Father Bruno Hussar was getting impatient. After about six very difficult years working on Neve-Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, his vision of a village of peace, no one but hippies in search of gurus, was showing up. So Father Bruno got tough. He gave God an ultimatum. That's right, God. He wanted two signs, or he would give up the village and return to Jerusalem, where his superiors were getting impatient with him. He wanted a family to move to the village and he wanted enough money for the School for Peace. All within one year.
Neve-Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, literally Oasis of Peace in both Hebrew and Arabic, was nominated for the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize. So, obviously the ultimatum worked. Not too many folks would have the audacity to challenge the Big Guy. Father Bruno does. This Dominican monk had a dream. And his tenacity paid off, for his dream is now reality.
In Israel, a country where, as Father Bruno puts it, everything starts with a dream, he dreamt of a village that wouldn't be far from Jerusalem, where Jews and Arabs would live in equality and peace and friendship.
"We were very affected by the fact that Israel is such a developing country. And we started dreaming of something that could break down walls of fear, of prejudice, ofstereotypes, ignorance about the other one and so one. And something that could build bridges of respect, and hopefully of friendship."
He wanted to show the country, indeed the world, that co-existence is possible if one believes it is and if one is ready to pay the price.
The School for Peace is part of the village. The School was established for mainly young people at the end of their secondary studies. The young people are usually between the ages of 15 to 18. Both Jewish and Palestinian Arab youth come together with the intention of peaceful dialogue and exchange among them. The School for Peace is an independent educational institution operating in cooperation with other educational frameworks in Israel, and peace organizations working in the area of Jewish/Arab relationships. As of this year, over 14,000 teenagers have participated from the School's activities and about 1,000 adults have benefitted from the workshops and courses offered to them.
Workshops are conducted in both Hebrew and Arabic. Some of the educational methods used are roleplaying, reflective techniques, experimental exercises and simulation games.
All this began in1970, when Father Bruno started the Society of Neve-Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. Before he started the Society, he was lecturing in the United States and Canada. At the end of each of his lectures, Father Bruno would talk about "what I then called the wild dream of Neve-Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. And people quite often said to me 'You cannot do that in Israel.'" Everywhere was opposition, if in thought only. The same stereotypes and myths were behind the negativity, just the things Father Bruno was trying to do away with.
"Theodore Hertzl had a word that became famous ... Agada. It can be roughly translated to Utopia. And that is carved on his tomb. So I said to those people, 'If the Holy One wants, if God wants, it will not be Agada.'"
One drawback to Neve-Shalom was Father Bruno had no land to situate the village upon. "If you want some land, you must have money to get it, and we hadn't any money, not a penny." The Holy One must have been smiling upon Father Bruno, because in 1969, he met the Head of the Trappists monastery in Latrun, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Father Ely said he'd heard about the dream and wanted to help. The monastery owned a 100 acre hill, that was in the demilitarized no-man's separating Israel from the part of Palestine previously occupied by Jordan. The monks eventually signed a contract of lease for one hundred years, on symbolic terms. Meaning a few cents covers the rent, which has been paid in advance.
"We then started six or seven very difficult pioneering years. The land had never been inhabitated nor cultivated since the 14th century, the Byzantines, at least. There was a not a drop of water nor a single tree. And in that country, where water and shade are the most important things, it means something. There were only rocks and thistles and thorns. We were very happy to start from nothing."
A minor understatement on Father Bruno's part. He lived in a crate, albeit a big crate, for four years; "We carved a window in the door, [and] put in a mosquito net against snakes and scorpions. You can very well live for years in such a place. Between the mattress and the table there was a space of 80 centimetres where I could do a few movements of yoga in the morning.
"And when I celebrated the Eucharist I just sat down on a cushion in that space. The alter was one of those Arab mats, just in front of me and two or three people sitting on their heels. And those were the most prayerful masses I ever celebrated. I'm a Catholic priest, a Dominican ..."
Father Bruno's parents were Jewish: "My parents were not practising at all and I had no Jewish education, apart from circumsion.
"I was born in Cairo, Egypt where my mother tongues were English and French. My father was Hungarian and my mother was French. I did all my studies in Italian schools in Cairo until the age of 18 when I came to France. My father died and I followed my mother to France. I started studying to be an engineer and I looked for God. Not from the Jewish standpoint that I didn't have, but from the standpoint of nothing at all."
Father Bruno was finally baptized by the Catholic church and after the second World War, Father Bruno came into the Dominican order. "And there for the first time I read the Bible seriously. I felt what we call Jewish consciousness. I felt that Book is mine. I belong to the Jewish people, just like Jesus himself was a Jew, and all the apostles were Jews."
Life was very tough at Neve-Shalom in the beginning. "We lived without water, going everyday four km away with a tractor to fetch 700 litres of water, without electricity, without roads ..." and the list goes on. But the most important element missing was the people.
"We had quite often visits from people in the country, Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and sometimes people said that they'd like to come and live with us. They would like us the share our ideal and our work for peace. 'But', they said, 'we've got a family, we've got a home, we've got a job. Your style of life is too primitive and we're not sure to be here next year. We' see if you succeed, we may come to live with you.'"
The people who did show up were the young people who had gone throughout the world in search of a society better than the ones they had left. They came from all over the world. Many of them had been to India to find a guru. They were not interested in the situation of the country, but says Father Bruno: "They had the main thing, brotherly love. And they enabled us to live and to be known during those pioneering years."
Eventually, after many difficulties, Neve Shalom was slowly becoming known. Word was getting out of this village on a hill, where Arabs and Jews could live together. Then in 1978, (after his ultimatum) the first family arrived.
"And families started coming, Jewish families, Palestinian Arab families. We started getting a little money from groups of Germans and Swiss who came. That enabled us to get linked to the water suply and to buy a generator for power."
The village now has 15 families. Half of them Jewish and the other half Palestinian Arabs, according to Father Bruno. Thirty of these people are children. The village has a school for the children with both Jewish and Arab teachers. Authorities almost didn't grant the village permission for a school because, ironically the village had no air raid shelter: "The administrative authorities can't understand and Oasis of Peace wouldn't need an air raid shelter!" Finally a Jewish woman contributed $20,000 to the shelter and the village got its school for children.
Do the Jewish and Arab children ever fight?
Our children do fight, but not between Arabs and Jews; between a child and another child. They can fight as well a Jew against a Jew and an Arab against an Arab. There's absolutely no difference...because of religion."
There's never been, especially among the children. I've never seen a kid saying , 'Oh Achmed is an Arab or Moshe is a Jew.' I've never seen that."
Interestingly, a lot of the families at Neve Shalom are not very religious. According to Father Bruno, the first idea of Neve Shalom was an idea of faith, but now in fact, the majority of people who came were agnostics, not athiests, but agnostics: "That means God is not the motor of their life, if he is in their life. It posed a problem at the beginning, but we understood that people who are able to give their whole lives to the cause of Peace, of reconciliation, of brotherly love, they are people not far from God, and they are working for the Kingdom of God if they don't know it."
Indeed, there is no common thread of religion linking the villagers, nor political activity. The only thing they share is a love for one another and the peoples of the world. This is one of the reasons the village decided to take public stand against the Uprising through peaceful means. Everyone of the village staged a silent, four-hour demonstration under the Prime Minister's window: "One of the banners read, Mr. Prime Minister, come to Neve-Shalom/Wahat al-Salam to learn how to make peace with the Arabs."
Just two metres from the villagers were members of the extreme right-wing party in Israel, Ressurection. An Israeli journalist took a photo of the two groups, and in the report he published under Neve-Shalom's picture, The camp of peace, and under the other picture he wrote, The camp of refusal.