Friday, October 18, 2013

Israel: Creating truly shared cities in Israel

by Jenny Nemko

London – Earlier this year, I went on a UK Task Force trip to learn about the mixed cities of Jaffa, Lod and Haifa. The term mixed city is used in Israel to describe cities where there is a sizeable Arab population – normally over 10 per cent. During the trip, we met some extraordinary people who are trying to shift these cities from being – in their words – “mixed but separate” towards being truly shared.

This is not easy to achieve, but a role model exists in Neve Shalom - Wahat-al-Salam, or the Oasis of Peace in English. The Oasis of Peace is a village halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, established in the 1970s by Jews and Arabs who wanted to live together in peace and equality. It’s a beautiful place high up on a hill overlooking the Latrun Monastery. And after supporting the village for many years, I am convinced that the process of integrated education is the only way to create truly shared space.

Children from the surrounding Arab and Jewish villages attend a bilingual primary school at the Oasis. They have the opportunity to get to know each other and begin to accept each other as human beings, not as the enemy. One pupil at the Oasis said, “Our political leaders just talk about peace. At our school, together as Arabs and Jews, we are making peace, building it every day, every hour”. It is at this young age that we absorb our values, and the school gives the opportunity for children to grow with a sense of equality as a God-given right.

Unlike the Oasis of Peace village, though, Jews and Arabs have not elected to live together in many mixed cities, but have instead been thrown together as a result of historical and socio-economic circumstances. Recreating the idyll of the Oasis of Peace village in places where communities have gone so far as to build walls to keep themselves separate is something that can only be dreamed of right now.

The city of Lod is perhaps at the bottom of the pile when it comes to the prospect of mixed cities becoming shared. In Lod unrecognised neighbourhoods lack basic services, high crime rates contribute to an atmosphere of distrust and the absence of urban planning has led to ghettoes, with little interaction between Arabs and Jews – religious and secular, rich and poor.

But even in the worst of situations there is hope. Aviv Wasserman, a Jewish Israeli social entrepreneur and founder of the Lod Foundation, dreams of making Lod a leading tourist destination. With 8000 years of history, Lod is holy to Islam, as it was the first Muslim capital of the region, holy to Christians because it contains the sarcophagus of St. George and holy to Jews, as it was the place where great scholars like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer taught. On our Task Force trip we visited the wall shared by the ancient synagogue, mosque and church, which reflects Wasserman’s vision for a shared city, properly planned, which provides for all residents equally.

Our Arab host emphasised that although the majority of Arab citizens want to be a part of Israeli society, they do not want to lose their identity. At a practical level, this means ensuring road signs and public announcements are in Arabic, granting Arab students leave from lectures on their religious holidays and recognising that the words of the national anthem are only relevant to the Israeli Jewish population.

None of these things happen nearly enough at the moment. But as community life at the Oasis of Peace and other examples of mixed cities show, integrated education can help create empathy with the other.

In Haifa, the best of mixed cities, difference is not just tolerated, but occasionally even celebrated. At the heart of this celebration is the Beit Hagefen Jewish-Arab Cultural Centre. Through hiking, art and photography, Arabs and Jews are building a shared Israeli culture while at the same time respecting and enjoying their differences. This is exemplified in the centre’s annual joint religious and cultural festivities.

In the UK when I’ve spoken about the Oasis of Peace village, I’ve often felt at best tolerated by my fellow Jews, and at worst a traitor. It’s hard to get support. But with the formation of the UK Task Force – a coalition of over thirty Jewish organisations committed to exploring issues facing Israel’s Arab citizens – perceptions are beginning to change for the better.

I look forward to the day when every child shares the sentiment that “we are making peace, building it every day, every hour”.

* Jenny Nemko is a Trustee of Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam, Oasis of Peace UK, and the author of Who Am I? Who Are You?, a book that explores cultural diversity in terms of assumptions, beliefs and prejudices. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 October 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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