Members of shared Israeli Arab and Jewish community bring dialogue to Syracuse
It didn’t bother Noam Shuster Eliassi that about 5,700 miles away from home, she delivered a presentation to a nearly empty room.
In her complicated field of work, that’s often just how it is.
“You are constantly, constantly standing alone by yourself in the beginning. And then people join you and they see that you were right,” said Eliassi. “You cannot give up on your voice.”
Eliassi spoke on Friday morning at Syracuse University in a lecture hall populated by a handful of professors, community members and students. But this time – she wasn’t speaking alone. Samah Salaime stood beside her.
Salaime is a Palestinian and Eliassi is a Jew.
They visited Syracuse together from their home village within the “no man’s land” of Latrun, Israel, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There, 66 families, half Israeli Arabs and half Israeli Jews, choose to live together in one community called Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom (WAS-NS). Eliassi and Salaime represent the “Oasis of Peace,” and are hosting dialogues around the United States to spread awareness of the community mission to achieve peace by practicing a shared living model.
In WAS-NS, it is expected that Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians come together for discussion, no matter how controversial or uncomfortable. Founded by Father Bruno Hussar and recognized by the Israeli government in 1970, WAS-NS is an intentionally mixed community where Jews and Arabs live side-by-side and govern together. The community’s children (along with many brought in from outside the village) attend the School for Peace together where they study Arabic, Hebrew and English and learn the multiple narratives surrounding the land and region.
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may seem like a distant struggle to many, the implications are of great importance to citizens of Syracuse who have a connection to Palestine or Israel.
This includes Stephanie Shirilan, associate professor of English at Syracuse University. She has been following the project at WAS-NS since her daughter visited the community while in Israel last year and describes herself as “very much so a part of the Jewish community.”
“I’m filled with a lot of confusion and grief as to what’s happening,” said Shirilan.
Even in the United States, bringing together people who hold different views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult, Shirilan said. Opposition groups often won’t even agree to meet, let alone hold constructive conversations about the prospective of peace.
“I mean, look at this room,” she said, referring to the sparsity of event attendees. “I don’t know what to do.”
Shirilan looked to Eliassi and Salaime for strategic advice in facilitating conversations between people of opposing ideas regarding the statehood of Israel.
“I can see why the discourse from here [the U.S.] can be frustrating. I went to Brandeis, I know how hard it is also within the American-Jewish discourse and right now with (President Donald) Trump,” said Eliassi, who also added that she has a difficult time comprehending how pro-Israel Americans and anti-semitic “neo-Nazis” voted for the same candidate.
“American Jews are part of this – you are taxpayers, you have high stakes in this,” Eliassi responded to Shirilan. “Don’t give up those conversations. This is the hard work, we can’t be in rooms of [people] agreeing with each other.”
Also in attendance was Elaine Rubenstein, who has family members living in WAS-NS and has visited the community on various occasions. In Syracuse, she participates in the Syracuse Area Middle East Dialogue group (SAMED), a diverse organization of about 18 local members.
At Friday’s event, Rubenstein explained to the Israeli guests that within the American Jewish population there are varying beliefs about Israel’s role in the conflict that are difficult to mediate.
“We at SAMED are trying to influence our government…it’s like bumping your head against the wall, but we have to keep trying,” Rubenstein said.
Ken Frieden, a Syracuse University professor in religion, languages, literature and linguistics and the B.G. Rudolph Chair of Judaic studies is also a member of SAMED. At the dialogue Friday, he spoke about the challenges of connecting with other Americans in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“What’s the point? We [members of SAMED] get along, but it’s very difficult to speak to the local Jewish community,” said Frieden. “That’s our role, I think- to let the politicians know that American Jewish community is not one-sidedly pro-Israel no matter what, we’re critical of the way Israel is moving. But how do we do that?”
Another issue that Frieden raised is the ignorance of many American Jews regarding what’s currently going on in Israel. He asked Eliassi and Salaime how to remedy the lack of alertness.
“I’m not here to give magic solutions for your dilemmas, because I have my own dilemmas in my community,” Salaime said frankly.
Salaime also suggested that people have prematurely become too occupied with finding the end-all, diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where to state figureheads shake hands for a photo op.
“We are not there yet. The people that are thirsty for this image, they are not ready because they don’t talk to others because they don’t share values.”
Friday’s lecture was a dialogue about the importance of dialogue, and while no solutions were discovered, the professors, students, community members and reporters in attendance, however few, left the room with a little more understanding of what peace looks like and what it will take to get there.
Salaime and Eliassi’s community is an example of one solution: it brings together two communities with individuals of all different opinions and ideals. By simply living daily life together, the people of WAS-NS not only find their common hopes, struggles and values, they find the places where they don’t agree and then they confront these issues head-on.
“We’re not comfortable living together – that is the point of our place,” Eliassi said.