How a Palestinian/Jewish Village in Israel Changed After October 7th

The village’s system of self-governance can be slow. Questions of community life—about employment practices or the approval of new construction—are resolved in community-wide meetings. The process is designed to build a working model of coöperation, case by case, idea by idea, not to handle existential emergencies. The gate stayed closed for six weeks. It took

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The village’s system of self-governance can be slow. Questions of community life—about employment practices or the approval of new construction—are resolved in community-wide meetings. The process is designed to build a working model of coöperation, case by case, idea by idea, not to handle existential emergencies. The gate stayed closed for six weeks. It took a few months for the village to decide to return the guns.

Israeli lefties often observe that war is a terrible time to be a peace activist. It’s also a terrible time to be the mayor of a peacenik village. Joffe, who wanted to work on creating dialogue and building a better future, has instead become a specialist in preparing for the worst. In March, the head of the regional council, which governs fifty-seven villages, convened a meeting to discuss, among other things, a looming war with Hezbollah. “It wasn’t whether but when,” Joffe told me. A war with Hezbollah, which is far better equipped than Hamas, could have a much greater impact on the center of the country than the war in Gaza. Village leaders were told to make preparations for days without water, electricity, or communications. “The whole evening was dedicated to this,” Joffe added. “And not a single person said that maybe we should try to prevent this.”

We were talking in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom’s café, a shaded courtyard with half a dozen tables. The proprietor, Rayek Rizek, sat nearby, working on his laptop. He and his wife, Dyana, who are both Palestinian, moved to the village almost forty years ago. In the late nineties and early two-thousands, Rayek served two terms as mayor. These days, he is more withdrawn. He didn’t attend the community meetings after October 7th, he said, “because I don’t want to get involved in such discussions about who is the victim. I know that you can’t teach anyone anything.” Dyana, who runs an art gallery in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, did go to the meetings. It wasn’t easy, she said. “Some Jews, they blamed us, as Palestinians.”

I first visited Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom about six years ago, while working on a book about imaginative political projects. At the time, everyone in the village knew what everyone else was up to; everything, it seemed, was discussed in a village WhatsApp group chat. By the spring of 2024, this was no longer the case. Neriya Mark told me about a Palestinian resident who, a month into the war, had lost forty members of her family in Gaza, but never shared her grief in the WhatsApp chat. At the other extreme, the Jews of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom who had reported for military duty weren’t sharing their decision in the WhatsApp chat, either. “There was a rumor that some people in the village did volunteer back in October,” Samah Salaime, a Palestinian who is the co-director of education institutions in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, told me. “This was the spirit in the country.”

Everyone wanted to do something after October 7th. For Jews, volunteering to fight was the most obvious course of action. But what could Palestinian citizens of Israel do? Dyana Rizek, the gallerist, used to start her day with yoga and meditation. Now, when she wakes up, she checks her phone to see if her friends in Gaza are still alive. Then she reads the news on Telegram and watches Al Jazeera. Before helping her husband open the café, she works on raising money for friends and family in the West Bank, where unemployment skyrocketed after Israel effectively put a halt to the movement of workers.

The gallery has been shuttered since October 7th. Rizek had tried to assemble a show that would address the war, but, although she had been curating joint Palestinian-Jewish shows for nearly a decade, she couldn’t find enough artists willing to share wall space “with the other side.” So she decided to ask residents of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom to express their feelings through art. She is still working on gathering pieces for the show. In the meantime, she has changed its name five times, from “My Existence” to “Receiving Our Humanity” to “Our Humanity Demands Action” to “Are We Together or Not” to “Art in a Time of War and Destruction, for the Future” to, for now, “Where To?” One of the goals of the show is to break through the silence that has descended on the village. “Palestinians who live in Israel have started to feel since October 7th that we live under military rule,” Rizek said. “We are afraid to express ourselves, even if we live in Wahat al-Salam.”

“You need to stop eating in bed.”

Cartoon by Jeremy Nguyen

Palestinian activists elsewhere, especially in the occupied territories, have long been skeptical of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom. Even before October 7th, some activists in Ramallah considered the village a “shoot-and-cry” project, an endeavor that accomplished little more than helping Israeli Jews feel better about themselves. Vivien Sansour, a Palestinian activist from Bethlehem, told me that she was all for political imagination, but that “there is a difference between imagination and pretending.” A co-living community nestled inside a country that had made the occupation a cornerstone of its politics was, to her, nothing but a fantasy.

Samah Salaime, the co-director of educational institutions, is a prominent Palestinian feminist activist and writer. She writes a regular column for +972, a magazine edited by Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel (+972 is Israel’s telephone country code). In November, Salaime wrote a tribute to her friend Vivian Silver, a Canadian Israeli peace activist who was killed on October 7th. “I lost Vivian,” Salaime told me. “I can’t ignore my grief.” A few weeks later, she published a column in support of the victims of sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas. Some Palestinian activists have criticized her for bringing attention to the rape allegations. “I can’t ignore the Jewish women who paid a high price,” she told me. “I can’t not think about the mothers with children who are now in Gaza. Those who are underground and those who are dying on the ground. If I were a woman in Lebanon, in Ramallah, I might not see this complexity.”

Salaime, who is forty-eight, grew up in the north of Israel, a few miles from her family’s ancestral village. Their former home, which they had been forced to flee in 1948, no longer existed, but the family’s olive grove did; its new owners were Jewish. After attending Arabic-language school, Salaime gained entry to Hebrew University. Her Hebrew was good but antiquated, the language of literature rather than of the street—ordering a pizza was an exercise in humiliation. More important, Salaime encountered an entirely different view of her native land, the Jewish Israeli narrative, which contradicted everything that her family had taught her. She wanted her children to grow up knowing both stories. When the oldest of Salaime’s three sons was ready to start elementary school, in 2000, she recalled hearing about a village, a half hour’s drive from Jerusalem, where Jewish and Arab kids went to class together and were taught by Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking teachers. After visiting the school in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, Salaime told her husband, “We are not just putting our kids in this school—we are moving to the village.”

I first interviewed Salaime in 2018. She told me then that her sons had best friends who were Jewish, at least one of whom was expected to serve in the military. Salaime had confronted her son about continuing to be friends with a person who was about to put on an I.D.F. uniform. He had reassured her that the friend wouldn’t serve in combat and wouldn’t be posted to the occupied territories. Salaime was unconvinced. “You brought me here to this village, you raised me alongside Jews, you taught me to trust them,” she recalled him saying. “Now you are going to have to trust me when I say I trust him.”

One of her sons is now a college student in Haifa, Israel’s northernmost city. In the weeks after October 7th, life was suspended across the country. Salaime’s son had no classes, and the restaurant where he worked was closed. When it reopened, Jewish staff members were invited back, but her son wasn’t. (Salaime called to intervene, and he was eventually reinstated.) Classes started in person again, and many of his Jewish classmates arrived with guns. At the same time, Salaime’s youngest son resumed commuting to a high school in Jerusalem. “When he is coming back on the bus late at night, I can’t talk to him on the phone, because the bus is full of people with guns,” she said. “If they hear a young man speaking Arabic . . .” She paused. If they stick to texting, she said, her son can pass for a Jew.

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