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Oasis of Peace In a Desert of War

Experimental Arab-Jewish community in Israel strives to foster mutual trust between cultures

THIS community of Jews and Arabs plays a small but vital role in forging the mutual trust vital to an enduring Mideast peace. Residents from both cultures have chosen to live and work together to create a microcosm of tranquility here.

Since the village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam was founded near Latrun in 1972, it has established a School for Peace to spread its influence through a series of peace workshops attended by some 15,000 Israeli Jews and Arabs and Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank.

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The Israel-PLO agreement signed in Washington on Sept. 28, the second phase of the gradual granting of autonomy to Palestinians, contains for the first time a clause that stresses the need for peace education. This is precisely what the community has been trying to do for 10 years.

Some 26 Israeli-Arab and Jewish families live in the village, which includes a conference center, a kindergarten and primary school founded in 1984, and the School for Peace.

Last week, the school held a conference on the impact of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. His death in November had a huge effect on the students here, as it did on all the youth of Israel.

''On the night after the assassination, leaders of the community met and discussed what the lessons of his death were and how they could be incorporated in the education programs at the school,'' says Coral Aron, spokeswoman for Neve Shalom and widow of the late Pinchas Aron, a co-founder of the village.

The kindergarten and primary school are the only ones in Israel based on a binational and bilingual educational program for Jews and Israeli Arabs.

Children here are raised to respect one another's traditions and culture while maintaining their identities as Jews and Arab Muslims and Christians. The school has about 100 pupils.

''In 10 years, we have created a revolution,'' says Ms. Aron. ''We have established an Arab-Jewish school with at least two-thirds of its pupils from outside the community,'' she says. The school has more Arab than Jewish applicants but tries to maintain a 50-50 ratio.

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Some Israeli schools accept Arab pupils, but there is no teaching in Arabic, and their cultural, religious, and traditional needs are largely overlooked.

What makes the Neve Shalom school different is that here, Arab and Jewish teachers instruct in their own languages. Students are taught their own culture and traditions and to respect those of others.

''We are not a Jewish school. We are not an Arab school. We are an Arab-Jewish cooperation school,'' says Abdessalam Najjar, an Israeli Arab and founder of the School for Peace. He hopes that others will look to Neve Shalom as a model for joint Arab-Jewish education.

Mr. Najjar says that the essential element of the Neve Shalom school is that it does not try to play down differences.

''The objective here is to make people aware of their differences,'' Najjar says. ''If we give legitimacy to our differences, then we can enrich each other and increase the area of mutual cooperation.'' His 14-year-old daughter, Shireen, was one of the first pupils to graduate from Neve Shalom in 1994. She now studies at a high school in the nearby Israeli-Arab village of Ramle.

Critics of the school say it is not fair to students: How will they cope once beyond the support system of the utopian village?

So far, only eight students have completed the full cycle at Neve Shalom and now attend ordinary Israeli schools. All are far ahead of their peers academically, but they have found it difficult to adjust to a far harsher and less caring society.

Najjar says he is very proud of his daughter Shireen but sometimes is a little afraid of her complete lack of fear. Shireen, who speaks fluent Hebrew and is sometimes mistaken for a Jew, is strong in her Arab identity and optimistic about the future. She says she will bring up her children as Arabs but with an understanding of Jewish culture and traditions.

''It is very important that they know Jewish children,'' she says. ''It must be part of their daily lives.''

Nir Sonnenschein, a Jewish graduate of Neve Shalom who now attends school on a kibbutz, says he has not decided what he will do when he is called up for national service in the Army, but he accepts the need to maintain security and stability until peace between Arab and Jew is achieved.

''I don't want to serve in the occupied territories,'' he says. ''It would cause a lot of conflict.''

Shireen and Nir say they could see getting involved in a cross-cultural relationship, but neither would seek it. Both sets of parents are uncomfortable with the idea.

''I'm his mother.... I'll support him,'' says Nava Sonnenschein. ''But it's not a very realistic possibility. The communities are so far from each other in so many ways. We have a long way to go.''

Najjar agrees. ''Our goal is to enhance our national and religious identities through living together, not becoming each other.''

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