How do 50 families live and work together so closely without driving each other crazy? Especially when every other family comes from a culture and background that society tells you to hate? It’s one thing to argue over the town’s budget; it’s quite another to tell each other how to handle the worst tragedy a family can endure. Ten years ago, Tom Kitain was killed in a helicopter accident en route to Lebanon while serving his mandatory duty in the Israeli Army, one month shy of his 21st birthday. This intimate community was devastated, grieving together through its initial shock. Tom was raised in Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam’s “oasis of peace.” But, he died participating in the violent conflict these families were protesting. “There is nothing worse than losing a child,” my mother says. She should know: She’s lost 2 of her 3 children. I can’t imagine the fear that freezes her heart every time she learns I’m off to someplace like Iraq or Palestine. Some members of this community wanted to honor Tom with a commemoration and to have the village basketball court renamed in his honor. After all, they felt, he was a victim of war. Other families protested: Tom had died while participating in the intransigent violence against Palestinians. Recalling the blurry days following my brother’s death, when we tried to organize
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the confounding details of his service, I cannot imagine anyone having the guts to suggest we shouldn’t hold one. “The fact that we’re living together doesn’t [mean] we feel the same and think the same. We come from two different backgrounds,” explains Eyas Shbeta, the recently elected director of the village. “We [Palestinians] saw the situation in a different way. I can be sympathetic to my neighbor that his son was killed. I can feel his ache. “Still,” he continues softly, “that doesn’t mean I agree that I should memorialize a soldier. For a Palestinian who lives with the whole oppression, a soldier in the military is still a soldier. The Army is still the Army. “But, I knew Tom, I watched him grow up.“ Abdessalam Najjar, Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam’s Spiritual Center director, describes the difficult dynamics people undergo when they are unexpectedly challenged: “When people are exposed to ‘new’ information, their equilibrium and harmony are shaken. First, they try to question the new information: ‘It can’t
be. Why haven’t I heard this before?’ “Secondly, they take the information and exclude it from their reality: ‘Maybe this only happened once.’ Their difficulty comes from inside. When you realize your side was not OK, you react from guilt. “But, this does not help with transformation.” Refusing to sweep away the painful controversy over Tom’s death, the village brought in counselors to help them find that point of “transformation.” I won’t ask Tom’s parents, Boaz and Daniela, about their son’s death. I’m going to allow them to hide in their own corner of Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam’s fishbowl and edit this blog before I post it. We know some wounds scar as they heal and not much is gained by ripping them open again. Today, a discrete and tasteful sign indicating the days Tom entered and left this world hangs at the entrance to the basketball court, just as many other plaques that dot the village’s gardens and buildings commemorating the lives of those who have contributed to Neve Shalom~Wahat al-Salam’s growth. For our Tom Kitain, a child of peace who was killed in a war, it reads in Hebrew. Since Tom’s death, many teens who have grown up in this community have either refused to serve in the military or requested non-combat service. “The discussion after Tom’s death made us
face this issue,” said Shbeta. “We didn’t have the guts before that.” That may be meager solace to a family that will never again enjoy their son’s smile, but it is a huge legacy for a young man to leave his community.