Wahat al-Salam in Arabic. Neve Shalom in Hebrew. Oasis of Peace. The name evokes both longing and sadness. Just an oasis? In a human desert of outright wars and subtle destructions of the spirit, there is a place where people from opposing sides of what is arguably the most difficult conflict on earth choose to live in peace.
I wanted to visit this place because I am a very jaded psychologist—an optimist disappointed with the failure of ideals to manifest 'on the ground' as some like to say. Well, actually, I like to say it. I say it often because I have noticed again and again how ideals and so-called transcendent aspirations are doomed to fall to the ground. To the lowest common denominator. To the basest conflict. Doomed to collapse under the weight of human nature as it is. I've worked in hospitals with an ideal of holistic healing where the suffering of patients was virtually ignored; I've attempted to train medical residents in psychosocial skills even while their mentors dismissed the residents' most basic needs; I've seen spiritual groups fall apart because no one wanted to acknowledge conflict.
So I went to Neve Shalom against the protests of my Israeli family with an eyeroll ready to launch. It is an idyllic setting, with beautiful gardens and sculptures, and the children, Palestinians and Jews, play freely together. Their espoused philosophy is that each person has responsibility for conflict. Rather than blame the enemy, they look to their own words and actions as the source of change. Sounds good, right? Such a philosophy is in perfect harmony with the essence of psychotherapy and also Zen. We take the "backwards step" (Dogen); we do not elevate ourselves.
Naturally I started digging for dirt. Finally I found a person who spoke honestly with me: Rayek Rizek, former mayor of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, was working in the gift shop. How does this work on the ground? I asked insistently. What happens when people disagree? When their emotions are stirred up? When their fixed beliefs get triggered? When their beliefs obscure their view of each other?
Rayek's answer was simple but profound. We don't try to eliminate disagreements, he told me. What is important is understanding that there is as much disagreement within each group as between groups (a delightful statistical nibble!). "After all," he said, "we have joined this community in order to find the way together in spite of the conflict and with no preconditions, except to accept each other's equal rights in this land." No preconditions. Agreement is not expected. In fact, Rayek was open and forthcoming about the plentiful disagreements. And this was what settled me down, retracted the eye roll, allowed me to be open and hopeful. Some criticize the community at Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam because they don't appear to offer solutions. But this focus on simply existing together is what makes me respect it as a model of process. Harmony does not arise out of suppression. Peace is not the result of a good deal. Humans cannot evolve if they do not accept and work with their differences, full out. Only through intimate encounters with our 'enemies' can we forge the deep transformation that is essential to saving the universe in time.
The next day. The beach in Tel Aviv. Sun, wind, waves and people playing. We've rented our chairs and settled in. Suddenly a young man approaches with a small bag and seems to ask if he can put it under our chair. We don't speak Hebrew, feel flustered, don't quite understand the request so we nod. He runs into the waves. I panic: What if it's a bomb? A moment later, the woman to my left says "Why did you do that? What if it's a bomb?" "He had an accent," she explains. "He's an Arab; it's true that it's hard for them because there is no place to put their stuff—the police will confiscate it if they are Arab, but you just don't know. Why be kind?" and then "Where are you from?" Not wanting to be considered naive, I reply that I'm from New York, and then wonder what to do now that we've agreed to be the hosts of his bomb. She suggests we stay near the water away from the bag. Later she moves her things to another location, as does the gentleman to our right. We watch the 'Arab' play in the waves, caught in our foolishness. I don't want to be naive nor do I want to offend this young man who seems to be having a sweet time in the water.
Time passed. Nothing happened. We survived.
Peace on the ground. I hope the young man had a nice time at the beach.
All images by Neve Shalom, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.