Saturday, December 15, 2018

An Oasis of Peace in a Land of Conflict


By Martin Leeper - February 28, 2018
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Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Palestinian in Israel] [Palestinians] [Jews] [peace]

A half hour outside of Tel Aviv, on the road to Jerusalem, nestled in a low unsuspecting hillside is a place called Wahat al-Salam in Arabic or Neve Shalom in Hebrew. In English, it is known as the Oasis of Peace. 

A small road winds up the hill through the surrounding farmland and blooming almond orchards. At the top is a small parking lot, which on Saturday is packed with visitors vehicles. Some have come to escape the city, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, or Jerusalem. Some have come for the cafe. Some are tourists, curious about the village. All have come, because this is a place, unique, in all of Israel.
 
Oasis of Peace was founded in 1970 by Father Bruno Hussar on a barren hilltop donated by the Latrun Monastery. In the early years Fr. Hussar was often alone but for his vision of an intentional community, where Jews and Palestinians, Muslims and Christians, lived in community, together. The name derived from the Bible’s Isaiah (32:18), "My People shall dwell in an Oasis of Peace".
 
It’s hard to imagine what this place looked like in the beginning. The barren hilltop is now overgrown with trees and flowers. A small paved road connects the homes of 70 permanent resident families of the village. There is a community pool, a visitors center, a small hotel, and a primary school. At the entrance to the village is a cafe, Ahlan - Welcome.
 
The entrance to Ahlan Cafe, run by Rayek and Dyana Rizek.
 
The cafe is run by a couple, Rayek and Dyana Rizek. The two officially joined the village in 1984, when the village was still in its infancy. It was a time when there were still no paved roads, few trees and electricity only available a couple hours a day. The Israeli government still had not officially recognized the settlement.
 
Rayek and Diana are Palestinians from Nazareth. Rayek is the author of The Anteater and The Jaguar. The book is a history of the village, Rayek’s experience living in it, and how helping to build this community has shaped his understandings of identity, other and peace.
 
Saturday is the busiest day for the Ahlan Cafe. But as night begins to fall and the guests trickle out, Rayek sits at the back table, a couple of cats nestled next to him, begging to be pet.
 
Rayek does not feel like peace means ignoring our individual identities. It’s about accepting the other’s identity as valid: their language, their beliefs, their history as equal. “Intention is the most important thing,” Rayek said. This is the beginning of everything in the Oasis for Peace.
 
The brochure for the Oasis of Peace.
 
In the beginning, Rayek identified as a Palestinian. In the 80s this was hard for many of the villagers to accept. They believed he should identify as an Israeli Arab. Rayek discards this old conflict now as trivial. The Palestinian identity has become more accepted on the whole, and “we are old now, tired of these small fights.” However, at the time, he said, “I have to accept your [identity as] a Zionist Jew. You have to accept that I am a Palestinian.”
 
“Nobody has more rights here than the other.”
 
The village was founded on equality. They did not not have a rigid structure or constitution that defined how the village would grow, or how disputes would be resolved. If they had, Rayek said, “nothing would have been done.” Instead, they took the principle of equality, expecting each member to hear and be heard as a human first, and they bridged the obstacles that arose one at a time.
 
Nowhere is this idea of the village more concrete than in the primary school. The Oasis of Peace Primary School was the first bilingual and binational school in the entire country. The school opened in 1984 with eleven boys and girls from the village. Now the school has more than 200 students, 90% of which come from the surrounding villages. It has an equal number of Arabs and Jews. The school celebrates holidays and traditions from all members. According to his book, Rayek believes this to be one of the most important institutions in the village, “a school like ours breaks stereotypes and helps raise children into tolerant, broad-minded, humane adults.”
 
Talking about the school, Rayek made a simple example exemplify what the school means to him. At recess, “they don’t divide the football team by Arabs and Jews, but [they divide them] by friends.”
 
Much like the life in the village, the school is not perfect and has had it’s tribulations. When a Minister of Education demanded to appoint their own principle and discarded the school’s fundamental values, the community voted to withdraw from the Ministry all together. This left the school chronically underfunded and nearly unsustainable, but through community and international donors, they managed to keep it running. Now, they have reentered the Ministry, assured they will retain control over the school’s function.
 
As for the students coming from outside the of village, Rayek applauds the parents. “They believe it’s beneficial in such a place, not to grow up where the kid is ignorant about the other, whether they are Arabs or Jews.”
 
In a land of conflict, where anger, pain and other are constant. Where both sides feel victimized, where schools are segregated and identities are pitted against each other, the Oasis of Peace is a radical shift in mentality. Midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem people are working together to understand one another. Rayek clearly takes pride in this place he helped create, “something happens to people when they come to this community, they become aware that something like this could be possible.”
 

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