Samah Salaime, +972, November 26, 2016
The wildfire that struck Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam left our Jewish-Arab village more resilient than ever before. We invite Israel’s politicians to learn from us on how to heal our society’s wounds.
Fire fighters try to extinguish a forest fire in the forest near Neve Shalom and Latrun, outside Jerusalem, November 22, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Our country has been up in flames this past week. Hundreds of fires have broken out in various areas resulting in tens of thousands of people being evacuated from their homes. The first fire started last Tuesday at Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salam, a unique community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv where Jews and Arabs live together in equality, which struggled to quell the flames and bring peace to the region. My husband and two children and I were evacuated from with 300 others, fearing of our lives and the destruction of our homes.
It was frightening for all of us. However what was even more frightening was the reaction of some of the countries journalists and politicians who used the opportunity to ignite and inflame hatred, claiming that arson was the cause of the wildfires. Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett posted an unfortunate and irresponsible Facebook status, in which he wrote that “The only ones capable of setting the land on fire are people to whom it does not belong.” Rather than unifying and reassuring Israeli citizens — if only slightly — Bennett incited against an entire public and inflamed the public atmosphere.
Following the elections in the United States, the world has become a dangerous place, as sparks have begun to fly in all directions, igniting hatred and fear. We have seen this over the past decade in Europe with new immigrants, and we now see it in the U.S., as white supremacists begin to cheer on Trump’s victory as a victory for the ‘white race,’ while graffiting swastikas on walls.
The fire at Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam was clearly an unfortunate accident, as was the one in the neighboring town of Nataf. One reporter, an expert in arson, deemed the fire an “inspiration” to other supposed pyromaniacs, giving second and third-rate politicians carte blanche to do what they are best at: incite. But perhaps the journalist was right; since the fire in my community was an inspiration. We made it through the freezing night together in the fields below our homes, where we realized that our community can teach this country’s leadership a thing or two about humane behavior in times of crisis.
Cohesion and unity in the face of fire is not so surprising in our community – the first and only Jewish-Arab community in the Middle East. It is what makes us feel that 40 years of living together through wars, intifadas, crises, military “campaigns,” and lots of pain has been worthwhile. They have been years of valuable teaching and learning; investment in people rather than stones; investment in one another, rather than in fences and barriers.
Jewish Home ministers Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, November 16, 2016. Bennett hinted this past week that Arabs were responsible for the spate of wildfires across Israel. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Our hearts were open as we waited in the fields below, where a protective ring circled our community as the rescue forces fought to safeguard our life’s project, built on a hilltop surrounded by fires that raged on every side. (Those of us who are dedicated to living together in peace have felt this way often.) Meanwhile our neighbors, Kibbutz Nachshon, Bekoa, and Tel Shahar, opened their gates to us. At 6 a.m. they took us in; Arab and Jewish men, women and children and offered us a warm and cozy place to recover, without checking our identity cards to check which nation we belonged to.
If the world is looking for inspiration, and our minister of education is looking to bring our people together instead of pulling us apart, we invite you to join the Arab and Jewish families who send their children to our bilingual school. On the day after the fire, the pupils and teachers got together and cleaned up the school grounds, where for more than 30 years Jewish and Arab children have studied together every day — through war and through peace as equals, promoting peace and shared society. We invite him to observe how this week we set out with 40 up-and-coming politicians from Israel and Palestine to seek new solutions together and open avenues of communication. We invite him to learn from us how to struggle to bind a shared society together, not to pull it apart.
Students from Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam clean up the school grounds following a wildfire at the Jewish-Arab village. (Lindsay Stanek)