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Ahmad Hijazi, MA

Director of the School for Peace at Wahat al-Salam ~ Neve Shalom, a village in Israel established jointly by Jews and Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship to engage in educational work for peace, equality, and understanding between the two peoples.
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Ahmad Hijazi, MA

Working While Arab: Stories of Daily Routine

Among the organizations working in the field of Jewish-Arab relations, there are several that aspire to achieve maximum equality and even those that go so far as to claim that they have reached true equality. The village of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, Arabic and Hebrew for the "Oasis of Peace," and its institutions are among the leading organizations in the field of Arab-Jewish relations. Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom and, in particular, its conflict management institution, the School for Peace, have perhaps come closer to realizing equality than any organization in Israel. This is precisely what has led us to question more and more frequently whether this aspiration is at all an attainable goal.

Over twenty years ago, Arabs and Jews joined together to found Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, a community based on mutual respect and power-sharing, in order to advance cooperation and challenge inequalities in Israeli society. Located mid-way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, fifty families, half Palestinian and half Jewish, all with Israeli citizenship, live in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom. The community is democratically governed by an elected Secretary General and Secretariat (mayor and city council).

Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom has two main educational projects. Its Primary School is the only K-6th bilingual, bicultural school in Israel, serving over 300 Jewish and Palestinian children. The community's School for Peace, has brought together over 30,000 Palestinians and Jews through its conflict management workshops. Founded in 1979, the School for Peace offers workshops, guided by a unique conflict management method, for high school and university students, teachers, journalists, lawyers, and others. Whereas other methods place emphasis on putting the conflict aside, minimizing cultural identity, and getting to know each other, our method emphasizes participants' awareness of the conflict, how their identity relates to it, and confronting what it means to come from a position of power or minority. We give participants the opportunity to express themselves in a constructive setting and acquire the tools to deal with the conflict. In this environment, they gain a greater understanding of the conflict, confront the responsibility that they have in it, and realize how they can exert a positive influence on it.

For fifteen years, I have been active in the field of Jewish-Arab relations though work with various organizations. After nine years in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, this has become my life's work. I first came to Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom in 1984 as a teenager, to attend a School for Peace workshop with my high school class. It was a pivotal experience for me to meet, for the first time, with my Jewish peers in a meaningful way. After moving to Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom in 1992, I joined the staff of the School for Peace. From 1995 to 1997, I was elected to a two-year term as the Secretary General of the village. Afterwards, I returned to the School for Peace, where I serve as a director, facilitator, and, among other responsibilities, as a fundraiser.

My intention in this article is not to give lessons from my individual experience. Instead, I have chosen a few prosaic experiences from my work that illustrate what an Arab must deal with when the power relations between Jews and Arabs begin to change. I believe that these stories can shed light on what happens when we put the aspiration of equality to the test. The events that I discuss are a small sample from the hundreds of similar cases that I could point to in our daily work. In fact, any Arab or Jew with a developed awareness of the power structure behind Jewish-Arab relations will be able to add his or her own stories to the ones presented below.

 

The Suspicious Object

I will begin with a classic example from last May, when I headed a delegation of Jews and Arabs who went to Cyprus. The delegation went to meet a group of Cypriot colleagues, who work on relations between Turkish and Greek Cyprus, in order to learn about the conflict in Cyprus and exchange information. I arrived at the Tel-Aviv airport with four other Jewish and Arab delegation members. At the airport entrance, a guard stopped us, looked inside our taxi, and asked for my identity card. He then asked me to take my suitcase and accompany him to the guard booth. Without explanation as to why I had been singled out, the guard proceeded to search me, look through my suitcases, and interrogate me. I then returned to the taxi and continued to conduct myself as the head of a delegation, providing information about our planned program and trying to regain their confidence and take control of the situation.

Inside the terminal, I was among the first to arrive for a security check. The security inspectors looked at my passport and asked me to step aside, along with the other Arab delegation members. The Jewish delegation members were invited to proceed. Our Jewish colleagues looked at us apologetically as they passed, appearing to feel responsible for us. Their expressions were of sympathy and concern. It made no difference to the security inspectors that everyone in the delegation referred to me as the group leader who could provide detailed answers to their questions about our trip. I continued to be held aside, regarded as a suspect by the officials and attracting the suspicious glances of other passengers. In the meantime, I tried to make light of the situation with a reassuring smile to my friends in the delegation. They either joined me in trying to find humor in the embarrassment, or they looked away. After going through the standard procedures of humiliation, I was the last to arrive at the flight gate. There it was up to me to return from my status of suspect to that of a delegation head, responsible for my group and responsive to their problems.

The Representative

The second incident that I will relate occurred when one of the embassies with which the School for Peace has contact received a new cultural attache. We had close relations with the previous cultural attache, who was very supportive of our work. The new cultural attache's office asked us to receive her for a visit in order to acquaint her with one of the organizations they support. I was her host, responsible for organizing her entire visit. I greeted her upon arrival and presented the village and the activities of the School for Peace to her. Afterwards, a Jewish colleague, who I will refer to as Ella, joined us for part of the discussion. To the best of my recollection, as well as Ella's, it was I who spent the most time explaining our work. Towards the end of the visit, we were joined for lunch by the village's Secretary General and head of the village's Public Relations department, who are both Arab.

A few weeks later, Ella received an invitation to a reception at the cultural attache's house. The embassy called Ella to confirm her attendance. Ella asked why I did not receive an invitation, explaining that we try to send Jewish—Arab representation to important events. She was told politely that only people who met personally with the cultural attache were invited. When informed that I was the one who primarily received her, the woman at the embassy promised to clarify the matter and get back to us. Two days later, the woman called Ella, explained that the house was too small to accommodate more than one representative per organization, and asked again if she would attend.

The cultural attache had met the Arab Secretary General, the Arab head of the Public Relations department, Ella, who had briefly joined the visit, and me, the School for Peace's contact for the embassy. On an organizational level, Ella was the least logical choice to receive the single invitation to this event. In this case, Ella declined the invitation, pointing out the importance of the mechanism that the village uses in choosing its representatives. The embassy woman assured Ella that they would try to more sensitive to the matter in the future.

Two months later, the embassy's actions exposed the price paid for our village mechanisms. Overlooking or disregarding the previous incident, the embassy again invited only Ella to an event at the ambassador's home, to be attended by the person responsible for granting funds for Jewish—Palestinian activities. The grant officer wanted to meet people active in the field. According to the invitation, places were limited. Despite the fact that fundraising is one of my responsibilities at the School for Peace, we agreed that it was important that Ella attend this event despite our irritation. After all, the potential for large funding was at stake. It turned out that there was not a single Palestinian Israeli at the event.

My name is Ahmad

This next story took place when I was the Secretary General of the village. One day, the office secretary received a phone call from someone who said that he represented a group of artists who were organizing an art exhibit. He explained that since their work was in the same spirit as our community, they wanted to present the exhibit in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom. Though the office secretary is also Arab, neither her name nor her accent in Hebrew awakened "suspicion." She told the artist that he would have to speak with Ahmad, the Secretary General, and passed the phone to me. The artist presented himself and the project, and then asked my name again.

"Ahmad," I answered.

"Nahman?" he asked. (Nahman is a Hebrew name. I must point out here that the telephone connection was very good, without any interference.)

"No. Ahmad," I repeated, "an Arab name."

"Ah . . . I see," he said, appearing to have been taken off guard. From this point on he sounded confused and seemed to want to be somewhere else. We agreed that he would call back after clarifying a few details. He then politely asked if he could speak again with the office secretary. He asked her again what my position was in the village and whether she was sure that I was the right person to speak to about this. She reassured him that I was.

A few days later, the artist called again and asked to speak with Nahman, the Secretary General.

"Ahmad. Not Nahman. Ahmad," he was told.

We continued the discussion where we had left off, discussing practical details. He spoke about the positive exposure that this could bring the village. The project in general sounded promising. Having just about covered everything, he asked who he could speak with in order to finalize the matter.

"That would be me," I answered.

"You are authorized to close the agreement in the name of the village?" he asked.

That was more than I could bear. Raising my voice, I told him, "With me, only with me, and no one else's signature will be valid!"

That was the end of both our discussion and the promising art exhibit. I later learned that the artist contacted a Jewish director of another village department in order to advance his exhibit idea. He neglected to tell that director about his previous discussions on the subject with me. When the director told him that he should speak first with the Secretary General, the artist not too surprisingly disappeared. The story of the artist reflects the difficulty and confusion that a Jew in Israel experiences when faced with the prospect of dealing with an Arab in a position of authority. This particular attempt to undermine that authority was an extreme case. But I have grown accustomed to experiencing much subtler variations of the same issue in my various positions over the years.

Conclusion:

In our day-to-day lives, we regularly participate in events that take on significance only when we analyze them in retrospect. I have attempted here to examine the structures that make up Jewish—Arab relations by focusing on the routine and norms of our daily reality, consisting of seemingly insignificant events and interactions, of which we are either unaware or to which we generally pay no attention. These interactions and events that make up our lives contain within them power structures that are stronger than the ideology, desires or good intentions of individuals. In the words of Whitney Young (1970), "Racism is not a desire to wake up every morning and lynch a black man from a tall tree. It is not engaging in vulgar epithets. These kinds of people are just fools. It is the day-to-day indignities, the subtle humiliations that are so devastating. Racism is the assumption of superiority of one group over another, with all the gross arrogance that goes along with it."

Ahmad Hijazi, MA

Ahmad Hijazi is a director of the School for Peace and previously served as mayor of Wahat al-Salam ~ Neve Shalom from 1995 to 1997. He was born in Tamara in Northern Israel. Ahmad first came to Wahat al-Salam ~ Neve Shalom in 1984 as a teenager to attend the School for Peace with his high school class. In that School for Peace workshop, Ahmad met with his Jewish Israeli peers in a meaningful way for the first time. It was a pivotal experience in his life. He trained as a School for Peace facilitator and studied sociology and education at Hebrew University, where he obtained a Masters degree. In 1992, Ahmad and his wife moved to Neve Shalom/Wahat Al-Salam. Their son currently attends the village's bilingual, bicultural Primary School.

Translation by Bob Mark

Wahat al-Salam ~ Neve Shalom was founded in 1970 by the Dominican monk Bruno Hussar, with the intention of creating a place where the people of this land would live together despite national and religious differences, and who would conduct educational work for peace.

Links: http://www.nswas.com   —   http://www.oasisofpeace.org   

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