An 'oasis of peace' in Israel      

[This article first appeared in the Aug. 3, 2012, issue of The Jewish Voice & Herald of Rhode Island. Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Voice & Herald.]

Whenever Palestinians and Israelis are mentioned in the news, we often think of conflict. Typically, the media pay little attention to the efforts of Jews and Arabs who prove that two peoples can live side-by-side in peace.

The community of Neve Shalom–Wahat al-Salam (NS–WAS), which means “oasis of peace,” is an example of one such effort.

Students at the bi-national, bilingual school in Israel mug for the camera. (Photo: Ezra Stieglitz)
I was fortunate to visit the community during my trip to Israel in June 2012. As an elementary education professor at Rhode Island College, I was asked by RIC President Dr. Nancy Carrioulo to help organize some collaborative programming among Beit Berl College and Oranim Academic College, both in Israel, and RIC. Beit Berl College Dean of Students and NS–WAS resident Ziad Abu Hamad arranged my visit to Neve Shalom.

Founded in the early 1970s, the community of NS-WAS is situated equidistant from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The community’s promotional material states, “The members of NS-WAS are demonstrating the possibility of co-existence between Jews and Palestinians by developing a community based on mutual acceptance, respect, and cooperation.”

About 60 families – with an equal number of Jews and Arabs – now live in this village. The goal is to have a community of some 140 homes.

The community offers a number of different programs, including a bilingual – bi-national school and a youth club. Abu Hamad was my guide; he and his wife Salam offered wonderful hospitality during my stay in NS-WAS. One of the teachers, Raida Aishe-Khatib, was an excellent resource in providing information about the educational program.

The school includes nursery school classes for children from 3-months-old to age 5, and elementary classes from kindergarten through sixth grade.

From the outset, children are taught in both Hebrew and Arabic. The goal is to have children graduate fully literate in both languages, be aware of their own culture and tradition and be respectful of the culture and tradition of the other people.

With only a limited number of families living in NS-WAS, in order to make the school system viable, families from surrounding communities are invited to enroll their children in the school, which now has more than 250 children enrolled, 90 percent of whom come from come from surrounding Jewish and Arab communities. An application process for admission is required, as school administrators want to ensure a “good fit” between students and the school.

The school seeks a diverse student body with a range of achievement levels, although students with learning challenges that would preclude their success in a dual language program are discouraged from applying. If, for example, a Jewish child’s learning disability affected his ability to be literate in Hebrew, it would be counterproductive to expect him to become fully literate in Arabic, as well.

The Jewish children who attend the school are secular Israelis – that is, for the most part they are non-observant. For example, while I saw no Jewish boys wearing kippot, some female Arab students wore Western-style clothing while others wore the traditional hijab (Islamic head scarf). While most of the Arab students are Muslim, a few are Christian.

Most of the Arab members of NS-WAS are Muslims who follow many of the teachings of their faith. Although there are no synagogues, mosques or churches housed in NS-WAS, a pluralistic spiritual center is used for meditation and special events. While there is no emphasis on religious observance in the school (e.g., prayer services do not exist), religious texts such as the Torah and the Koran are used to teach children about the culture, faith and history of Judaism and Islam, respectively.

My visit to a second-grade classroom revealed a literacy-rich environment. Many attractive illustrations with captions in both Hebrew and Arabic were posted on the walls. Parallel textbooks for lessons were available in both Hebrew and Arabic with identical information and illustrations in each. The only difference, of course, is that one version of a textbook is in Arabic and the other is in Hebrew. This allows classroom teachers to teach the identical lesson in both languages. I saw samples of Jewish children’s Arabic writing as well as Arab children’s Hebrew writing.

The school in NS-WAS offers a remarkable program to Israel’s Jewish and Arab children. The atmosphere of openness and tolerance encourages children to understand, accept and appreciate each other. There is certainly much to learn from the efforts of the residents of NS-WAS to prepare the next generation to be better than the last one.