Wahat al Salaam, or Neve Shalom, was established in 1970. From the beginning, Oasis of Peace – the name in English – stood out as a utopian vision of peace and coexistence. Israeli Jews and Palestinians established the village upon a dream of living together and serving as an example of a better future for both peoples.
«Here we see the Valley of Ayalon,» says one of the founders, Bruno Hussar, «where wars took place in the days of Joshua, the Maccabees, the Crusader wars, two of Israel’s harshest wars, and it’s like a desert of wars, and it is so right that Neve Shalom – Oasis of Peace – to be at the edge of a desert of wars.»
Hussar passed away a couple of decades ago, and the old clip with one of the real dreamers is right at the beginning of a new documentary by Maayan Schwartz, who is from the younger generation of Neve Shalom. He has taken it upon himself to document what has happened to this utopia and how his generation – the children of peace – has lost most of their illusions. That has become a thought-provoking piece of great relevance.
Difficult utopian vision
One of the interviewees describes a pastoral childhood. It was innocent and beautiful, and, as he puts it, «the cool thing was that we were unaware.» Unaware of the realities outside the utopia and unaware of cultural differences and ugly political development.
The Oslo Accords in 1993 stood out as a turning point. The people of Neve Shalom felt they were getting closer to their common goal. And then, in November 1995, Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered after a peace rally in Tel Aviv.
This is the message of the film. The assassination was a rude awakening. The small community started to realize that they were a living experiment and that there is a limit to how long you can keep realities at bay. Shireen, a Palestinian woman that grew up at Neve Shalom, describes how the news coverage of the murder gave two very different versions of the tragic development. The Palestinian side was totally different from the Israeli, reflecting the deep divide that seemed to be non-existent in Neve Shalom.
The film tells how difficult it is to pass on a utopian vision from one generation to the next. Somehow the founding generation that has created their vision as a reaction to a brutal and unfair world survives thanks to their mental heritage, whereas it is equally difficult for their children, that have been born into the idyllic utopia without knowing the outside.
This happened to the children when they left the safe framework of their village school. From grade 6, they were sent to a school in Ramle, a nearby city with deep socioeconomic problems and tons of ethnic strife. The children from Neve Shalom were seen as weird, and all of them encountered raw hate.
They thought that you could go back to your friends again after school, but for the Jewish kids, the end of school meant army service. As one of them says, this was a tough dilemma because refusing to enlist meant breaking away from your group. Social, ethnic … whatever. Their parents did not see the pitfalls of coexistence, the film claims.
«the cool thing was that we were unaware.»
From coexistence to a nobody
A dilemma overwhelmed Neve Shalom in 1997 when two Israeli helicopters collided in mid-air. They were transporting soldiers to Lebanon, and all were killed in the crash. Among the victims was Tom, a young man from Neve Shalom.
Shireen describes Tom as the best-looking guy in the village. She describes how the sight of soldiers in uniform always disgusted her and reminded her of the occupation. But still, Tom was a friend and a neighbor. The community of Neve Shalom ended up in a huge discussion about how to mourn Tom and whether to erect a memorial. His brother, Amit, 13 years old at the time of Tom’s death, decided to enlist in the army, well aware that by doing so, he chose a side in the conflict.
For the director, Neve Shalom is a prime example of exactly that difficult dilemma. Never mind how hard you try, reality will force you to choose at some moment, which happened to Neve Shalom. Some people cling to the dream of Neve Shalom, while others have left. One woman says that two people with two cultures do not necessarily have to live together unless they want to go on living as an absolute minority.
Shireen felt that she took herself and her children out of the cycle of violence by staying in the village, while others did not, so finally, she left the place. She married a man from Jerusalem’s Old City and went from a place of imagined coexistence to a city of complete iltihad. The word means oppression, and from 2012 when she decided to wear the hijab, she has become a nobody in the Israeli system.
Amit chose to stay despite the lack of vision in today’s Neve Shalom. «It might be that Neve Shalom was a failure,» he says at the very end of this brilliant film. «And so what? We fail all the time. The biggest failure is war.»