A Three Part Interview
Part 1 – Howard Shippin “I live as If the future is now”
Fifty-five families live in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam situated along Isreal’s infamous green line. The community keeps its population strictly split at 50-50—half Arab Palestinian, half Israeli Jew. The late Bruno Hussar, a Dominican monk, founded the village in the late 1960s, at first a few shacks on a hill, there are now 220 members. The community has an internationally renowned School For Peace, a bi-national primary school, a hotel, a spiritual center and several large meeting halls and administrative centers. The village’s sole purpose for existence, say many of its members, is simply to disprove the persistent modern myth that Arabs Palestinians and Israeli Jews cannot live together in harmony.
Of all the residents one finds at Wahat al-Salam, Howard Shippin is perhaps the most unexpected. He was born in Yorkshire, England and is neither Jewish nor Arab. He claims no religious affiliation but is married to a Jewish woman named Dorit, who heads the village’s Spiritual Center. Howard and Dorit have lived in the village for twenty-three years. Howard serves as the Communications and Development chief. He’s fifty-one years old and speaks Hebrew and English.
Jesse Nathan: Where does NSWAS’s confidence in co-existence come from? From what evidence does this insistence draw upon?
Howard Shippin: “Coexistence” is actually one of those words like “tolerance,” which don’t necessarily express what you want to say. It literally means that two entities exist together. And “tolerance” means that you are willing to “tolerate” the presence of the other party, although you may not enjoy doing so. So, using the word coexistence requires a mention of the kind of coexistence you are talking about. In the context of NSWAS we are striving towards a quality of coexistence where there is a sharing of authority and responsibilities, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. Any other form of coexistence perpetuates mutual antagonism and a power struggle, where each side will continue to fight for superiority rather than work for an integrative society that is enriched by its separate identities. Our model may not be perfect, but is sufficiently developed and durable enough to give us confidence that it has relevance to the macro-level conflict.
JN: This community has very humble beginnings. In the late 60s this spot was a barren hilltop where mostly itinerant, peace-minded souls gathered at the behest of a Jewish-born Dominican Monk. How did the village come into being?
HS: Bruno considered a true community to have gotten started when families took up residence here, in the late 1970s. Some of these were already involved in dialog work between Arabs and Jews. The number of families gradually increased from that time. In 1985, the village was recognized as such by the Ministry of the Interior, which means that it was on the map and the village was eligible for various services that were not there or supported by the authorities before that.
JN: Many villagers talk about NSWAS as a laboratory. What is daily life like?
HS: First, if members speak of a laboratory, perhaps they mean that the community is inhabited by two national groups who in the external reality coexist in a situation of conflict. Second, about 2/3 of the adult residents work outside of the village. Those who do work in the village, and those commute to jobs in the village, work in a binational, multi-cultural work environment. Those who do not work in the village have the opportunity to take part in village committees or volunteer their time for activities, such as in the youth center. In general, NSWAS villagers probably have greater community involvement than do residents of ordinary towns. There is a level of intensity about the place caused by the multiple roles that members find themselves in. One difference between NSWAS and other small communities is its heterogeneity. Communities have traditionally been founded upon aspects of ethnicity, culture, religion, politics or ideology that serve as unifying factors. Such aspects are absent or less prevalent here.
JN: The community’s self-governance seems to have worked well, considering that the community is already a few decades old. Are there issues or topics that are especially difficult for the community to process, things that seem more sensitive than most?
HS: One issue is Arabic. It has been very difficult to get Jewish residents to obtain a suitable level of Arabic so that meetings can be conducted in the two languages. Another issue is military service. Young Jewish residents receive mixed messages from the community and don’t get much support for their decision to serve or not to serve in the army. Formally, of course, this isn’t really a decision, since it is almost impossible for male Jewish citizens to be exempted for reasons of conscience in Israel.
JN: Are there certain moments when circumstances or current events cause folks around the country to fix more hostile or, as the case may be, more appreciative attention on the community?
HS: Last year we had the Roger Waters concert. The artist originally planned the concert for Tel Aviv, but changed the venue to NSWAS partly due to efforts by The Palestinian Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel, though NSWAS had also been discussed as a venue prior to the tour. It brought 60,000 people and caused three – to – five hour traffic jams on the Tel Aviv – Jerusalem highway. So naturally that brought a lot of attention to the village, so that today it would be hard to find an Israeli who hasn’t heard of it. The community has symbolic value as a place where Arabs and Jews live in peace together, whether or not the concept of the village is fully understood. Ways in which we reach the news are unpredictable. For instance, last week, after a spate of recent incidences of sports violence and incitements to racism, representatives of supporters of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem basketball teams came to the village to discuss ways to calm fans of the two teams. They came because the village is midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and is seen as a symbol of tolerance and coexistence. Once, at about 1 AM just after the start of the second Intifada I was having trouble getting to sleep with all that was happening. The radio station I had on played a song by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush called “Don’t Give Up” and then the DJ came on and said that despite all that was happening, there was at least one village where Jews and Arabs were still living together in peace. I don’t know what made her think of us.
JN: How does NSWAS’s educational approach—in the primary school, in the peace school, in general—grapple with the way the two sides see and articulate the conflict to and among themselves?
HS: On this side of the Green Line, there is the problem of the Palestinian narrative having been suppressed in Arab schools. This year , in a controversial move, the Israeli Education Ministry finally permitted the use of the term “Nakba” in a school textbook – though only for Arab students. Children of primary school age do not learn the history of modern Israel. However, in the framework of learning about national holidays, our children here learn that there are two historical narratives that coexist side by side. It is desirable that the children will grow up strong and confident in their own identity without feelings of guilt or impotence. However, we want them also to develop an understanding of and sensitivity for the viewpoint and historical narrative of the other people. This is not a matter of textbook learning. The children bring stories from home, and visit ruined villages within walking distance of NSWAS.
JN: I just read in The San Francisco Chronicle about a recent archaeological discovery on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, site of the Al Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Israeli archaeologists made the find and some Israelis are seizing this as further proof that Israel’s claim to the land is the most legitimate.
HS: I often wonder whether the true Jews aren’t really the Palestinians. Two thousand years ago, some of the Jews went into exile. Others remained, changed their religion and, with a certain amount of intermingling, became the Palestinians of today. South of Mt. Hebron there are even people who retain certain Jewish customs, although outwardly they are Muslims. The Jews who, a couple of thousand years ago, left to Europe or the Arab countries, mingled and acquired the genes of the nations to which they departed. So about half of today’s Israelis are ethnically and culturally Arab. When you look at the situation in this way, historical proofs such as you mention fade into insignificance.
JN: Does it ever feel artificial, living in a community that so carefully maintains a 50-50 balance between Arabs and Israeli Jews?
HS: The numerical ratio is just a loose framework that is quickly forgotten in everyday life.
JN: I read early village newsletters that talked about olive crops and raising goats. These days, there’s no real business or industry happening in the community. Economically, how does the village stay afloat?
HS: Olives were planted both to greenify the hillside and because olives require little irrigation. However, the land upon which the olives were planted has reverted to the neighboring Latrun Abbey now. In the 1980s, there was an experiment at sheep farming which did not succeed very well. We do not have land for agriculture and do not have any real plans to get into industry. There is a small hotel and swimming pool. The community is not a communal settlement and is therefore not dependent upon the development of communal enterprises, as in a kibbutz. About two thirds of the residents commute to jobs in nearby cities or are independently employed. The rest work in the educational institutions, the hotel or the municipal offices. The educational institutions are financed largely by foundations, private donations, the state, or participant fees. A network of friends’ associations in Europe and North America help to raise funds for their programs and sometimes for development projects.
JN: Has any sort of long-term goal been articulated amongst villagers to be financially independent as a community someday?
HS: As the village grows, it becomes less dependent upon outside help for its municipal needs. The planned new neighborhoods will be financed largely by those who build houses. The educational institutions will probably never be self-supporting and will continue to require support from foundations and friends associations.
JN: Meanwhile, NSWAS is growing. How does the village handle expansion logistically? What is the process there—and what are the hopes?
HS: We have reached the limits of the original master plan, which included about 55 homes. Future building will be according to an expansion plan with 92 homes, for which we are currently completing the bureaucratic process. New families will lease their lot from the village, and pay development and infrastructure costs. They will plan a home, have the plan approved, and then build. As in the past, families desiring to join the community will be screened and approved by an application committee elected by the community. The current fifty-fifty ratio of Arab and Jewish families will be preserved.
JN: The younger generations—the kids who grew up in the village—are returning to live in NSWAS, right?
HS: Many of the young people see their future in the village, and some are in the process of setting up home here. Unfortunately, we probably won’t have room for all of them, if we want new people to join, too.
JN: So do you have a cap in terms of the number of people you’d ultimately like in the village?
HS: No. However the expansion plan will add another 92 homes and this is all the land available to us at present.
JN: What is the your long-term hope for the village?
HS: Responses to such a question would always be personal. I would like Israel to become an integrated multicultural nation that extends equality and justice to all of its citizens, acts to redress historical injustices, and works to resolve the conflict with its neighbors. Whether or not these things happen, I hope that NSWAS will remain relevant and creative as a force for social change and education for peace.
This is part one of a three part interview with some of the elders of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. The interviews published here are heavily edited for length. Following the third installment the entire 30,000 word transcript will be made available for download as a pdf.