Israel is often referred to as the "Jewish State," but about one Israeli in five is not Jewish. Most of that 20 percent minority are Arabs, Christians and Muslims. But despite the large Arab minority, there are few places in Israel where you can find Arabs and Jews living side by side. In one community where they do live together, the principle of coexistence has been challenged by the Palestinian uprising, or Intifada.
School is out for the summer, but some of the school facilities have been turned over to summer camp where about 20 kids chatter in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic as they mix up a batch of zaatar, a traditional, aromatic middle eastern spice.
In Arabic, this village is called Wahat al-Salam; in Hebrew, Neve Shalom. Either way, it means Oasis of Peace.
The community, on an isolated hilltop midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, was founded in 1977 by Father Bruno Hussar, a Dominican monk, on land leased from the nearby Latroun monastery. Father Hussar conceived a village where Christians, Jews and Muslims could live together.
In fact, the community developed along secular lines, but as spokesman Howard Shippin explains, the idea remained intact: "The major thing that people consider when they come to live in such a place, is that they're going to meet with the other people."
Only about 40 families live in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, but there is a waiting list and plans for expansion. In a country where Arabs and Jews rarely interact as equals, this community stands out as a place where differences are acknowledged and respected, perhaps even celebrated.
The assistant principal of the local elementary school, Diana Shalufe-Rizek - a Palestinian - says that lesson must begin early.
"Here we're trying our best [to ensure] that the kids themselves respect each other. They know that to be different than others doesn't mean that I am better than him or I am less than him," she says. "It means that we are equal, but different people."
One issue where that unequal equality plays out is language. The village, including its school, is supposed to be completely bilingual, but in fact Hebrew dominates. Palestinian children tend to emerge from the elementary school fully fluent in Hebrew, while the Jewish kids often have much less skill in Arabic. Jewish resident Ruth Shuster, who works at the village hotel, notices this with her own chidren. "We try to be equal in everything, also the language, but it's not true," she says "And I know from my children [that] even when there are four boys, three of them Arabs and only my son is Jewish, they speak in Hebrew, not in Arabic."
Since the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising, broke out 10 months ago, the dispute has mainly been between Israel and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. But early on, violence came to Israel's Arab communities. Last October 13 Palestinian Israelis were killed in northern Israel.
The violence has not reached this village but events in the outside world have changed relations between its Jewish and Palestinian residents. The Arabs have become more assertive, returning to long-simmering issues such as language.
Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam's general secretary, the equivalent of mayor, is a Palestinian, Anwar Daoud, who says the intifada has highlighted the problems of a Jewish country with a 20 percent Arab minority. "We are speaking about equality," he says. "The question is which equality do you want? Today unfortunately, there are Jewish people who live in Chile even who have more rights than me. I was born here."
Jewish resident Ruth Shuster says the Intifada has made relations between Arab and Jewish neighbors more difficult. "The relations are more complicated because the nationality is much stronger on every side. And I feel it in our relationship," she points out.
In the village school, when the Intifada began there were endless discussions. But after a while, a group of fifth graders appealed for a return to regular classes. School administrator Diana Shalufe-Rizek says the children are not letting the politics of the outside world damage their friendships here.
"Sometimes when they sit in the classroom they say, maybe hard things, or expressed their feelings about their fear, their anger, why it happened and so on," she says. "And they continue being friends with each other. When they go out for a break they will throw..." She searches for the word in English. The kids are throwing pine cones at each other. "If you look you will see it's between two classes, or boys and girls.... But it's never Jews against Palestinians or Palestinians against Jews."
One Jewish resident, perhaps surprisingly, sees some good emerging from the intifada. Nava Sonnenschein is the education director of the School for Peace, which runs workshops and other programs aimed at fostering coexistence and understanding. Fewer high school students take part in programs, often because parents are afraid to let their children travel. She says some programs have been moved out of the country to a more neutral venue, like Jordan or Turkey. But, Ms. Sonnenschein sees Arabs in the workshops and in her community becoming more assertive. "I personally see it as a very positive step, because I don't think that inside Israel, and also between Israel and Palestine, the group that has the power will give up the power voluntarily," she explains. "There are no examples like that in the world, so personally when I see that the Arab group is getting more empowered, more strong, more assertive, more powerful, I think this is the only way that will move the other side, the Jewish group, to change.
Howard Shippin, the British-born spokesman for the community, acknowledged the challenges the Intifada has brought, but he remains optimistic. "I don't think that what has happened since October will tear us apart. We have a durability to face such things. We've been living together, all of us, for a very long time. And I think we will weather it," he says. "But certainly it has brought with it challenges, and the level of - how shall we say - you know, argument, noise, has become greater than in the past."
The Arabs and Jews who have decided to make their home in this mixed community seem determined to weather the challenges. I asked Anwar Daoud, the mayor, why he came here. "Mainly because of the political ideology," he explained, "Arabs and Jewish going to live together, and I believe it's the only way we can be here. I hope that we will give that example, the model of living together. We have the model that says we can live together. We do not agree on everything, we have a lot of things that we have disagreements on, but we decide that we can continue living together."
Anwar Daoud's answer also helps explain why residents of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam remain committed to Father Bruno Hussar's vision of a mixed community in the midst of a very divided country.
Photo of Fr. Hussar courtesy Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam; other photos by Art Chimes.