04/25/04 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom
Friendship blossoms in an oasis of peace

DENVILLE - Laila Najjar and Adi Frish seem to be typical of girlfriends in their early 20s. They like to go shopping and dancing together. They say they can laugh about the same joke thousands of times.

"I like her sense of humor," said Frish, 21, of her lifelong friend.

"We're like in the same head," said 20-year-old Najjar.

And yet they come from opposing cultures that most often are marked by hatred, violence and bloodshed. Najjar is a Palestinian Arab. Frish is an Israeli Jew.

Theirs is no ordinary friendship.

They grew up together as neighbors in the village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, which translates into English to mean the "Oasis of Peace."

Situated midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the village is home to 50 families. Jointly established by Jews and Palestinian Arabs in 1978, the community was designed as a place for both to live, work and raise families together.

The two friends were among the first children born in the village, and for two weeks they are traveling around the United States to show Americans that Arabs and Jews can co-exist peacefully. They've visited synagogues, churches, mosques and universities in Chicago, Madison, Wis., and Philadelphia, and Saturday spent the evening at the Denville home of Aref Assaf.

Assaf, a Palestinian-American and a member of the New Jersey chapter of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, opened his home to 50 fellow Arab-Americans and neighbors to hear the young women's message of peace.

Assaf said he agreed to host the women to show there is another way to resolve the 55-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict. He said the two women give him hope, and he is committed to supporting and promoting the idea of co-existence.

"It is time for us to take a stand," Assaf told the gathering, "for both sides to live together, not to fight each other … Hopefully you can open your eyes and hearts to the reality that is symbolized by these two young ladies."

In addition to Arab-Americans in attendance, Assaf also invited neighbors and friends who have no stake in the conflict. Victor and Mathilda DeLorenzo of Denville attended because they wanted to hear the women's extraordinary story.

"It's an interesting perspective to hear from two women who have lived together in harmony," Mathilda DeLorenzo said.

"That's not what you usually hear about in the media. I never thought something like this was possible."

Cousins and Palestinian-Americans Arwa Hazin, 33, an accountant from Totowa, and Jehad Hazin, 28, a Little Falls teacher, said they attended to hear and discuss Arabs and Jews living side by side.

The two had spent four weeks last summer with an international delegation visiting Israel. They saw the Samaritan Jews, Christians and Muslims living together harmoniously in Nablus, Arwa Hazin said.

"There is no reason why Arabs and Jews cannot live side by side," Arwa Hazin said. "I don't think that's the question. It's about power and politics."

Najjar, who is studying jewelry design at the Academy for Art and Design in Jerusalem, said she wants to show others that "our relationship is beautiful and important to have."

Although she said she does not have the solution for ending the violence, she believes that peace can be achieved if both sides agree to work hard and honestly toward that end.

"I hope they can see from my relationship with Adi a little example of how, if we work together, we can achieve peace," Najjar said.

The success of the village is based on the ideal of equality, said Frish, who is a manager for a national health club chain. She and Najjar said they accept people as they are.

"We can love each other no matter if we're different and we can treat each other as equals," Frish said.

When asked whether either would consider marrying a man from the opposite culture, Najjar said that she would not for cultural reasons, and because she feels that the outside world and the conflict would make it too difficult.

Frish, however, said she would consider it if she fell in love with an Arab man.

"I should know that it will be harder than any other relationship," Frish said, "and I will have to think is love worth all the conflict that could come."

Laura Bruno can be reached at lbruno2@gannett.com or (973) 428-6626.
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