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Israeli village is laboratory of peace

NEVE SHALOM, Israel - The music blared in Arabic as a knot of women twirled slowly around the bride-to-be. Well-dressed onlookers, some in traditional Muslim head scarves, clapped and swayed. On this evening of celebration, the fireworks sizzled, sweets beckoned, and jubilant guests congratulated the Arab bride's parents with a double kiss and hearty "mazel tov!"

Mazel tov?

"It's very normal," said Nava Sonnenschein, one of the Jews clapping at the edge of the dance circle, "for here."

The usual rules of the Middle East often don't apply in Neve Shalom, founded in the 1970s as a utopian village on a hilltop in Israel's midsection. For nearly three decades, its inhabitants have sought to defy the polarizing tugs of politics and nationalism.

Though most Jews and Arabs in Israel are kept apart by segregated communities and long years of mutual mistrust, Neve Shalom and its 250 residents - half Jews, half Arab citizens of Israel - represent a living experiment in integration.

Schoolchildren learn Hebrew and Arabic together, a rarity in Israel, and play at one another's homes. Residents enjoy an equal say in running affairs and have elected Jews and Arabs as mayor.

Even the name is bilingual. In Arabic, it is called Wahat al-Salam, though the Israeli government has never recognized that part.

A half-hour drive from Jerusalem, Neve Shalom is both a functioning community and a peace movement showcase. It has a website and a parking lot for buses.

But this is no theme park. The affections and hurts are real, the gains and setbacks intimately felt. Alongside its taboo-breaking, the community has shown how hard it can be for Jews and Arabs to fully understand each other, even when they are trying.

Few know better than Abdessalam Najjar, 55, a village leader with a balding head and pencil-thin beard tracing his jawline. Najjar, the father of the bride, moved to Neve Shalom in 1979 with a new wife, Ayshe, and a heart full of hope.

He was 27 and willing to take a chance, she 19 and in need of some persuading. Najjar, a devout Muslim, had been involved in discussion groups with Jews while studying at a branch of Hebrew University in nearby Rehovot.

The Najjars were the first Arab family to join Neve Shalom. Almost 30 years later, they are mainstays, well liked and respected across the community. Najjar has been mayor and is working with a Jewish colleague in developing the community's new spiritual center for interfaith conferences, lectures on peace topics, and prayer.

Neve Shalom's residents, mostly left-leaning professionals and academics, have been tested by two Palestinian uprisings, war in Lebanon, and a steep deterioration in relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

The village today carries tempered aspirations and scars from past political fights. Not all of these are over yet.

Jewish and Arab residents spar over whether Neve Shalom Jews should perform compulsory service in the Israeli army. Arabs in Israel are not summoned to serve, and many object to residents of a "peace village" enlisting in the army.

Some residents from both groups, now in middle age, fear that the village has lost some of its political daring.

It is perhaps telling that the burning issue these days is not potential peace talks but whether Neve Shalom residents can formalize their hold on the plots where they built homes years ago on land that was shared without private ownership.

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