"What's your name? What's your name?" "How old are you?" demanded others. "I'm Ibti ... ", "Ariel ... ", "Wa'alid ... ", "Naomi ... "
A shy one or two pressed themselves against the desks, wide-eyed, watchful. A taller one, all flying hair and legs, pushed a half-eaten packet of biscuits into my hand. "For you," she said, and dashed off.
It was morning break in the primary school at Neve Shalom/ Wahat al-Salam, the only school in Israel where Arab and Jewish children are educated together (although many projects across the country teach co-existence part-time).
"Together? Jews and Arabs? I can't imagine it," said Israeli acquaintances before I went. "They [not we!] have their own schools ... " Yet here I was, in the increasingly distressing scene that is Israel, observing a co-existence initiative of the most sophisticated kind in day-to-day action. It is not the only one. Scores of human rights projects and programmes battle for justice and equality, all run with verve and relish by Israelis of every ethnic origin, often side by side. But Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is perhaps the most ambitious, as well as being one of the oldest. What a shock, then, when I was there on election night, to watch the bar graphs and pie charts - blue for Labour, red for Likud - fill up with red: red which would put the brakes on peace, boost religious orthodoxy, intransigence, confrontation and, no doubt, reduce or remove newly won government recognition for this bright spot midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, the Peace Oasis, is the only place in Israel where Jewish and Arab families come together purposely to live side by side, committed to working through differences and providing, thereby, a model for co-existence. It was founded by Father Bruno Hussar, a Dominican monk, on land leased from the nearby monastery of Latrun. The land is a gentle hillside, rather English in its tranquil contours, and overlooks wide cornfields through which cranes stalk. With a handful of friends - Arab, Jewish, Christian - Father Bruno took up residence there in 1972, in an old bus. They scraped around trying to grow vegetables, and talked: to institutions, organisations, youth groups about their practical ideal for the solution of Israel's problems. Water, they fetched in jerrycans from nearby kibbutzim; electricity, they had none until 1979, when someone fixed up a generator that provided a few hours' power a day. In 1978, the first families to move in (one Arab, two Jewish) lived in packing cases augmented, by and by, with a prefab from Sweden. As far as the Israeli Government was concerned, the settlement didn't exist. But around 1980, the water company was persuaded to pump mains water up the hill, and in 1987, the regional council agreed to put them on the map. And there they are, a black dot just by Emmaus, the site where Jesus Christ, resurrected, met two of his disciples returning from the Crucifixion and sat down to supper with them.
With identity on the map, official status became possible. Where once they petitioned faceless from department to government department, the members of Neve Shalom/ Wahat al-Salam won gradual recognition as ratepayers eligible for water and electricity - and, maybe, grants or subsidies for their schools. There are two kinds of school at Neve Shalom/ Wahat al- Salam: a school for children (nursery, kindergarten and primary); and the School for Peace.
A school for peace had long been the obsession of the late Wellesley Aron, a British Jew dedicated to the cause and betterment of Israel. It had struck him on his travels round the world that warfare was very much on the curriculum of everyday life, but that peace had no place at all. Quite by chance, he came across Father Bruno and his band. Their passions coincided. They joined forces, and in 1979, when Aron was 78, the School for Peace opened at Neve Shalom/ Wahat al-Salam: its function, to teach the dynamics of peace to Jewish/Arab adults and young people from all over the country - and beyond. Five resident staff (two Jews, three Arabs) and 20 freelances now work there, with students from 34 secondary schools and three universities. The number of courses they can offer, the approaches they can make, depends on the money they can raise. The EC has just granted a substantial amount for one project, and contributions come in from all over the world. The Israeli Government itself made a one-off grant for the year in 1993.
Today, the Ministry of Education has also recognised the kindergarten (since 1991), paying the salary of one teacher and, for the last three years, the primary school too, which now receives a subsidy covering a quarter of its costs. Otherwise, apart from its spirit, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam runs largely on international charity. "Its members are very dedicated people," says Coral Aron, Wellesley's widow, now 81, who works on public relations. "Most are in debt up to the ears, spending everything they've got and more building a house for themselves on leased land which doesn't even belong to the community." She speaks severely: "It says a lot for them."
Thirty families live there now, six more have been accepted, and 100 wait to get in. At the last reunion, in 1987, 20,000 people turned up, alumni of courses and workshops run by the School for Peace. They massed in a sheltering curve at the centre of the village, beyond which a white dome overlooks the plain below. This is the House of Silence, where people can come for contemplation and thought; for Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, though secular, is not an unspiritual place.
"Are you Arab?" I asked a ginger-haired boy with a Just William face. He shook his head and nudged the boy beside him. "He Arab," he said and slid off the desk. Thin-faced and shock-haired, the Arab boy grinned at me and slid off too. Together, they ran out of the room shouting, and I saw the school's co-principal, Anwar Daoud, lean out of his office and silence them with a roar.
An Arabic roar or a Hebrew roar? I couldn't tell, but the children speak both and many speak English as well. Lessons are taught in whichever tongue comes naturally to the teacher. Children of the school, which includes many from villages round about, learn to operate in either. Elsewhere in Israel, in the ordinary segregated schools, Jewish children learn English, whereas in the Arab schools (far inferior in resources and standards), Hebrew is the obligatory second language. Even in this idyllic centre of idealism in action where babies from three months in the nursery are cooed at - equally - in Hebrew and Arabic, Hebrew, somehow, dominates.
And this is something that surprised me: I learnt from the School for Peace - up the hill, through the olive grove, past the rose bushes, jacarandas and sweet-smelling gorse - that Arab groups taking part in co-existence workshops are much the more diffident and eager to please. Jewish groups tend to express fear of "the enemy" by clinging on to control. "If we give an inch they'll overwhelm us totally," might be the underlying thought.
Slowly, painfully, supported by the School for Peace's "facilitators", rigid notions are aired, stereotypes humanised, small shifts in perception take place, and the balance of power evens up. The skill is to bring up conflict, not to suppress it. Seventeen years of operation have shown that the "we're-all-human-together" approach glosses over issues that hurt. Nor do individual affinities survive the pressures of being back in the group. So conflict has to be expressed and grappled with as between groups: tricky work if explosion is to be avoided. "It is hard. Very hard," said every facilitator I met. Bit by bit they've evolved their own model for conflict management and conflict resolution. Their method is described in a book they've produced, Walking the Tightrope: "The position of the facilitators is a delicate one which raises both curiosity and suspicion ... The facilitators risk compromising their effectiveness as soon as they stop facilitating and begin teaching ..."
I got a glimpse of the rawness of feeling, the resentment and the hurt just beneath the skin of even these enlightened people - to say nothing of my own prickliness. I am sitting in the air-raid shelter - now offices - on top of which the primary school has been built. I am talking to the art teacher, Deanna, thin and bespectacled. She speaks very quietly, folds her hands palms up in her lap and says, "What do you want to tell me?"
My mouth drops open. She is the first adult of "position" in Israel who hasn't instantly swept me up on a high tide of information and rationalisation: articulate, convincing, passionately felt.
"Are you Jewish?" I say before I've had time to think. She is a Palestinian Arab and she invites me to her house that evening, "so you can see inside an Arab home. Though I like what you say, your openness, you have not seen anything Arab, only Jewish."
I start to splutter. But I have. I've been to an Arab home in a village cut in half by the Green Line (dividing Israeli-administered from Palestinian- administered territory); I've been to an Unrecognised Village (one of 200 cut off from all services because the Bedouin who live there refuse to move off their lands); I've met with two of Arafat's spokesmen in Jericho. I'm completely unprejudiced. I want Brownie points for effort at least ...
By and large, she's right. I calm down.
Deanna has her hands to her breast now and is talking about "My lands. My people" and the pain she feels just about where her hands are. I stare, and her eyes, magnified behind glass, stare uncompromisingly back. This is her pain, not for distribution. Hers, like those fields, those rocks used to be - and still are.
At the school in Neve Shalom/ Wahat al-Salam, Arab and Jewish holidays are celebrated alternately - "otherwise there'd be no time for school". And Deanna tells me, in her quiet way, what particular anguish the celebration of Israeli Independence Day causes her. I don't like it. I am relieved when a teacher from the kindergarten across the way comes to consult. I escape into the dazzling light of the classroom upstairs and lark about with the kids again.
It's all so much easier when you're seven, or 10 - or even 14.
I left Israel the day after the election, shocked at the result. Netanyahu - right-wing, the Likud party - had won. I had not met a single taxi-driver in two and a half weeks who was not going to vote Peres. Maybe the forces of tolerance and good sense were not that firmly located with Shimon Peres in the Labour Party, but they don't come within a mile of the Likud. Already there has been confrontation between Netanyahu and the Arab leaders.
At Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, dogs lay in pools of shade under the rose bushes, golden grasses stirred in the breeze and everyone went quietly about their business as usual.
"Maybe it won't be that bad. After all, it was Begin [also Likud] who made peace with Egypt," they said; and, more realistically, "We'll just have to work that much harder."
Me, I'm convinced that the capacity to live in peace starts in the cradle; that politicians can shake hands on the White House lawn until they are blue in the face; that people who have learnt to live fraternally alongside one another while growing up are the most likely to be able to make and maintain stable peace in the Middle East. Maybe in other places too. !Reuse content