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In Memoriam: Abdessalam Najjar

Friday 23 March 2012

It’s still too early for us to digest the enormous loss to our community of Abdessalam, who was both one of our earliest members, and one of the most influential. On March 22, 2012 he left us, after more than 30 years in the village. The man embodied his ideals and his Arabic name: he was truly a servant of peace.

(photo album link)

On this page we will be gathering some photos and testimony. For now we will include a little biographical information. For some reactions and condolesces from friends, see also our Facebook page.

Abdessalam Najjar was born in 1952 in Nazareth, North Israel. He came from a family of devout Muslims: his father and brother are Imams.

Abdessalam decided to become involved in peace education whilst he was studying at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, where his first meaningful encounter with Jewish students took place. He quickly realized the importance of developing Jewish Arab dialogue to counteract hostilities which characterized Jewish Arab relations. He began to initiate encounters based on dialogue between other Arab and Jewish students, by advertising on campus and working with official student bodies. He aimed to include as many people who were interested to meet the ’other’. Each time a violent episode would occur in the region, Abdessalam would respond by organizing discussions between Arab and Jewish students.

Abdessalam’s commitment to promoting Jewish Arab dialogue continued when he transferred his studies to the town of Rechovot. Dialogue groups between Jewish and Arab students organized by Abdessalam became more established and people from outside of the university would also join to meet the ’other.’ Dialogue groups for Jews and Arabs were held at least once a week. The work of Abdessalam became well known and he was regularly invited to speak at Jewish schools about life for Arabs living in Israel. For many Jewish children and young adults, meeting Abdessalam and learning about his story was their first experience of meeting and listening to an Arab. Abdessalam through his work was opening the door of communication for hundreds of Jews and Arabs.

In 1976 whilst studying in Rechovot, Abdessalam first met Father Bruno Hussar, who shared with him his vision of building a Jewish Arab village in Israel. Two years later Abdessalam became the first Arab to join the community of Wahat Al Salam Neve Shalom, The Oasis of Peace (WASNS). A local monastery had gifted the land for the establishment for the Jewish Arab village. During the early years, residents lived in primitive huts without electricity. Yet despite the difficult living conditions Abdessalam was determined to create an example of Jewish Arab cooperation which would succeed.

Once the village was founded, Abdessalam, worked with other village members to develop educational institutions which would exert influence beyond the village itself. Today there is a Primary School, School for Peace and Pluralistic Spiritual Centre all dedicated to providing peace education for Jews and Arabs. Recently a library was built to further academic peace studies and there are plans to develop a masters program in peace education. The village has become home to fifty five families, half Jewish and half Arab. Homes are now being built for the second generation and the village has plans to expand to accommodate ninety one more families.

In 1977, Abdessalam began teaching at an Arab High School in Jerusalem. Abdessalam used his position at the school to bring Arab students to WASNS to meet with Jewish students from other schools. He would ask teachers from Jewish High Schools to bring students from their schools to the village in order to facilitate informal encounters. Abdessalam also visited Principals and leaders of youth clubs to persuade them to join Arab Jewish encounters at the village. The village had become a place where Jews and Arabs could meet comfortably on ’neutral territory’. At that time encounters would take place outside, sitting amongst thistles and stones underneath makeshift shades. From these encounters The School for Peace, an educational institution for Jewish Arab youth and adult encounters was founded. The School for Peace was built in WASNS in 1979. To date over fifty thousand Jews and Arabs have participated in programs there.

In the 1980s as the first children of the village were born, the need to provide an education which enabled Jews and Arabs to learn together became apparent. A Jewish mother and an Arab mother were asked to take on the responsibility of looking after the small children of the village, using their own languages to communicate to all the children. In 1983 Abdessalam was asked by the village management to re-train to teach young children so that he could teach in the Primary School. In 1984 the first class of the first bi-national, bilingual school in Israel was opened taught by Abdessalam and a Jewish colleague. Nine Jewish and Arab children from three different school years were taught together.

One of the greatest challenges of teaching Jewish and Arab children was delivering a curriculum which included languages of both peoples, nationalities and cultures. There was no ’shared’ Arab Jewish curriculum and regular educational material existed either for Arabs or Jews. Throughout Israel, as is the case mostly today, Jews and Arabs are taught in separate educational systems. All materials used had to be carefully developed to accommodate Hebrew and Arabic. Despite minimal support from the Ministry of Education and concern in the village as to how viable the school would be, the school flourished.

By 1990 the school was sufficiently developed for the community to decide to extend its influence and open to children outside of the village. Today over two hundred Jewish and Arab children from over twenty neighboring towns and villages attend the school. The school educates Jewish and Arab children together, in both Hebrew and Arabic. The school’s educational philosophy is based on tolerance, understanding and respect. The school has become a model to other bilingual, bi-national schools which have since developed.

In 1983 a close friend of Abdessalam, Emil Grunzweig was killed whist demonstrating at a peace rally in Jerusalem. In honor of Emil, Abdessalam and others established the Adam Institute, which develops and implements programs that promote education for democracy and peace, civic education and methods of conflict resolution. The Adam Institute operates from Israel.

In 1986 Abdessalam suffered from a heart attack and left the teaching profession. He took on a less pressured role in the community, working as the general secretary. His new position enabled him to dedicate more time to peace education outside of the village. He began working to establish the Arab Department of the International Cultural Centre for Youth in Jerusalem. For the first time the Centre included Arabic and Islamic art and culture in their programmes, for many Jews this would be their first exposure to ’the other.’

In the recent period, Abdessalam headed the Pluralistic Spiritual Centre in WASNS. The Centre provides an educational framework for bringing people together from different religions for interfaith dialogue and gives a spiritual dimension to peace education.

Abdessalam focused his efforts on providing peace education to Jews and Arabs in the mixed Jewish Arab town of Acre in northern Israel. Acre has become the site of tensions and violent clashes between the two peoples. Abdessalam facilitated dialogue and mediation workshops for Jewish and Arab community leaders of the town, to meet each other and find ways to cooperate together. As a result of this project, plans are now being formulated by Jewish and Arab community leaders of Acco to develop a bilingual kindergarten for Arab and Jewish children, run empowerment courses for Jewish and Arab women and develop shared projects for tourism and the local economy.

Among the organizations that mourn his passing are the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, in which he held the post of co-vice-chairperson.

Abdessalam dedicated his whole life to peace education through his commitment to improving Jewish Arab relations in Israel and the region. He traveled to Kosovo to use his expertise in the field to influence positive change. His long term plans were to develop peace education using mediation in a multicultural context in partnership with groups from Italy and America. He continued meanwhile to be an active member of the WASNS community, providing consultation to the primary school and The School for Peace. His commitment to improving Arab Jewish relations through peace education remained steadfast, weathering both the storms and the doldrums of the Middle East conflict.

Honors and distinctions:

1998 "Seeds of Peace" from Confronti Magazine, for promoting interfaith dialogue in Italy.

1997 Paul Harris Award for promoting peace in the world.

1993 Niwano Peace Price, Japan (co-recipient)

1987 Buber - Rosenzweig Award for promoting peace between Moslems, Christians and Jews. Germany

1982 Made honorary citizen of the City of Philadelphia, PA. USA

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