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From Capitol Hill to Hill of Peace

Congressman Baird’s Tour of NSWAS

August 2007

Wed., Aug. 8, 2007 – US Congressman Brian Baird, a member of the United States House of Representatives representing Washington State’s 3rd congressional district visited NSWAS for an afternoon visit and overnight stay in the village Guest House.

Before embarking upon his current study tour of the Middle East, the Congressman was unwavering in his determination to make an overnight stop in NSWAS, as the Middle East’s sole intentional Palestinian Arab-Jewish community. Congressman Baird learned about the village earlier this year from NSWAS Communications & Development Director Ahmad Hijazi. Ahmad had been in the capital to help drum up support for the ALLMEP People-to-People Coexistence Program in the Middle East.

Congressman Baird came with an entourage that included Lt. Colonel Carolyn Closs-Walford, a Department of Defense liaison, US Embassy staff Ibrahim Shaqir and two security officers. A busy program had been planned. On their arrival late Wednesday afternoon, the delegation was welcomed by Ahmad Hijazi, village resident and school teacher Rim Nashef and members of the Communications and Development Office staff, which currently includes a volunteer who is native to Congressman Baird’s home state of Washington. The guests were given an introduction to the village and watched a short documentary film. Later, Boaz Kita’in, who chairs the Association of NSWAS educational institutions, joined the group to provide a brief introduction to the village and its guiding philosophy.

Directly after this orientation, Congressman Baird and his colleagues were escorted to The Pluralistic Spiritual Center. Abdessalam Najjar explained the work of the Center, spoke of the importance of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue; then gave a tour of the facilities, including the House of Silence.

Next on the tour was the binational Primary School, where the principal, Anwar Dawod, told about the school and activities planned for the coming year. In particular, he highlighted the “Healthy School” program, where the students will learn a holistic approach to overall health and well-being.

Next to speak were Noam Shuster, a young Jewish woman and Ranin Boulos, a young Palestinian woman, both graduates of the Primary School; the two are lifelong best friends who grew up together in the village. When someone asked, “which one of you is Palestinian and which one of you is Jewish”? the girls only laughed; as their appearances can be quite deceiving. They also expressed their deep appreciation for their bilingual, binational upbringing. They said this gives them a special perspective when promoting the village’s work for peace and understanding. Speaking on behalf of the second generation of NSWAS, they made a point of thanking the founding generation for having creating this very special community.

The tour concluded with a talk by Dr. Nava Sonnenschein of the School for Peace. Her discussion of the psychological components of Jewish and Palestinian ethnic self-identity was of particular interest to Congressman Baird, who was trained as a clinical psychologist. Nava also elaborated on the range of SFP programs involving training sessions, workshops, and conferences that reach out to Jewish and Palestinian participants from diverse professional backgrounds as well as everyday citizens.

After a short break, a meal of Middle-Eastern salads, grilled fish and dolmas was served alfresco on the Guest House balcony. Congressman Baird took the occasion to laud the village’s work for peace, equality and understanding between Palestinians and Jews and asked what he could do to help. Ahmad gave concrete suggestions pertaining to US funding for peace work, since legislation that will affect this is currently up for discussion in Washington. Congressman Baird also promised to help with the "Green Village" Project (which aims to make NSWAS more environmentally and economically sustainable).

Having spent half a day getting to know the village and its work first-hand, Congressman Baird said he was impressed by the usefulness of his visit in gaining an accurate, balanced perspective of the conflict. Of his own initiative, he said he would use his good offices to bring a full delegation of Representatives and Senators to the village, in order that they could see how different things could be.

Before their departure on Thursday morning, the Congressman and Carolyn (and, more reluctantly, the two security men) rose at the crack of dawn for a jog with Bob and Shelby through the pine woods surrounding the village. On their run, they visited the Byzantine-era mosaic being excavated by the children of the Primary School and enjoyed the fresh cool morning air that reminded the Representative of his childhood in the Colorado mountains.

This visit, which managed to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time, left us with a solid impression that we have gained an enthusiastic ally on Capitol Hill. We are extremely grateful to Congressman Baird and his delegation for having taken the time and trouble to visit Neve Shalom -Wahat al-Salam during his Middle East fact-finding mission.

Article credits: Shelby Port (writing), Deb Reich (editing), Bob Mark (photos).

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