab and Jewish Israelis, has temporarily put its programs on hold because tensions are too high for face-to-face encounters.

But at the same time, community members have decided to take a more active approach in the public arena.

"We realize now how important this place is," said Abdessalam Najjar, development director at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. "As a community, our experience is necessary both in easier and more difficult times. During difficult times like now, when Jews and Palestinians are motivated by fear, our job is to keep some hope alive."

Some peace organizations have found a friendly venue at Neve Shalom to map out a strategy for the new situation. Last Saturday, community members formed a motorcade that visited bereaved families of Arab Israelis killed in clashes in the Galilee, as well as several "peace sukkahs" that popped up spontaneously as places for dialogue near Jewish and Arab communities.

Many people who have built these sukkot have sought advice from Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, head of the Jewish Arab Center for Peace at the Givat Haviva Educational Institute of Advanced Studies. The center has received dozens of requests from various organizations and workplaces with Jewish and Arab employees for guidance.

"These things give me some optimism," said Ozacky-Lazar. "It's just a shame we needed these events to arouse interest."

Ozacky-Lazar says she was not surprised by the eruption of rage among Israeli Arabs, although she did not expect the explosion to be so powerful. At first, she felt that perhaps her efforts for coexistence had been futile. "I cannot say we failed," she said. "The point is that, when dialogue is put to the test, it is simply not strong enough. There are much stronger forces at play here."

In the short term, Givat Haviva, an education center that focuses on Jewish-Arab issues, is amending some of its programs due to the crisis. It has decided that it would be useless to bring high-school students to joint seminars without first preparing the teachers, since they themselves have undergone trauma.

The depth of that trauma, said Salem Jubran, an Arab writer, intellectual and lecturer for Givat Haviva, does not justify throwing in the towel and giving up on coexistence.

For the past seven years, Jubran has taught Arab history to Jews and the Holocaust to Arabs, believing that the study of each people's suffering makes more of an impact than teaching the other's culture.

The latest round of violence, he believes optimistically, may help deliver that message more effectively.

"There are difficult questions being raised, but people are starting to realize that there are parallel concerns on both sides," he argued. "Arabs for example, say they are afraid to travel to Jewish areas or even go to a hospital — for fear of getting stoned."

The fact that both sides can understand the tremors felt by the other may actually be an impetus for coexistence. "This," he explained, "is a foundation for building a social contract, despite all of the horrors we have seen."

For members of Seeds of Peace, the U.S.-based non-governmental organization that runs summer camps for Israeli Jews and Arabs, those horrors hit home particularly hard.

Participants in the group's programs were shocked when they learned that Asel Asleh, a 17-year-old Israeli Arab who had been to the camp three times, had been shot dead by Israeli police in his village of Arabeh in the Galilee during the early days of the rioting.

But for Adam Shapiro, director of the Seeds for Peace Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem, the tragedy has reinforced the drive for dialogue.

"Among those who knew him personally, it made them recommitted and rededicated to Seeds of Peace," he said.

Of course, there have been problems for Seeds of Peace since the violence began. It has been difficult to arrange dialogues between Israeli and Palestinian youth since Palestinians cannot leave the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Campers have kept in touch via e-mail, although at first there was plenty of tension. "Now, they are frustrated by the situation and want to meet their friends to talk about it," said Shapiro. "During the past few years, many people took these programs for granted. This situation has only heightened awareness that there was still a lack of understanding on both sides. Our programs are even more necessary now."