Where Jews and Arabs get along

This Israeli village shows that peace is possible.

In Israel, there is a village where Arabs and Jews live as neighbors. Both groups endeavor to create a just society that can be a model for peace in the region.

What's it called? "Oasis of Peace." Though the town's name gives the impression that it's some sort of magical, idealistic utopia, the people living there are challenged daily and deeply by the reality of an intractable, painful, and violent conflict. Like anything worth attaining, peace comes with hard work.

There are fears that the village will somehow threaten the 5.4 million Jews in Israel and 5.1 million Palestinian Arabs in the area. It won't. Only one couple, living there now for more than 25 years, is mixed. The other 54 nonmixed families are Jewish, Muslim, and Christian; they share strong convictions about their own identities, but have made a determined effort – for more than three decades – to live alongside one another and thus affect society.

Much can be learned from Neve Shalom, its Hebrew name, or Wahat al-Salam as it's called in Arabic, about inter-faith relations.

In the local Jewish-Arab primary school, children study one another's faiths with natural curiosity. Students break the fast together at Ramadan, share a sukkah booth at the festival of Sukkot, and exchange small gifts at Christmas. And dialogue begins, but never ends, in its Pluralistic Spiritual Center where discussions transcend religion to recognize that this conflict is not Torah versus Koran versus Bible.

The difficulties lie when the issues of the conflict are placed on the table.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a political strife between two national groups about land, resources, security, freedom, equality, power, identity, and justice. Productive dialogue must include recognizing this and not limiting the conflict exclusively to inter/intra-religious issues.

Seeking a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a look at the big picture. The ultimate goal should be to create stability for Israelis and Palestinians so they may live securely and freely alongside one another in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect.

That means building common ground, sharing narratives, and acknowledging the pain and suffering of others. Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, and Christians need to show a willingness to recognize one another. It ultimately means seeing an enemy as an equal in humanity. Easier said than done.

Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the leading domino to seeing any meaningful dialogue between the Arab world and the West. Without such a catalyst, dialogue will be slow. And dialogue provides the forum for understanding and for seeking resolutions; resolutions do not come without talking.

The West needs to learn more about Islam not because it's the faith of "our enemies" but because, like the children in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, it's the faith of our neighbors.

Just as the village of "Oasis of Peace" is doing, we need to move beyond seeing Arabs as people who are inherently scary. We paint adversarial facades to create enemies, but we must challenge ourselves to break stereotypes, question basic assumptions, and raise awareness. Beyond that, the West needs to learn about the economic, political, social, and cultural conflicts facing the region.

The issues between the West and East are not just those of religion, but of political dynamics, struggles for resources, self-interest, independence, and power relations. As we begin to understand this, we will strengthen those relationships.

There are another 500 families on a waiting list who want to move to the "Oasis of Peace." This fall, 15 of these families will break ground on their plots and begin to build new homes and new futures. They are coming with loads of goodwill and perhaps little understanding of the great challenges that they will confront.

But they offer the world a ray of hope.

The residents of this small village are single-handedly removing obstacles by demonstrating that peace is within the grasp of people who seek it and are willing to sacrifice their bias so that all may share prospects of peace.

As they provide the example to those in the region it will soon be up to the rest of us to follow their lead.

Deanna Armbruster is the executive director of the American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam and the author of "Tears in the Holy Land: Voices from Israel and Palestine." This article is part of a series on Jewish-Muslim relations written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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