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Israel Independence Day Is Divisive

May 9, 2000

NEWE SHALOM, Israel (AP) _ Every day of the school year, Jews and Arabs study together at the School of Peace in this joint community tucked between olive orchards and hay fields in the heart of Israel.

But these days, when Israel mourns its fallen soldiers and then celebrates its independence in back-to-back holidays, coexistence becomes difficult.

While Jewish residents rejoiced Tuesday in the 1948 founding of their state, Arab members of the community mourned the dispersal of their people. The conflicting collective memories mirror a larger split in Israeli society: Arab Israelis resent the celebrations of the country’s independence, and ultra-Orthodox Jews ignore them.

This year, Memorial Day ended at sunset Tuesday, marking the start of Independence Day celebrations until sunset Wednesday. As Israelis paused for a two-minute siren commemorating soldiers killed in battle Tuesday, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood continued going about their business. They say the siren is not a Jewish tradition.

When the siren blared across Newe Shalom, children at the School of Peace were learning different interpretations of Israel’s founding 52 years ago.

Thirteen year-old Orit Kitein, a Jew, remembered her brother who was killed three years ago, the first soldier to die from Newe Shalom. Her Arab friend and longtime neighbor, Sama Daoud, aged 12, was thinking about the deaths of Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli occupation.

``I feel it’s sad about Orit’s brother but I don’t feel the sorrow as much as I do when I think of the occupation of the Palestinians,″ Daoud said. Nearby, her Jewish and Arab friends played soccer together.

Founded by 10 families 30 years ago at the foot of Jerusalem’s hills, Newe Shalom was intended to create a refuge from the Arab-Israeli conflict raging outside. Now the community has 35 families, some of them mixed Arab-Jewish, and 15 more are building homes. Many of the children at the school speak both Hebrew and Arabic.

The tenuous harmony was jolted this year when Boaz Kitein, Orit’s father, was invited to light a torch at the state ceremony Tuesday evening for Israel’s Independence Day to honor both his son and his work as the principal of the Newe Shalom school.

For Kitein, the torch lighting is a great honor _ a way to remember his son, Tom, who died in a helicopter crash on his last trip out of Israeli-occupied south Lebanon in 1997. But for some Arab residents of the village, like Anwar Daoud, Sama’s father, Kitein’s acceptance threatens to rupture the community.

``He is taking a radical step that hurts me,″ said Daoud, who moved to Newe Shalom 12 years ago. ``This doesn’t express the coexistence that there was supposed to be here, for peace and brotherhood.″

Daoud, the father of three, is trying to get Kitein thrown out of his job as principal, and he was among the opponents of a memorial plaque for Tom that now hangs on the gate of Newe Shalom’s basketball court.

Nearby, Sama Daoud acted out a skit with only her Arab friends at her school as part of the Arab answer to Israel’s Memorial Day. She played her grandfather, who was forced from his home by Jewish soldiers 52 years ago in what is now northern Israel.

In a nearby room, her Jewish friends learned their version, depicting Israeli soldiers winning a war against all odds.

And in the village’s tiny cemetery, Orit Kitein, her family and their friends stood at attention by Tom’s grave as the siren wailed.

``Maybe one day we can have one Memorial Day for all those who were killed on this land, Jews and Arabs,″ Boaz Kitein said, his head bowed over the grave. ``Then we will remember that the most sanctified thing of all is human life.″