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“Today in Israel looking like an Arab is enough to be in danger, but we will continue to practise peace"

Interview with Samah Salaime and Nir Sharon, Wahat al-Salam - Neve Shalom

Peace is not the end, it is “a constant and arduous process, which must be protected at all costs. In that it takes long to teach dialogue, whereas it does not take much to raise sons and daughters in hatred, even the violence of one single person”. Samah Salaime (Arab) and Nir Sharon (Jew), the co-directors of the educational projects of Wahat al-Salam - Neve Shalom, the village halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv whose community has been a model of equality and mutual respect since 1970, when it was founded by Father Bruno Hussar, reiterate this point. Over the years, his School for Peace, which fosters change in the Middle East through relations between Jews and Palestinians based on fairness and humanity, has been attended by over 65,000 people. In 2015 it was complemented by a Garden of Universal Righteous (Garden of Rescuers) founded with Gariwo, which the inhabitants have made their own by making it the setting for many moments of sharing.

Last week, Samah Salaime and Nir Sharon visited the Garden of the Righteous in Milan and took part in the meeting “Against Hatred”, organised by Gariwo Foundation at Turin International Book Fair, together with Giulia Ceccutti, a member of the executive board of the Italian association Amici di Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam.

Samah and Nir gave a long interview to GariwoMag on the situation in Gaza and how the political climate in Israel is polluting all paths towards peace, jeopardising the foundations of coexistence. The blame, says Samah, lies with the “leadership of men, which has failed us on both sides. Women would have a lot to bring to negotiating tables, which do not even exist today, starting with a different terminology that is not revenge-oriented”.

Of course, Nir explains, managing the dialogue after 7th October was far from easy, “especially three days later, when we organised a round table to share our feelings. As Jews, we could have said ‘enough, let us leave’, but we did not”. After all, adds Samah, “in the four decades of school, during which two intifadas and six wars took place in Gaza, we got everything wrong. But peace is not a nice meeting where you eat together and then go home, it is a journey of ups and downs”.

And now we are experiencing one of the lowest moments, which - they explain - should not be taken out of context. “Israeli governments of the last 20 years have fought against people committed to peace and democracy. For example, we are not allowed to talk about our work in public schools and bring Arab and Jewish students to our workshops, after we have done so for many years”.

Some also do not like the fact that alternative - and demilitarised - ceremonies are organised in the village every year for the relatives of all the victims. “Last time our website was hacked and we were forced to find alternative ways to promote the ceremony”.

Although peace is a process and not an end, Samah believes there are crucial steps, which are “the end of checkpoints, walls and a military regime against six million Palestinians”. She considers it as a distant dream for the moment, living in the country “where President Herzog - who is supposed to be the man of peace - signs to authorise the bombing of Gaza and beautiful Jewish children write messages on the missiles that are going to bomb their peers. These things break my heart”. As we speak, Samah shows us her shirt. It has an embroidered red and white silk pattern. She tells us it is from Gaza.

Samah, let us start with what you are wearing, we know it has a special meaning.

SAMAH I am a peace activist and an active member of the Palestinian feminist movement. One of our initiatives is to promote and distribute garments that are hand-embroidered by Palestinian women, which have become a symbol of resistance, self-determination and an attempt to defend Palestinian history. This is why I always wear something embroidered by these women. The project is called “The Threads of Change” because these silk threads symbolically represent the connection between women everywhere.

How is life in the village at this difficult time?

NIR Living in the village is work, even though it is first and foremost our life. We must constantly reflect on how we act, how we educate, how we talk to each other. We have to wonder how to make this environment safe and welcoming. As a child you take everything for granted. You spend your time with other kids playing football, basketball, singing. But when you grow up, you realise that you have to pay attention to many things in your relationships with the others. You have to develop a different sensitivity, get more involved in the community. At this particular time, this means trying to figure out how to be more sensitive and tolerant towards one another. On the one hand, we have to make this place of dialogue known and show that this kind of society can exist. On the other hand, we need to set up a safe place for both communities.

How can you find the balance between the need to set up a safe place and the need to be open to the outside world, to show that a different path to coexistence is possible, even in the Middle East?

SAMAH The most effective message to the outside world is to protect the very existence of the village and its educational projects, including the Garden of the Righteous. We know that some do not like this idea, they do not believe in this kind of society and are therefore very angry at us. Others think we are crazy, or a tiny community of pacifist extremists. Conversely, we are ordinary people, who have simply chosen a different way of living together. Nobody can question the fact that we have existed for almost 50 years. We open our doors to all those who want to see and learn to live together, but not to those who question the possibility of peace, because for us it is solid and we believe in it.

NIR At this time it is important to say that we accept everyone as long as they share the same values. Opinions, on both sides, may diverge. And this is good, because it is important to have different points of view. But we have some sort of unquestionable basic values.

Which ones?

NIR One must share values such as justice, equality, dignity, respect, tolerance, to join our community or to collaborate with us. Only when we agree on this basis does dialogue begin. Once again, there are people having different political beliefs, religious people and atheist people. All are welcome.

SAMAH There is a red line that cannot be crossed: violence. We do not use violence. We are willing to discuss, even at length, but we do not want to cross this line: no to violence, no to delegitimising the other side.

Can you tell us more about this red line?

SAMAH We live in a very violent time. Arming civilians has become the norm. If you are an Arab, or an alleged Arab, you can be shot at any time. Nir himself is in danger because he is Jewish but looks Arab (they both smile, Ed.). At any moment there can be shootings. If I talk to my son in Arabic, someone may feel free to hurt me or even shoot me. This is the atmosphere here. But there is more.

Please, go on.

SAMAH When we speak of violence, we are not just referring to threats and physical violence. There are words, the emotional violence we cannot erase. We can produce violence by shouting at each other, by targeting people for their sexuality. This is unacceptable. The risk always subsists of crossing that line. That is why, for example, during our  General Assembly we always make sure to remind ourselves that we must act differently, even if an opening is unfolding around us to aggression, anger and hatred.

In practice, how do you curb hatred?

SAMAH We use non-violent action to ease and not to escalate any confrontation. It is a matter of constant practice. We need to know how to be firm, assertive, but not violent.

Most students in the village school come from outside, from backgrounds dominated by anger and hatred, especially after 7th October. How do you manage, in this situation, to convey the values of peace to students?

NIR The fact that the school is also attended by children from outside puts us in an even more sensitive situation, which requires more sensitivity. But our decades of experience in peace education cannot be erased in one day or following one single event. We must undoubtedly pay more attention after 7th October. The village staff, parents and children must be given the tools to cope with this situation. We draw a safe space within which everyone can be who they want without offending, discriminating, using racist insults. Only when children, parents and teachers feel that they have their own space to self-determine and express their views while respecting those of others, can they feel safe in this community.

Samah, you mentioned that violence is not only physical, it is also hate speech. Are you the victims of this kind of language?

SAMAH I think Wahat al-Salam - Neve Shalom is no different from other peace and human rights movements in Israel and Palestine. We know that we are on the left side of the political map and at the moment in Israel the majority of public opinion is going to the right. Religious extremists control the country and we are sidelined. The right wing rules using a vocabulary of words like “power”, “control”, “defeat”, “kill”, “win” and people who do not fall in line with this way of thinking are under attack. In the last few years we have been attacked by extremist groups three or four times. They set fire to our offices, to the primary school, to the Peace School and the Peace Library.

Has the situation worsened since 7th October?

SAMAH Today, hate speech is directed against anyone who says “cease fire”. Or against anyone who uses the word “peace”, which is currently considered to be cursed in Israel, as if it were a bad word. Despite everything, we are continuing on the path of peace. Currently in the village we are also sheltering other organisations that have been driven out of public space in Israel.

For example, we have hosted groups of Palestinian and Jewish performers for peace whose rental contract for the auditorium where they were to perform was cancelled; or The Parents Circle association whose spaces in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were taken away; or an organisation supporting Arab and Jewish orphaned children whose parents died in wars and for whom it was impossible to find a place to host their summer camp. This happens because those who give these organisations spaces that benefit at least from partial government funding may be threatened. The space for democracy and freedom of expression is shrinking day by day. I must admit it is becoming extremely dangerous.

We are watching all this from the outside: the war in Gaza, the growing lack of democracy in Israel. What can and must we Europeans do?

NIR First of all let us know that we have your support. When everything around you is shrinking, you need to know that you are not alone. But there are also other things you can do: demonstrate and become more aware of what is happening, by consulting the media more wisely (something that is extremely difficult at the moment).

We need help, not to be told from abroad “do this” or “do that”. What you can do is intercede with your governments to call for a “ceasefire”. Your voice as an international community, as people who believe in peace and non-violent action, must be heard in your countries and by your governments. You must create change.

SAMAH The suffering we are experiencing in the region is so deep I cannot even imagine the humanitarian and human rights situation in Gaza. Yet this war has given us the opportunity to further highlight the message we have been conveying for the past 40 years.

There will always be something good to do and there will always be stories worth telling. In this darkness there is a need for small lights. This is what we try to do at the Garden of the Righteous in the village: since October we have been collecting stories of Jews who saved Arabs and Arabs who saved Jews. People who chose to do the right thing at the right time.

The stories we have collected are beautiful and are not about governments or groups, they are about simple individuals; a bus driver, a Jewish waitress who rescued a Palestinian worker, a guy who worked at a petrol station and hid Jewish children in the restroom. There are so many small and simple things we need to remember and we need the resources to document them all. I hope we can soon honour these wonderful Jewish and Palestinian people in our Garden.

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At this link you can support the educational projects of Wahat al-Salam - Neve Shalom

Joshua Evangelista, Gariwo Press office and Communication and Helena Savoldelli, Gariwo Editorial Staff

21 May 2024

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