Voices from the village
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Sagi Frish & Suliman Boulos

Sagi Frish is 31-year old, and studies Islamic Middle East History and International Relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he lives. The Frish family was among the first families to move to the hill and join Bruno Hussar and Anne LeMeignen in 1980. Sagi was one of the first children to be born in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (NSWAS).

Suliman Boulos, 31 years old, grew up in NSWAS from the age of 10 and went to medical school in Germany. He is currently a second year resident at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

How has your experience, being raised in the village and attending a binational Primary School, affected the way you interact with the world?

Sagi: For me, growing up in NSWAS is intertwined with being enrolled at the Primary School. The school had a central place in our lives as children and also in the life of the community. Special programs at the school, such as celebrating holidays of the different religions together, were a central part of the village social life.
The school molded me as the person I am today. It made me more sensitive to the complexities of the reality I live in, where two nations are living together. And it has allowed me to develop my own Israeli-Jewish identity next to learning and becoming familiar with the Palestinian national identity, culture, Arabic language & learning about Islam & Christianity.
In a reality of conflict this unique frame has not only an intercultural richness but as well very important practical aspects. That is because a reality of conflict creates many barriers between you and the "other" such as mistrust, predigests, fears, hatred and despair. Therefore in a reality of conflict it takes great powers to overcome the gaps and to get to know the "other". I think that our school makes this huge effort much simpler, because it allows you to meet the other as a friend from a young age and takes away the feelings of remoteness and fear. Therefore while a reality of conflict is regularly creating barriers our school gives you the tools to overcome them.

Suliman: The impact of growing up in NSWAS was amazing for me, it changed my world from one end to another. Due to this fact I look at the conflict also in a different way than other Arabs living in Israel and of course different from Arabs that living in the West Bank and Gaza.
Of course the school was an important part of this change that happened in my way of thinking and the person I am these days.
I always tell people that only the fact that children can grow up in NSWAS makes a big difference from the outer world, that we only realize after we become adults.

Please elaborate about your experience with the world outside the village, how have the values you have learned in the village been challenged by the dominate Israeli/Palestinian narratives, and in turn, what have you done to spread the peaceful beliefs of the village?

Suliman: For people outside the village its hard to understand the way of our thinking, many people tell me that we are living in a dream and not in reality and that we are far of reaching real peace between the two people. Actually this gives me more confidence that what we believe in and our way of living in NSWAS is the right way. The reason why I say that has a simple explanation, I lived the experience and I know the impact of living in NSWAS on me and how it changed me, so for me I m sure it was the right way no matter what others claim or say. Many times we have to stick to what we believe in, not because we are stubborn, but because we don't think that war is the way, as history showed us to many times.
During my work at the hospital in Jerusalem, I treat all kinds of patients and also religious Jewish patients and not once they told me that they were shocked to meet an Arab like me, a person whom they can talk to without fear. I see such reactions every day at work, and this is one way for me to impact people outside the village. The real change sometimes comes in an indirect way, and also lasts much longer. I am not saying that everything is solved by the fact that I grew up in NSWAS, but it gives me the tools to manage many difficult situations in the outside world.

Sagi: First, let me say that the outside world enters and influences NSWAS. NSWAS is very different but it’s not isolated. Meaning the reality of conflict is felt strongly in NSWAS but the community has the ability to deal with the conflict in a constructive way. I see myself as an Israeli Jew; the village had allowed me to build a positive way for my narrative: I can keep and develop my identity but still give room to the other identity and work together with Palestinians in order to create a better reality.
Most people outside the village see their identity as a protection in a reality of conflict and therefore ignore or hate the other identity. But I know it doesn’t contradict, meaning when you respect, get to know and give room to the other identity it doesn't make your identity weaker. The other way around it opens for it extra ways to develop and flourish. This is what I bring from my background in NSWAS; when we base our reality on equality, democratic decisions, getting to know the other and engaging in dialogue we can live together and act together while keeping and developing our identity.

How has being raised in the village shaped both your personal beliefs and your beliefs about conflict resolution?

Sagi: Growing up in NSWAS means not only believing in beautiful ideals but trying to apply these principles in daily life. This is a big challenge but I have learned that if you thrive to follow principles of equality, democracy, dialogue, acting together, in spite of mistakes and difficulties, you can make a difference.
I believe in these principles as the guidelines for conflict resolution and for my own involvement and activity. It doesn’t bring any simple solutions, but my experience in NSWAS has taught me that following these principles allows you to deal with the difficult questions and gives you tools for the struggle to build a better reality.
Last but not least is that you should believe you can impose positive change, in order to lead in a positive direction. You have to hold to your beliefs that it can be done as well when it is difficult to reach positive results. NSWAS does give you this strength because it proves that the effort has a meaning, and that it can and it will contribute to create a better future.

Suliman: Unfortunately human kind is violent, and if we look at the history of the world we can see that clearly, so many wars, but very few peace agreements. But still I believe that the only way to solve this 64-year conflict is through trust, when people trust each other its much easier to make compromises, and reaching this point is the hardest in my opinion.
I don't have solutions, but I am sure that killing each other won't solve a thing.
As Buddah told his pupils: just try to do your best, that is enough.

What would you say was your most meaningful experience in NSWAS?

Sagi: The most meaningful is to grow up as children together. Your Jewish or Palestinian identities don’t disappear when you grow up together - we deal with them all the time - but we have a strong believe in political partnership and the need for a change in reality. But when you grow up together you have something which goes beyond political views and ideological beliefs. You have a deep personal connection which creates a mutual commitment that goes beyond and is deeper than political partnership.
Last year when I turned 30 a group of my good friends from the village came to congratulate me. While we set together I suddenly noticed the sound of Hebrew and Arabic mixing, and the unique atmosphere between us and it made me feel proud that such a place is my home and my community.

What do you think your experience at NSWAS has given you that people outside the village don’t have or understand?

Sagi: Let me give you examples of breaking barriers: when I started at the university, I discovered that Jewish and Palestinian students were seating separately, not because they have to, but because no one dares otherwise. After a few classes, I went to the Palestinian students and talked to them in Arabic, the atmosphere changed and we started to get to know each other. It’s very difficult for Jewish students, even that they are the dominating group, to go to the other side. For Arab students that are the minority it's even harder; thanks to growing up in the village I can do that almost naturally.
Also, there is currently a debate about referring to Palestinian history in Israeli schools. I can use my experience to contribute to the discussion, I can explain that when you learn about the other side of the conflict, you don’t weaken your identity; you actually enrich your own identity because you don't have to constantly hide and try to avoid some aspects of reality.

What are your plans for the future? Do you plan in staying in contact or even continuing to live in NSWAS?

Suliman:Of course I plan to stay in tough with the village and be active in the village as a member. I am still not sure if I would live in the village or outside of it, I still didn't make up my mind.
As for my career plans, I will continue working at the Hadassah Hospital and hope one day to become an expert in the field of radiation oncology.

Sagi: I am active outside the village in organizations, speaking to groups. I have a normal life but I always try to keep a frame of political activism, with friends or colleagues.
It is important for me to express my opinions, as they are central to my identity, but I also try to listen and learn from other opinions. As a kind of "product" of the village, I am interested to get to know other ways and approaches to deal with the conflict. Right now, I am mainly active outside the village; as I feel I need to develop from having other experiences as well.
NSWAS is home, for me there is no doubt about that. I believe very much in the ideas of the community and it has molded my identity. Therefore staying informed about what is happening in NSWAS is very important to me. But I don’t know yet where will my future plans lead me and if I will be moving back. It’s a wonderful place and I would for sure want my children to go to the Primary School. I see the chance to study in a binational educational system as a great privilege and as a meaningful contribution to them as human beings.

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Voice from the Oasis of Peace: Umar Ighbariyyeh

Q & A with Umar Ighbariyyeh, head of the educational institutions - April 2010

Can you tell us about your role as the head of the Educational association?
     As a head of the Educational Association, I was elected at the beginning of 2009 with four other board members. Some official missions are defined in our association principles such as supervising the function of our three institutions' headmasters, who are appointed by the board, and following up and confirming the budget for each institution. I also ensure a formal contact with the relevant official state institutions, encouraging fundraising activity and organizing PR events.
     Besides that I see my role as connector and coordinator between the different institutions by having the directors’ forum, motivating for strong relations between them and exchanging thoughts, ideas and experiences. I believe in our abilities and we can contribute mutual learning.
     My aspiration is to create a safe and positive atmosphere in the association especially in this difficult financial period. I also believe that from my position I can influence our political educational process by creating a culture of "undermining the obvious" through new language.

What are you proud of when it comes to the educational institutions?
     Our bilingual system is the first in our region. The staff of our institutions has a political awareness, and does their job in a complicated situation. We see our being as resistance to the reality based on and created by violence, occupation, racism and oppression. We give the Jewish students and parents – who became the majority and the dominant side during the last 62 years – the opportunity to face the identity of both peoples and see the Arabs and understand better their life conditions, political situation, culture and language. On the other side we give the Arab Palestinian school community the opportunity – as a "minoritized" and weakened group inside the state of Israel – to deal and express their identity and celebrate their national days, which does not exist in the official Arab educational system in Israel. I am proud that we have the courage and the openness to deal with our complicated reality instead of avoiding it. 
Can you tell us about the difficulties that you’ve met as the head of the Educational association?
     We face a very difficult financial situation. This difficulty was translated to reduction of the school teachers and staff salaries. This is a very difficult decision to be taken. Some staff members were asked to take unpaid vacation, and some of our service providers do not get their money on time. The programs are accumulating debt. In the human level it is very difficult to me to take such these decisions.

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What are your hopes and dreams for the educational institutions?
     I hope that the Ministry of Education will formally create a new category for binational, bilingual schools in Israel. This status should give, in my opinion, appropriate funds and better understanding of our needs and ideology. We, as a pioneer group in this field, can lead and give our input from our experience. This kind of education in a non-symmetric political situation and under unjust treatment towards Palestinians is a very complicated one. I want our Educational ideology to be better known among the both societies. In another words I want our educational approach be "recognized" not only in the official level but also in the people's level. I want my Palestinian people to realize that we make many efforts to educate for change and justice. I want the Jewish community to realize that bringing Arab Palestinians and Jews to learn together is not an "icon" or just a slogan to use as "ongoing peace propaganda". I want all the people to recognize our difficulties in this difficult deep process to educate for a different way of life, to build another political structure since the current one has failed. I'd like to see our educational approach as an educational political mean for political and social changes. The other thing, I have a dream to see our school growing up to middle and high school.

How are you surviving the economic times?
     In the primary school, where is the most difficult case, there is a secure and stable part (about 40%) of the budget which comes from the parents fees and state money. By the way, we are partially financed by the state because we are in a status giving us only partial budget, this status called recognized, but not official school. We preferred this status from ideological reasons; we wanted to have a bit more freedom in our decisions regarding our school. The other part of the budget depends on fund raising. Some times we get support directly from some foundations in Israel and abroad, but most of our fund raising and donations come though our friends associations in several countries in Europe and in the USA. They are doing a great job in fundraising to support us. We are aware of the financial world crisis which influences our friends’ efforts, but they are doing their best and still supporting our institutions. It is not enough but we manage to maintain most of our activity in the Primary School and the School for Peace. In the Spiritual Center we were forced to stop our activity for few months. Even those, we still need more donations. Every month, unfortunately, we accumulate some $20,000 on our deficit.

You have children at the Primary School, how do you see them grow in their education through the years?
     My smallest kid Adam, 3 years old, is in the kindergarten, Muhammad in the 4th grade, and my eldest sun Ward, was graduated from the primary school two years ago and now he learns in the 8th grade in the Arab Orthodox School in Ramleh. As Palestinians in a Jewish state they will face not easy life and will very soon realize how close their glass ceiling is. I want them to grow as good educated, proud, social and political activists, seeking for freedom and equality for all human beings.

What do you see as the impact of the educational programs at NSWAS on the wider region?
     I believe, during the years the children spending in our educational system, and participants who take part in our projects of the School for Peace (SFP) and the Spiritual Center, they have a very significant experience. They learn here much more – than other educational systems in the region - about themselves and about the other people. I want to believe that some of our values they take with them outside our system. I believe that our activity is seeping gradually, mainly in the field of human rights and justice. Some of our graduates became leading activists. I meet and work with some tens of my formal colleagues and partners in the SFP and they have very important roles in their societies. That is correct, they are very small minority from the students and people we worked with but it is something "big" in our conflict. I think we, in the Wahat al-Salam/ Neve Shalom educational approach, need all the time to check our way and impacts on the real life, to have more clear language to express exactly the changes we want to see in our reality. In these days, when everyone everywhere is talking about peace without meaning peace, I believe we need to be clear and not stay in the level of hollow slogan.

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Voice from the Oasis of Peace: Dorit Shippin

Q & A with Dorit  Shippin, head of the Municipality - April 2010

You were the first woman to be elected to the head of the Municipal Society. Did being a woman impact your work?
     One of my main goals in taking the job was to stabilize the process of organizational change we had been working on, and in which I had taken a leading role. The purpose of this process was to bring a clearer separation between the municipal and the educational functions of the village. By creating a less centralized authority, it permits more community members to take part. Under the new arrangement, chairing the municipal society or the association of educational institutions is not a full time job and is less authoritarian. The whole system is more democratic, and women can play a more active role. I hope in the future more women will take up the challenge.

What have been the challenges that you faced since taking office?
     Without exaggeration, I can say that the last two years have been a very difficult period for the village. During the first year we saw the global financial crisis. The effects of this continue to place the village and its educational work under severe strain. We have had to make some decisions that are very difficult in a community. For instance, if we need to fire an employee simply because we are unable to pay her salary, we still need to go on living together with the person – and the family for years to come.
In late December 2008 came the Gaza operation which had a polarizing effect in Israeli society. The vast majority of Israeli Jews saw this as a justified and necessary campaign in order to prevent rocket fire into Israel. Most Palestinians looked upon it as a barbaric and disproportional attack on a helpless civilian population. The question of how the village would react – and how we would deal with the situation in our educational work – was a significant challenge. 
     The Gaza war was followed soon after by the election of Israel's most radically right-wing Knesset ever. It is a period in which more and more discriminatory laws are being passed which impact the lives of Palestinians citizens of Israel and Israel itself as a democratic society. This only served to strengthen the already present atmosphere of growing racism throughout the society and particularly among young people.
In the village itself, we were saddened by the early and untimely deaths, due to illness, of two community members – one a prominent and successful doctor, and the other a psychologist. A less tragic, but still moving occasion, was the passing, at the age of 94, of one of our earliest members, Coral Aron. Coral had been living with her daughter for a number of years outside the village, but was buried next to her husband here.
Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom has had to weather challenges since its inception. Our founder, Bruno Hussar used to joke that if we had known about all the challenges ahead from the beginning, it is likely that we would never have begun.

What are you proud of during the period of your office?
     The main thing has been to keep going – to keep the institutions and the community running.  The educational institutions – which are more dependent on fundraising – have been harder hit by the financial crisis. They have been unable to pay their dues to the municipality. Fortunately the municipality was able to help without affecting too severely its own stability.  In this we have been aided by the good financial performance of the Hotel, which has enjoyed favorable occupancy throughout the entire period.
     One of the main issues with which we have had to work in the municipal society has been the preparation for the village expansion. This required us to lead the community's general assembly through decisions on the framework for the project and to work carefully through processes involving relations with local government, the tax authorities and the banks (in order to obtain housing loans). Parallel to these processes, the committee that screens applicants has continued its work so that we will have a suitable number of candidates once these formal processes have been completed. Hopefully, by the end of 2010, we will be able to begin work on the ground.
     The Gaza war and the current political situation have brought a very difficult atmosphere in which to continue and to conduct our work. The members are not divorced from the polarizing pressures in Israeli society. It is not always possible for us to speak in one single community voice. Yet fortunately the principles on which we are founded – such as a strong belief in the ineffectiveness of violence as a means to resolve conflict and the belief in the model of Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom as a binational community – have helped to preserve our spirit during this difficult time.

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What is NSWAS’ role in the region? What kind of relations does NSWAS have with other communities around?
     The role of the Oasis of Peace is to present a model of the possibility of living together, of sharing one community based on equality, mutual respect and understanding. The village presents the possibility of sharing the land, of living in the state of Israel as two ethnic groups without the segregation, separation and discrimination that is predominant today. By raising and educating our children together, we provide the opportunity for the new generation to create a different reality. We have some 200 children attending the school from towns in the area. When a child comes to our School from another community, the fact of their children attending a binational school influences the attitudes of the parents and their community as a whole. In the future I think we should take a more active role in reaching out to the general public, encouraging them to visit to see how we live, or travel to them and speak about the alternative way of life presented by the village.

What are your hopes for NSWAS? What is your vision for the years to come?
     In the current period, Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom is defined by its opposition and resistance to currents of intolerance and prejudice within Israeli society, to the continuing Occupation, and to the inhuman and illegal siege being placed on Gaza.  The present conditions are not really suitable for the spread of our ideas. In such a time our role is less to be a teacher but a point of light against the darkness. But we are not sitting still. In the School, we are creating a curriculum for the future. In the Pluralistic Spiritual Center, we have crystallized educational programs that impact key areas for changing our society. The School for Peace is implementing important programs that have secured the backing of the United States government and the European Community in parallel. The community itself is growing. Our residential expansion plan is almost ready to go. We are likely to triple in size within 10 years. With new residents will come new talents and greater potential. The children's educational framework will grow. Perhaps we will manage to develop a middle school or a high school.
     I can remember a significant but short-lived period during the 1990s when Israelis and Palestinians became convinced in the possibility of real peace. Because as a binational community we had managed to weather difficult challenges for almost two decades, people began to look upon us anew, as a kind of map for the future. Hundreds of groups – including teachers, and even soldiers – began to visit the village and actually listened to what we had already been saying for many years.
     It's hard to be optimistic just now – but when I look to the future I see the potential for positive change. I don't know how long it will be before we have a real opportunity to impart what we have learned as a community, but that time will come. Then, when there is a just and reasonable solution of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, and Israel gets used to being a multi-ethnic society, the ideas upon which the village is based will find a more suitable seedbed to grow. For now, we need to hold ourselves together financially and morally.
     In order for the village to be more stable financially we would like to expand our tourism facilities. These days we are looking for interested persons or business companies who could partner with us to develop and expand the hotel. For the hotel to be more profitable we need to renovate the existing rooms that were built in 1992 and have not been seriously renovated since, and to enlarge the number of rooms. We need to create more comfortable conference halls, a better reception area, recreation facilities, etc., so that the hotel can attract more clients and thus increase its profit margin. Once the tourism facility and the hotel can bring real income to the village this will help to stabilize the general economic situation in the village and its educational institutions. 
     Since the village expansion will bring more children, the youth center is another project we want to maintain and develop. The youth center helps to bring our young people together in their free time, develops good relations among them and deepens the effect and persistence of the educational work. The young generation who grow up in the village are our future. Already, we find them to be the best ambassadors – representing the village at home and abroad. With careful nurturing, we think that they can also be powerful change agents.

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