Last summer, during a month travelling in Israel, both my first and final stops were at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam—AKA, The Oasis of Peace. This unique intentional community of Israeli Arabs and Jews, about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has existed since the 1970s. Its foundational myth involves Father Bruno Hussar, one of the most fascinating individuals in a land that produces eccentric visionaries as quickly as it grows olives. The Oasis’s philosophy of co-existence and its programs in education and reconciliation have made the community a beacon of hope even in the divided nation’s darkest moments. I plan to devote at least a chapter of writing to examining the complex challenges of making real the idealistic vision of this community’s founders. But not today.
Instead, I want to reflect on the fascinating 56-minute documentary made, in 2005, by director Yoram Honig about the experiences of his daughter Michal, age 6, during her first year as a student at Neve Shalom’s school. It’s an illuminating insider’s look at the tension between the dreams and the reality of teaching Arab and Jewish children to see eye to eye—let alone their adult teachers and their parents—especially during the unpredictable violence and repression of the Second Intifada. First Lesson in Peace isn’t a standard-issue, at-a-distance objective documentary. Instead, Honig offers a memoiristic account—addressed as a video letter to his daughter—of his thoughts and even ambivalence about using his daughter as something of a guinea pig for his own progressive ideals.
The tensions are real. On her first day, his daughter joins Jewish and Arab kids in a playground with rainbow-painted monkey bars; their family lives in a rural house with sumptuous views of Israel’s central plains and eye-blinding sunsets. But when they watch the carnage of a terrorist attack on TV, Honig uses his documentary-making as an excuse to double-check the security at the school. On the one hand, he hopes that no terrorist would risk the backlash of attacking a school with both Arab and Jewish children; on the other, he realizes that Neve Shalom might make an even more tempting target to extremists who want to destroy any hope for peace between these two tribes.
Honig films one in-class first grade exercise to promote sharing in which his daughter and her classmates are asked to figure out how to distribute fairly a limited number of chairs. The whole scenario, however, spirals out of control, as Arab and Jewish kids split into ethnic divisions, squabble over who gets which chair, start to brawl—and one boy breaks Honig’s camera with a punch to the lens. So much for childish innocence.
Despite these setbacks, Honig claims that his family has “found a little isle of sanity” amid the crazy politics of Israel. Sanity doesn’t always prevail, though, as the school tries to strike a delicate balance that will unite its two constituencies. One PTA meeting is conducted in Arabic—which none of the Jewish parents speak. At another meeting, administrators discuss a policy that will require all Jewish teachers to pass an exam in Arabic if they hope to stayed employed at the school.
The need to address the competing narratives at the core of the conflict, in the form of Israeli Independence Day vs. The Arab Nakba (or “Catastrophe”), pulls the united classrooms into two separate camps. One Arab teacher asked her class to draw for an hour and then crumpled up the children’s work: “This,” she explained, ”is what it was like for the Arabs.” But when another Arab teacher is moved to tears by the discussion of this painful moment in her people’s history, her young Jewish pupils encircle her with their small arms in a tender embrace.
The tensions extend into Honig’s family. His wife’s father was killed in the Six Day War, when she was just a child. Her brother—Honig’s brother-in-law—Eyal blames the Arabs for his death, happily accepts the label of “extremist” and thinks that Honig is a left-wing wacko for sending Michal to school with Arab kids. “It’s a problematic school—I hope it closes one day,” he admits, and pledges to straighten out Michal about what’s right in Israel after she graduates from the brainwashing sessions at Neve Shalom. Uncle Eyal can barely contain his glee when he learns that other Jewish parents have pulled their kids out of the program. “What don’t they like: the school or the Arabs?” he asks.
Michal’s grandfather is a more complex figure. He immigrated from Australia and is an ardent Zionist who wants to pass along a strong connection to Jewish history and ritual to his granddaughter. He seems skeptical about her schooling, but his shell is less hardened than Eyal’s. “You will teach me Arabic,” he tells Michal near the end of the film, “and I will teach you Yiddish.”
The children at the school talk with a disarming honesty about their own attitudes. “I like Jews but not Zionists,” says one Arab boy. “The Arabs are annoying,” offers Michal, when asked why she doesn’t play with the Arab girls at her school or want to invite them to her birthday. Her dad invites them anyway, only to watch the Arab-Israeli conflict played out again in an escalating match of Musical Chairs that leaves his daughter in tears.
And yet the children also offer hope. Honig worries about how teachers will explain the roots of the Purim Festival to the Arab kids and who “evil Haman” was. It doesn’t matter. Like all kids, they love the excuse to play dress-up. Honig’s camera captures them playing in the schoolyard, their ethnic identities hidden from view, in this school, for this one day, under costumes as Robin Hood, witches, señoritas…except for one Jewish kid, who has come—ironically—dressed as a right-wing settler: he plays the bad guy for the festival. The funniest costume has been designed by a pair of friends, Jewish and Arab, who have come as Siamese twins. “We have to get along,” they explain. “We were born this way. We have no choice.”
It’s a perfect metaphor for the seemingly intractable conflict that roils this tiny nation. And it’s to the great merit of Neve Shalom/Wahat-al-Salaam that its residents have created a community and a school in which the next generation can realize their interconnectedness.
Did Michal go back to the school for grade 2? Is she still there? She would be nearly 12 now. How have her dreams been changed by living together with people whom her uncle considers “the enemy”? And what has she brought home to share with her own family from the Oasis of Peace? First Lesson leaves a viewer thinking about these questions and many more, thanks to its intimate portrait, through the life of one young girl, of this imperfect utopia built by Arabs and Jews alike.