Peaceful Coexistence in Israel-Palestine
What can be achieved when we come together with good intent, a willingness to listen, and a deep appreciation of our common humanity?
Homo sapiens is a temperamental thoroughbred and not a draught horse. Our evolutionary advantage has come from our ability to co-operate in groups. Neanderthal man was stronger than we are, but we out-competed him through the collaboration of a large number of people with diverse skills.
So teamwork, which is enabled by empathy, compassion and lasting relationships, is our signature competency.
Unfortunately, as we have acquired dominance over the other species on the planet, some of the our more primitive drives, for example for status and power, have come to the fore and we have forgotten what has made us great.
Why have the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests been so well supported on a global scale? For sure the black populations of America, the UK and elsewhere have reached the end of their patience with the state. The social contract which, in simple terms, involves the citizen abiding by the rules and laws of the state in return for the state keeping them safe has been broken: many citizens feel that the state has scant concern for their safety.
In addition, I believe that many who have come out in support of BLM are tired at being told who they should blame for the nation’s ills — it’s black people, immigrants, China etc. It’s an old tactic: by targeting a minority the Government hopes that a fearful majority will keep them in power. However, it is most effective when people already live in an environment of competitive individualism, such as exists in most of the West today.
Paul Gilbert contends in his book The Compassionate Mind, “The more unsafe and uncertain people are in their social relationships, the more they think of themselves and others in terms of competition and social rank (powerful/weak, inferior/superior, dominant/subordinate) and feel driven to try to prove themselves, with fears that other people are criticizing, rejecting or ignoring them.” 
Which brings me to Neve Shalom/Wahat Assalam (in English “Oasis of Peace”). It’s a community in Israel-Palestine where Jews, Christians and Muslims have come together for the purpose of learning how to peacefully coexist in the midst of a seemingly intractable conflict. They have become tired of the dominant narratives of both sides, that feed separation between the two peoples.
The community was founded in 1976 by Father Bruno Hussar (1911–1996) on land gifted from the nearby monastery of Latroun. Bruno, a Nobel Prize nominee, believed that Jews, Christians and Muslims could share the country in peaceful coexistence. He did not have a predetermined formula for how that might be achieved, but he founded the community to explore how it might happen.
There are mixed neighbourhoods in other Israeli towns, but in Neve Shalom/Wahat Assalam, members of the community chose to live together. And they choose to talk with one another in order to understand their differences and needs. That is not to say that agreement has been reached on every issue, even within the separate groups, and the regular influx of new arrivals means that the debate will always be ongoing. But so, far the dialogue has continued for 44 years.
There are now around 110 families living in the community (roughly half Jews and half Palestinian Arabs). There is a regional bilingual school, a School of Peace, a Spiritual Centre, and a guest house. More information can be obtained on their website. Eventually the plan is to accommodate 150 families, which is the capacity of the site. There has always been a surplus of demand for places.
I first heard about the community from a Jewish neighbour who lent me a copy of the 2017 book ‘The Anteater and The Jaguar’  (which is available in English and German). I referenced the book in an earlier Medium article, Blessed are the Peacemakers.
I was so struck by the book that I looked up its author. Rayek Rizek has lived in Wahat Assalam/Neve Shalom for 36 years. He is a former mayor of the community (1997–2000 and 2005–2007), and owner of Cafe Ahlan on the site — ‘Ahlan’ means welcome in both Arabic and Hebrew.
This year I had the honour of interviewing Rayek for an episode of my podcast, which you can find on my website The Compassionate Leadership Interview or on Apple and Spotify.
Rayek says There is a perception in the press that people in the community should be living together in perfect harmony, but peace does not mean that. It is about respect, tolerance, and common humanity. Rayek is inspired by the generation that has been through the school on the site. For example, his two sons live in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and have a broad friendship group that includes Palestinians and Jews. They debate political issues but not to the point of severing the relationships between one another.
He says Israel-Palestine is “living under a big lie”, in service of which history has been distorted, and believes most people realise this. Whenever he sees the community celebrating birthdays and holy days together he becomes “quite emotional.” Ultimately he is optimistic about the future for Israel-Palestine. He says everyone who is engaged in trying to create a reality based on denying the existence of the other will fail. At some stage everyone will realise that there is no other way but to live together as equals. Many ordinary citizens have already come to this conclusion; what is needed is leadership.
Rayek holds up the medical system in Israel as an example of where Jews and Palestinians are working together on a large scale towards a common goal, that of healing people.
His advice to his 20-year old self would be “to be more open, not to believe all you are told by politicians, not to believe everything you are taught in textbooks in schools, dig for the truth, don’t judge…remain open, remain humble… and keep learning. Realise that the other is a human being like you… and if you have any criticism towards their behaviour… try to imagine yourself in their place. ‘Racist’ means that the other is not a human being.”
It all reminds me of Psalm 133.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;
As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.
- Gilbert, P. (2009) The Compassionate Mind. London: Constable (page 179)
- Rizek, R. (2019) The Anteater and The Jaguar: A Story from the Oasis of Peace. CreateSpace: North Charleston, South Carolina