When our 5th/6th grade teacher asked the students to rewrite Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote that “Hate cannot drive out hate – only love can do that,” one of them offered this alternative: “Fire cannot put out fire, only water can do that.”

For the past few days, countries in this region of the Middle East have experienced unusually high winds that have caused an unprecedented outbreak of fires [1]. The strong winds are coming from the east – from the desert – meaning that the air is almost completely devoid of moisture. The combination of wind, dry air, and a parched landscape still waiting for the winter rains to arrive has turned any outbreak of fire into a potential disaster, on both the environmental and humanitarian levels. Forests and houses have simply gone up in flames.

In Israel, negligence and arson have both been cited as the causes behind these fires [2]. In the current political climate, it didn’t take long for politicians to start throwing accusations in the direction of the local Palestinian population as a whole, which, helped along by the media, only added fuel to the emotional fires that have been burning out of control for quite some time. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, there were those who did not attempt to hide their delight at Israel’s misfortune, with some even calling on people to deliberately start more fires. It was frustrating and depressing watching news and social media platforms on both sides buy into the inciting rhetoric without taking a moment to consider the broader picture (including, for example, that there were many outbreaks of fire also in the West Bank and Gaza as well as in various other regions of the Middle East). As is often the case, these fires, and the accusations/celebrations behind them, only brought the schisms already embedded in these societies to the fore. The tragedy of the physical fires only uncovered the ongoing tragedy of a dry and thirsty land that is parched for peace [3].

There is a certain irony to the fact that the very first fire to break out when the high winds began was at the Jewish-Arab village of Wahat al Salam-Neve Shalom (WASNS) – the only place in Israel where Jews and Palestinians live together in an intentionally shared community. That night, as over 300 families – Jewish and Palestinian – were evacuated from their homes, this remarkable community demonstrated how unity between Jews and Arabs, even in the midst of disaster, is still possible.

One of the best articles I read about the fires appeared in +972 Magazine, written by Samah Salaime, a Palestinian Israeli living in WASNS (read it here). Salaime writes that the day after the fire, “the pupils and teachers got together and cleaned up the school grounds, where for more than 30 years Jewish and Palestinian Israeli children have studied together every day — through war and through peace, as equals, promoting peace and shared society.” She continues:

Cohesion and unity in the face of fire is not so surprising in our community . . . It is what makes us feel that 40 years of living together through wars, intifadas, crises, military ‘campaigns,’ and lots of pain has been worthwhile. They have been years of valuable teaching and learning; investment in people rather than stones; investment in one another, rather than in fences and barriers.

The man who founded Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam (which translates as “Oasis of Peace”) is one of the peace heroes featured in our program.Bruno Hussar, a Catholic priest born in Egypt and raised France, was sent to Israel by his Dominican Order in 1953, where he remained until his death in 1996. It was after the Six-Day War in 1967 that Hussar became very aware of “the dire need for reconciliation between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs (both Christian and Muslim)” (Beller and Chase 72) [4]. This need birthed a new vision for Hussar: he wanted to build a village where Jews and Arabs could “live together in a spirit of equality and brotherly cooperation, respecting differences which would be mutually enriching” (72). Needless to say, in the post-1967 War atmosphere, Hussar’s dream seemed like a near impossibility. Much like today, the Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel were living polarized lives, with very little shared in common between them. But Hussar never gave up, in spite of the myriad of challenges he faced, and in 1970 – against all odds – his dream became a reality.

More than forty years later, WASNS continues to thrive – again, against all odds. This Oasis of Peace, that started as a dream and was originally dismissed by skeptics as nothing more than a “mirage,” has become one of the foremost emblems for the success of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Palestinians today. This is an astounding achievement by any standard, but perhaps it is all the more poignant in light of the current state of affairs, where the polarization between the various communities of this land is more palpable than ever before.

Salaime, in her article, pleads with her readers “not to listen to the voices of malice or be carried away in the cold, dry winds of hatred and fear, since inside that fear lies an unsustainable fire that eventually leads to hell.” Instead, she encourages people to learn how to survive the fire “together,” otherwise, she warns, “we will burn together.” Fanning the flames of hate and fear will not bring the pain, the devastation and the (ongoing) loss in this region to an end. In other words, fire cannot put out fire. Only water – fire’s nemesis – can do that.

Hussar once said that “we can never go wrong with love.” And everyone knows that the nemesis of hate is love.

When Bruno Hussar died in 1996, his funeral was attended by thousands – Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Jews, and Christians – a powerful testament to the kind of life he chose to live. The truth of his words, that we cannot go wrong with love, lies in the legacy he left behind – in the community of people, Jewish and Palestinian, who daily choose the way of love over the way of hate. Sometimes they face seemingly unquenchable fires. But through it all they have learned to stick together; and because they do, they overcome.

This, my friends, is the way of peace.

[1] For a screenshot of the report, click here.
[2] According to Israel’s firefighting services, information available as of November 29, 2016, indicates that of 1773 fires, 25 are suspected arson.
[3] Having said that, there were heartwarming examples of beautiful neighborliness, including the Palestinian Authority’s offer to send some of their own firefighters to help quench the fires in Israel. Read more here.
[4] Beller, Ken and Chase, Heather. Great Peacemakers. Sedona: LTS Press, 2008. Print.