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Arab-Jewish Tensions Creep Into 'Peace Village'

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The Israeli village of Neve Shalom was founded decades ago as a place where Arabs and Jews could coexist in the volatile Middle East. The area has weathered regional wars and uprisings, but earlier this month, vandals targeted it and spray-painted anti-Arab epithets on the school's walls.

"We discovered first of all that a number of tires had been punctured, and then we noticed the damage at the school, slogans painted on the walls saying 'Death to the Arabs,' " says Howard Shippin, a longtime resident of Neve Shalom village. "Of course it's very disturbing."

The village is shaded by fruit trees and flowering bushes, and underneath a painted rainbow, Palestinian and Jewish children play in the yard of Neve Shalom's school.

Families started moving to this idyllic spot at the foot of the Jerusalem hills in the mid-1970s. The school is the seedbed of the philosophy: The students learn both Arabic and Hebrew, and Neve Shalom itself is made up equally of Jewish and Palestinian families. Everyone here lives the coexistence ethos.

Shippin says that the Israel that surrounds Neve Shalom has been changing.

School principal Anwar Daoud says the Israeli government gives it no support. For example, a recent request to help transport Arab students coming in from outlying disadvantaged neighborhoods was turned down by the Ministry of Education.

"We believe in full equality between the Israeli citizens, and the Israeli government does not believe in that," Daoud says. "The situation is that there is a very big gap between the Israel citizens that are from Palestinian roots and the Israeli citizens who are coming from Jewish roots."

Few Shared Schools And Communities

Hezzi Shouster is a teacher at the school. Despite the fact that Israel's population is 20 percent Arab, he says, there are only a handful of schools like the one in Neve Shalom.

"There are five schools [that are] binational, bilingual, so it's not a lot," he says.

Shouster says people these days seem less interested in coexistence. The government is partly to blame, he says, but Israelis and Palestinians are more and more entrenched in their positions.

Many people have lost hope of a peaceful solution to the conflict.

"Public opinion changed. It's very frustrating, and I'm trying to be an optimist and do my work," Shouster says. "It's funny that we are teaching coexistence and understanding and compromise, and the other side is teaching something else."

So in some ways, Neve Shalom has become an oasis. While its message may not resonate in the rest of the country, like-minded people still want to live here. The village is actually about to expand, bringing in dozens of new families in the next few years.

Shippin says he's still hopeful that Neve Shalom can be an example for Israel.

"What we are doing is very futuristic. It doesn't seem to correspond to anything we see around us right now. But I think the idea will come into its own eventually," he says.

But teacher Hezzi Shouster says he feels the battle for coexistence has been lost on the rest of the country.

"It's like a drop in the sea," he says of the community and its work.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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