Wahat al-Salam-Neve Shalom (WaSNS) is an intentional community located part way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Here, Jewish and Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel live and work in harmony and equality, with shared education models utilised for bi-national, bilingual schooling. This International Women’s Day we’re recognising two exceptional leaders of this unique community.

Dr. Nava Sonnenschein, Director of the School for Peace, and Samah Salaime, Director of Communications and Development, are both inspiring activists united in their common belief in the capacity for peace across Israel and Palestine. The path that led them to such a conclusion, however, is seemingly disparate.

Childhood for Nava was composed of the stories of her parents from 1948. She was raised in a mixed community, where tensions rose so high that families were forced to relocate to regions with greater majority ethnicities. A Zionist, socialist household, Nava was taught to see Arab Palestinians as of an equal humanity. 

Samah grew up in Tu’ram, an Arab village in the North next to Nazareth. Her family were and indeed still are internal refugees. “My father and mother were not politically active and did not speak about the past. Politics was a no. The only political person in my family was my Grandmother. She insisted when she was buried, my family take the earth from the place she grew up in, earth from Sajaara would be used in her burial place.”

Samah loved learning Physics at school. “When I was 16 years old the teacher asked a very difficult question and said whoever can answer the question can go to University. I was the first to answer. The teacher could not believe that I answered and showed my work to all the class… But became really nasty and aggressive saying that me and all the other refugee children from Saajara should be thrown out of the school because they were too clever. I got 97% in Physics and 95% in Math in the Bagrut (national exams). In the graduating class the teacher apologised for victimising me as a woman and as a refugee.”

When Nava arrived to WaSNS as a founding member of the community over four decades ago, she had a vision and motivation for what students could expect from their education. It was something altogether different from the experiences of Samah and instead sought commonality in the universal morality of humanistic learning, something she was well acquainted with from her favourite subject at school, history. For Nava, the bringing together of opposing identities was fundamental. It was a passion sparked during University in Haifa, where she had worked with Edna Zaretsky (staunch feminist and peace activist) to bring Jews and Arabs from the region, “together in a serious way”.

All those years later, Nava sees her greatest success as the establishment of the School for Peace, where she is now Director. She explains how “with the help of my colleagues I have been able to influence thousands of people that are active inthe fields of human rights, peace and equality.”

For Samah, University was also a huge learning curve. “This was the first time I encountered Jews. I didn’t open my mouth the first year. I knew the Hebrew that I knew was from literature and the Bible… I wasn’t comfortable speaking Hebrew. Once I did ask a question to the professor. The girls in the class laughed at me and how I spoke Hebrew. I understood that there was a problem with my spoken Hebrew. So, I decided I would learn spoken Hebrew and I practiced and practiced and practiced. I made friends with Jews. In the second year I had to work with Jews. I realised the Jews knew nothing about me, my world and where I was from… I decided that this would not be for my children. They had to have a shared education, not segregated… We had to find a way to educate our children together, Jews and Arabs.”

Samah has become a formidable presence in the Israeli advocacy scene. In 2019 she orchestrated a demonstration against gender-based violence in Tel Aviv. It was attended by over 30,000 people, both Arab and Jew protesting in undeniable solidarity. For Samah, this is her greatest success. “I have brought the voice of a Palestinian woman to the forefront of Israeli society…. I am proud and I am out there for other Palestinian women and women from marginalised groups to see how far a woman can go.” 

To those who have lost hope on a region suffering the consequences of six decades of war, both women have a united message. As Nava sees it, “we have no other choice but to make peace. Peace will be about understanding that this land belongs to two people… We need a shared society based on equality in Israel and we need to live with the Palestinians. We have no other choice. The military Occupation has to end, it cannot go on forever.”

Samah reiterates this determination for regional peacebuilding. “I know for sure that peace is possible. I am living evidence that it is possible. This village is living evidence for the last 40 years that peace is possible. Anyone is welcome to come here and see it is possible… Peace is possible with respect, tolerance and education. I am here to help anyone to see how to promote and live in peace.”

If two women of opposing 'sides' can rise above the intractability of their political representatives, move on from their histories of adversity and loss, and unite on the need for true equality, respect and an upholding of human rights standards, then what’s to say the rest of Israel and Palestine can’t follow suit? Samah and Nava are remarkable, but their vision is achievable.

Happy International Women’s Day. Never be afraid to advocate for change, compassion and resilience. For Samah and Nava, it has led them to a life admired by many across the world.