Building peace through words: One village in Israel is attempting to do just that via group discussions. At the local “School for Peace”, participants learn how to solve difficult conflicts or problems – regardless of religion and background - in various workshops and courses.
This village halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv wants to become an oasis of peace in the heart of the conflict-ridden Middle East. Oasis of Peace, which is the translation of its two names "Neve Shalom" (Hebrew) and "Wahat as-Salam" (Arabic). Although this is a big promise for a small place, it seems to be delivering on this hot Friday morning in July.
In a building with a glass façade and walls filled with bookshelves, about twenty people sit in a semicircle of chairs: Women and men, young and old, Jewish and Muslim, women with covered and uncovered hair. A member of the Druze community from the north of the country is also present. For all their obvious differences, these people have one thing in common: a passion for environmental and climate protection. This is what has brought them together this Friday, which is already part of the weekend in Israel, to listen to sociologist Karni Krigel talk about the socioeconomic consequences of climate change.
The statistics she cites all suggest the same conclusion: While socioeconomically stronger populations contribute more to climate change than weaker ones, it is the latter who suffer the most from its consequences at the global, national, and local levels, and even within the family. This duality also translates to the realm of gender, as men for example drive more on average and therefore contribute more to emissions than women, Krigel explains.
An Arab participant comes forward and asks how the data for this statistic was collected: "The family car is often registered in the husband's name; perhaps this is why women's trips are underreported?" A Jewish participant raises her hand and a small debate develops, becomes lively, at times funny, and always respectful.
The Robert Bosch Stiftung supports sustainable peace through long-term funding in conflict regions. With local partners, the foundation initiates inclusive peace processes and the implementation of projects on the ground. The exchange between academics and practitioners is promoted worldwide in order to bring local approaches to peace into relevant debates.
These discussions are precisely the goal of the workshop, and of those hosting it. After all, the glass building the workshop takes place in belongs to the "School for Peace", an institution that works toward understanding between the Jewish and Arab populations of Israel.
Today's lecture is part of a multi-month program for Israeli citizens involved in environmental and climate protection, either professionally or as volunteers. The title of the project reads "Course to Train Change Agents to Promote Climate and Environmental Justice", and is funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung. It is no accident that the group is so diverse… In addition to climate justice, the seminar is also intended to accomplish something else: To establish a dialogue between the Jewish and Arab citizens of the country. For this reason, eight of the participants have a Jewish background, while the twelve others belong to the Arab-Palestinian minority within Israel.
25-year-old Nashwa Alrifahie is also participating in the workshop. She is from Lod, one of the so-called “mixed cities” in which both Jewish and Arab citizens live - unfortunately, not always peacefully. During an Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip in 2021, fierce violence erupted between the two groups in Lod. Even though peace has returned in the meantime, many political, social, and ecological problems remain unsolved.
"Our goal is to facilitate a better dialogue and thereby a better future for both groups."
"I live in a neglected neighbourhood," Nashwa Alrifahie reveals. "There's a rubber factory nearby that pollutes the air, and there's garbage on the streets all the time." The city administration is more concerned about the Jewish neighborhoods. To change this, Nashwa Alrifahie and other like-minded people have founded an organisation to improve the conditions in their neighborhood. "We want to demonstrate against the factory and call a Town Hall to demand that the rubbish be collected." This is the main driver for her application to the course in Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam: "This is where we learn to launch such initiatives."
The course includes eleven meetings extending over a six-month period. The first phase consists of expert lectures and Jewish-Arab dialogue sessions. In the second phase, the participants develop their own projects to promote environmental and climate protection in their home communities. "The environment is closely linked to the political context, especially Jewish-Palestinian relations", explains Roi Silberberg, the director of the "School for Peace" in Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam, which hosts the program in cooperation with other institutions. "The course is designed to show the power and energy with which we can address these issues when we consider both groups, their different interests, but also the power relationships between them."
The “School for Peace” has long shown that this approach works. It is not a school in the classical sense, but a training center and meeting place. Since its foundation in 1979, it has promoted a more egalitarian and just relationship between the various population groups in Israel. It is dedicated to peace, bringing people together for guided dialogue sessions, and creating understanding and empathy. Today, the institution works with Jewish and Arab schoolchildren, students, politicians, and employees from various professional groups. It organises workshops, training program, and special projects. Even when the courses seem to focus on other topics, they always raise awareness of the prevailing social conflicts in Israel.
The school also aims to sensitize participants to their own role in this conflict. Ideally, they develop an understanding of minority-majority relations in Israel, understand what concrete effects these power relations have on individuals, and are empowered to take responsibility for their own actions; Roi Silberberg speaks of a “critical understanding of reality”. Since the “School for Peace” was founded, 65,000 people have participated in its various courses and workshops.
For some years now, the institution has also been offering courses for professional development, for example in the fields of architecture, medicine, and psychology. Even in a professional setting, the school remains true to its basic principle: Both Jewish and Arab professionals are invited to each course, which inevitably includes an element of dialogue. "Our goal is to facilitate a better dialogue and thereby a better future for both groups", explains Silberberg.
Social initiatives have emerged from some of these courses. The participants in an architecture course, for example, have networked permanently in a Jewish-Arab planning forum, Silberberg reports. Stemming from another course just two years ago, a highly regarded project called "Jaffa Streets" has emerged, in which participants researched the former Arabic names of famous streets before the establishment of the State of Israel. They published their findings on social media and erected street signs with the original names. Projects like these, which aim to increase visibility and participation, can also heighten the understanding of injustice.
Inviting participants to meet in the rural and almost idyllic community of Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam is no coincidence, as the place itself stands for the vision of creating peace and understanding.
Jewish and Arab families founded Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salam in 1970 with the hope of creating a model for peaceful coexistence in Israel. Today, roughly 70 families live here, Jewish and Arab in equal numbers. Unlike in the standard Israeli education system in which Jewish and Arab children attend separate schools, the village's elementary school teaches all children together - in both Arabic and Hebrew language. The children learn how to celebrate Hanukkah and Ramadan, and why Jewish Israelis celebrate Independence Day while their fellow Arabs mourn the Nakba, the flight and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from what is now Israel.
"I want to promote social and environmental justice in my town. And I, myself, have to drive the change."
A beautiful place, with an even more beautiful vision that the “School for Peace” aims to carry beyond the village borders into Israeli society. But even the "Oasis of Peace" cannot always protect itself from violence and extremism: In September 2020, unknown intruders set fire to the main building of the school. To this day, the reconstruction has not been completed. For this reason, courses (including today’s) are currently being held in the school's glass library.
In the meantime, the lunch break has begun: Chatting animatedly, the participants load rice, couscous salad, fresh vegetables, and stuffed dumplings onto ceramic plates. There is no trace of the disposable tableware so popular in Israel; environmental protection is not only be preached here, but lived. The relaxed mood is not a foregone conclusion. The last session before the break covered national identities and the conflicts between them, topics that are highly politically and emotionally charged in Israel. In order to guarantee a safe atmosphere for the discussion, outside observers were not allowed to be present at this meeting.
According to participant Nahida Sakis, who, like many Arab citizens of Israel, identifies as a Palestinian, the discussions were controversial, but respectful. She is 25 years old and is studying a combination of biology and psychobiology at Tel Aviv University. Many of her fellow students are Jewish, she says, but she has never talked to them about sensitive political issues as openly as she did in the dialogue session. "You need a safe space to do that," she emphasises. "Such as here."
Nashwa Alrifahie from Lod is also in a good mood. "I came to the meeting with anger," she admits a few days later. Shortly before, there had been another shooting in her neighbourhood. "The course at Neve Shalom gave me the opportunity to talk about these things and work out solutions for them in the future," the young woman says.
The workshop also helped her make an important decision: "I want to promote social and environmental justice in my town. And I myself have to drive the change." This is why she now wants to run for a seat on the town council in the next local elections in Lod.