The village of Wahat al-Salam/ Neve Shalom (WAS-NS) lies between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa. As its two names in Arabic and Hebrew suggest, the village is a place where both Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel live side by side. Established in the early 1970s, over 50 Jewish and Arab families live in WAS-NS promoting peace, equality and understanding through education and working together. In both languages, the name of the village means ‘Oasis of Peace’ [Isaiah 32:18].
Democratically governed and owned by its members, the community of WAS-NS is not affiliated to any political party or movement and members are committed to one idea; that it is possible for Jews and Arabs to coexist peacefully when there is mutual acceptance, respect and cooperation. A nursery and school were founded in the village some years ago and 90 per cent of the pupils come from the surrounding Arab and Jewish communities. Of the 198 children currently enrolled at the school, roughly half are Jews and half Palestinians, while the pre-school has 17 Jewish and 12 Arab children.
WAS-NS was the first community to establish a Jewish-Palestinian bilingual education program in Israel. This means that Jewish and Palestinian teachers teach the children in their own languages, so pupils acquire knowledge of both Hebrew and Arabic. This encourages an atmosphere of openness and tolerance, because the children can understand each other and appreciate each other’s culture and tradition. When a BBC reporter recently visited the school, he asked one of the teachers about the intermixing of the children outside classes. Raida, a Palestinian who teaches English and History, was happy to report that her students “play together, they visit each other’s homes, they go to the cinema together.” In short, the Arab and Jewish children in her classes “are friends”. Raida is proud of the fact that when one of her Israeli pupils moved to a secondary school outside WAS-NS, where the teacher told the class nobody lived on the land which is now called Israel before 1948, her Jewish pupil corrected the inaccuracy of the Jewish teacher.
On the day of the BBC’s visit, the WAS-NS school was receiving a special guest, the children’s author Michael Morpurgo, who has just finished a book about the conflict between Arabs and Israelis. The pupils were busy making kites in his honour, because the book describes how a Palestinian boy flies kites over the concrete wall surrounding an Israeli settlement. The boy writes “salaam” onto his kites and when the wind changes direction, others come back with the return message “shalom” from the settlement’s children. Mr Morpurgo is a firm believer that peace in the Middle East can only stem from the young learning and living together and finding respect for each other. He does not believe this kind of tolerance can “start from the other end”. Certainly, the author’s pessimism about the ability of adults to work out a peaceful coexistence seems justified, as the latest round of peace negotiations has broken down and US negotiators have once again resumed bilateral talks. But as one lawyer who specialises in conflict resolution says, if Europe can now be at peace after millions died during the Second World War, “we have to have hope” that peace will finally come to the Middle East.