Tuesday, October 24, 2006

JOURNEY OF PEACE: OCTOBER 22, OCTOBER 23

(Note: this post is one of a series about our experiences on "A Journey of Peace to Israel and Palestine" - a group of people from Portland, Oregon USA. The 22 people on the trip are Jews and Christians, the trip leaders are Rabbi Joshua Stampfer and Rev. Dr. Rodney Page who first organized and led a similar trip 20 years ago. I will post as often as possible summaries of our travels and experiences (not the tourist activities), things learned and questions raised.

The first two days of the trip (October 22 and 23) focused on Jewish and Arab Israeli relations and history, and efforts to build bridges between the two groups within Israel. On October 22 we spent the day at, and touring with the staff of, Givat Haviva Institute, which "educates and acts to promote the values of equality and human dignity." Givat Haviva was founded in 1949 as a national education center of the Kibbutz Artzi Movement, a federation of 83 kibbutzim throughout Israel. On October 23 we visited Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam (NSWAS), a village of Jews and Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship founded in the early 1970's. NSWAS residents/members are "demonstrating the possibility of coexistence between Jews and Palestinians by developing a community based on mutual acceptance, respect and cooperation."

It was helpful for us to understand that about 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs (between 1.2 and 1.3 million people), and that among those, about 84% are Muslim, 10% Christian and 6% Druse. These people live primarily in Arab villages in Israel, with most of the villages in the northern area. About 150,000 Arabs remained in Israel following the war of independence in 1948 that resulted in the State of Israel. These people chose to remain in Israel, as citizens, rather than give up their homes and live as refugees. Two Palestinian speakers each told how their parents or grandparents were criticized and considered traitors by those Palestinians who left Israel because they chose to remain and become citizens of Israel.

The "facts" of history depend on who writes the history, but it is clear that conflicts between Arab Palestinaians and Jews grew in the early decades of the 20th century as increasing numbers of Jews immigrated to Palestine, many as part of the Zionist movement. Serious violence erupted between Arabs and Jews during the period 1936 - 1939 while Palestine was under British rule. During the mid- to late 1940's, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel each declared independence from the British; the Israeli declaration of independence initiated a war between Israel and the neighboring Arab states. The armistice agreement of 1949 between Israel and it's neighbors established the Green Line demarcating the boundaries between Israel and adjacent nations, including Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Following the 6-Day War in 1967, Israel occupied the areas of the West Bank and Gaza.

Against this backdrop of a very complex history, we heard from speakers at Givat Haviva and NSWAS about the status of Arab Israeli's and the programs and efforts of these institutions and communities to bring people together. The focus of these efforts is education, face-to-face experiences, community building and cooperation. Givat Haviva programs include the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace, within which are the Departments of Educaton, Community Involvement, Women and Gender Studies, Regional Cooperation, Teacher training, Institute for Arabic Studies, and Institute for Peace Research. Givat Haviva also has a Peace Library, Holocaust Study Center, Arts Center and International Department. A few of the many things we learned about the programs of Givat Haviva: 3,000 to 5,000 Jewish and Arab high school students participate in a "Face to Face" program every year; they operate the best school for teaching Arab spoken language ("language is a barrier or a gate"), they have published the story of the Holocaust in Arabic, and house the largest library in the world of Palestinian Israeli information.

The community of Neveh Shalom~Wahat al-Salam began with one family in 1979, had 8 families in 1984, and today consists of 50 families - half Jewish and half Arab. The village is governed democratically by community members, and has a small group of elected members who run the administrative aspects of the community. The community school is the only one in Israel where children are taught equally in Hebrew and Arabic, and learn about and participate in both cultures, while following the standard school curriculum of Israel. NSWAS is unlike towns in Israel where both Jews and Arabs live - NSWAS is a community where Jews and Arabs purposefully build community together in order to break down the barriers between people.

In a future post I will discuss some of the issues presented to us concerning Palestinian Israelis.

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