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The mood in the Village

Thursday 10 January 2008, by Abdessalam Najjar

Compiled from interviews with a varied sample of village residents in November 2007

Many of our friends have expressed an interest recently in knowing more about how Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam residents view the important issues on our agenda today. With the aim of responding intelligently and comprehensively, I accepted the task of interviewing a diverse sample of village residents as the basis for a general report. I conducted 14 interviews with a group of people who, in my judgment, provide a reasonably representative sample of the various subgroups in our community. I interviewed each person separately, for 30-60 minutes each: Arabs and Jews, men and women, longtime residents and relative newcomers, people employed in our institutions and those working outside.

The main points I wanted to learn about were:

— Given that the original declared objectives of the village are peace, equality and justice, within our community and beyond, do the educational institutions of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam and the village itself provide an appropriate and effective framework for these purposes?

— In the opinion of the respondents, what are the most significant challenges facing the community today?

— What are the chief problems confronting the community today?
— Given that our Friends’ Associations have recently expressed interest and concern regarding political issues in this country and in the community as well, I asked respondents about the political issue(s): Are there political issues? Is there a dominant, articulated political stance expressed by the community (for example, supporting or opposing the most recent war in Lebanon)?

— How do people deal with ideological debate in the community? Is there any consensus on the ideological foundation of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam? And how does each person, individually, experience this debate? Does he/she participate or not?

— The question was posed to each respondent: What keeps you here in this community?

This report is unofficial and informal and does not purport to be a scientific survey; I will try to convey the responses as I received them, to give you, the reader, insofar as possible an unmediated sense of what people are feeling and thinking here, so that you can draw your own conclusions.

With regard to the quotes from people’s responses, please note: Many interviewees said that they were glad of the opportunity to speak out in this way, that they would normally not voice opinions in large public forums; this interview process, without judgments, without arguments and opposition, provided a useful framework for these residents to make their views known and brought us information we might not otherwise have heard. Using follow-up questions and clarifications, I did my best to enable the interviewee to clarify exactly what he or she thought and what he or she meant. People felt that this interview method could provide a good basis for dialogue and discussion in the community.

Is Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam doing its job?

The first question we addressed was, does the village, along with its institutions, provide an appropriate and effective framework for pursuing its original aims of peace, equality, and justice?
Not a single one of the people interviewed had any doubts about this. Everyone responded that the integrative partnership of the village and the educational institutions is among the best and most effective frameworks for doing this work. People felt that Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam is doing more, on every level, than any other organization.

— “This model is the best model for peace work.”

— “Educational institutions give the village its moral power and its spiritual force.”

— “The idea is still considered revolutionary — shared and egalitarian community life in actual practice.”

— “It’s a fact that the village has accomplished more on the basis of equality and consensus between Arabs and Jews than anyone else on the outside. This shows that we are working in the right direction.”

— “For me, it is more important that the village has a message for those outside, not just that there be equality within the community, but also calling on others to behave this way.”

A large proportion of the respondents thought that there is greater potential here than is currently being utilized – particularly in terms of the educational activity, not necessarily by creating new educational institutions, but by having existing ones expand the scale of their activities and create new types of programs. Some thought that developing new institutions was also important, to enable more village people to participate in the work of Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam. There is a feeling that among the residents are many able and experienced people who have not yet found a way to be involved.

Challenges facing the community

Concerning challenges facing Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam at this time: The major challenge mentioned by people is the expansion of the (residential part of) the village. The reasons for this choice were varied.

— “The village is small from a social standpoint, both for adults and for children.”

— “The existing community lacks depth in its cultural activity; a small number of people with a lot of desires.”

— “Our community is small; we hesitate to open painful issues, and when we finally do talk about them, we don’t let ourselves go deeply into them. If we were a larger community, there would be less of this kind of fear.”

The challenge of community expansion encompasses several subjects. The first part is about selection of the candidate families: Who are the most suitable families? And the supposedly technical (but not really technical) questions are about the contract between families and the community: legal rights to the property and payment per family for those rights, while insuring that Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam does not lose the right to choose who will live here.

Additional challenges

Management issues. Respondents mentioned implementation of community reorganization, mainly the separation from a management standpoint of the community’s educational institutions from the municipality, and the introduction of a more “professional” management at all levels, not just in the educational institutions but also in the community. On the other hand, some people thought that residents who work outside must be provided with more opportunity to participate in running the community during their leisure hours.

The primary school. The majority agree that the primary school is the most important institution in the village.

— “A successful school means a successful community.”

— “Investing more in the school would make it stronger, and larger, and could enable the staff to do more writing about the school.”

And various other issues:

— “Developing the idea of the village further, and making it part of the public discourse in Israel. “

— “A clearer definition of our central concepts, like equality, cooperation, justice – from a practical standpoint.”
“Involvement of more women in public positions in the community.”

— “Developing additional projects with economic potential, to provide more jobs for residents and reduce dependence on the outside.”

People felt there is a need for discussion and decisions about the younger generation in the village. This, on two levels: first, to develop activities, develop the youth club, and help it evolve into a high-level educational institution that can carry on the idea of the school for children (from seventh grade onward) who go on to junior and senior high schools outside. Secondly, we must formalize our position with regard to youngsters who want to go on living in the community as adults.

“I am not open to the idea that a family from outside has more rights than a young person who grew up here.”

Problems

Problems sometimes seem to arise from a disparity between residents’ understanding of processes, the depth of their lived experience, and the perspectives of people who do not live here, even when the latter are friends and supporters.

Another source of problems is the lack of governmental support for the infrastructures and public institutions of the village and for its educational institutions. Even when minimal support has been forthcoming, for the primary school for example, it often comes at the price of a contradiction with the basic underlying goals and philosophy of the school.

— “We are far from the (mainstream) consensus because it is still far from accepting shared egalitarian living as we define it.”

— “Even when the community does achieve greater levels of sharing and equality, people outside the village experience it as non-egalitarian.”

— “To live in a shared community based on equality, justice and peace in an environment of conflict is not easy.”

— “Competition and struggle between Jews and Arabs within the community is only natural.”

— “Outside intervention does not make things any easier.”

People were divided sharply on some issues, depending on their own perspective and experience:

For instance:

Some mentioned that only a small number of people take initiative and responsibility, while others said that the way things are prevents them from taking a more serious of a role.
People involved in or close to the management of the community said that because it is so small, successful management and provision of services is very difficult to achieve without help from the establishment or some other outside entity. Others mentioned that the taxes paid here are higher than elsewhere [and should enable superior services].

Other opinions:

— “The lack of clarity about the nature of our relationship with the Friends’ Associations is a problem; there are no clear agreements such as those that exist between the community and the foundations that provide support.”

— “We are cautious about making political declarations, due to our fear of losing support. People in public positions are attacked if they express radical personal opinions.”

— “There are problems in collecting taxes from residents and fees from parents of students [in the educational system].”

Politics

We queried the nature of the political atmosphere in the village, and asked whether residents had recently become more politically outspoken. The general feeling among most respondents is that there is no political discourse in the village, and if there is, it is inadequate. Most would like to see more political discussions within the community, between members, and would also like the village and its educational institutions to organize politically oriented gatherings for outsiders.
“There was no political discourse in the past and we don’t have any now, either, and the lack of it bothers me.”

— “There are no political or ideological clarifications between us... the cobbler goes barefoot.”

— “Once upon a time we had political activities together... maybe because we were young.”

— “At my workplace outside, I express more political opinions and I evoke more political interest.”

— “The community and its institutions are a political idea and also a political statement. The outcome is a political outcome and the political color is leftist with a belief in egalitarian cooperation between the two sides.” The same speaker added, “Anyone who does not accept the idea of equality and supports imposed solutions or who accepts the occupation and justifies war and violence, would be a strange person to live at Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam.”

— “I can say that the community is more political today... because we have more experience, particularly insights into what inter-group relations are about.”

— “I think that we must participate in political dialogues and must not look at problems through a rose-colored lens.”
“The political discourse in the village is no different than that outside.”

— “The village has always been political, ever since its founding, but it is not involved in partisan political activities.”

— “I don’t believe in superficial political debate if it is not backed up by actions that support the position taken.”

— “Every activity has its political dimension, even one that is defined as religious or social.”

— “Not undertaking political activity is a political statement.”

Dealing with ideological disagreements in the community
The interesting thing is that most people see themselves as ideological people, as ideologically motivated. They emphasized their ability to hear opposing opinions and to participate in discussion.

— “I myself try to encourage ideological discussions. I accept that there are different opinions and disagreements on various subjects... [yet] when I encounter disagreement, I am frustrated.”

— “I always try to understand my own feelings before I formulate a position about someone else. If I don’t understand myself, I can’t understand the other person.”

— “There are no ideological arguments [in the village]; the disagreements are more administrative.”

— “In the few ideological arguments there are in the village, I find myself learning, learning, learning.”

— “Although I don’t have an easy time with ideological discussions and although I am hurt by opinions very different from my own, I don’t concede my position. Maybe that also hurts other people.”

— “Stubbornness is the way I deal with ideological discussions.”

Why we stay

The last question was about why people choose to stay in the village. Just as people had various things to say about the village and its educational institutions at the outset of the interview, they also gave various reasons for why they remain here.
“This is a creative enterprise of which I am part, and I am proud of it, despite all the criticism.”

— “An egalitarian Jewish-Arab community is one of the most difficult challenges in Israel.”

— “In the community, I feel that I have an opportunity to contribute and also to receive, more than on the outside.”

— “The integration of community life and educational work permits life to have depth.”

— “I enjoy my life here every day, especially everything relating to the education of the children.”

— “When I take out the struggles over power, I have a very good foundation for an excellent and an interesting life.”

— “In the twenty years that I have lived here, my experience has been that life improves, and we as a family don’t see any other place where we would enjoy living.”

— “This is my home and this is my life, and I don’t ask myself this question [’what keeps me here?’] every day.”

Afterword

The process gave me an insight about the question of community participation. When people don’t come to big meetings or take on major tasks, we judge them negatively, assuming that they do not want to get involved. Yet, when I asked 15 people to give a small amount of time to this survey, all but one were ready and willing to participate. Note that I was not speaking with the officials who generally speak on behalf of the community and its institutions (administrators, heads of the various departments). I wanted an authentic impression from community members.

When I approached people to participate and asked if they would do so, some asked if I would be willing to write all their criticism and I said of course — that this is one of the goals of the survey – to hear criticism. In the event, people did not express much criticism.

Nearly all the respondents said that they felt good about participating in the interview process and most thought that the survey should be undertaken in a more in-depth and broad way, both as something helpful to the community and as the basis for a long article, or even a book. Meanwhile, it is safe to assume that, if someone else had conducted these interviews, possibly the outcome would have been somewhat different. That is one good reason to repeat the process; in addition, most likely a larger sample would uncover additional ideas. Given the relatively brief time frame and the other limitations, however, the responses appear to cover a lot of ground.

In the report, I have tried to include every opinion expressed, but when the same idea was expressed more than once, it was not quoted again.

I hope the interviews will help everyone get a sense of how things are in the village these days. All feedback and suggestions are most welcome.


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