A short stretch of highway links the Arab town of Abu Gosh with a recently constructed tunnel and intersection on Highway 1, the main artery between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. On the brick sidewalk alongside the road, residents of the varied communities take leisurely walks, family strolls, and exercise runs. Usually smiles are the only thing exchanged, but all realize that this particular piece of Judean Hills landscape encourages peaceful coexistence between neighbors.
Neve Ilan was founded as a moshav shitufi – a cross between a kibbutz and a moshav – by a mixed group of American, other western new immigrants, and native born Israelis. Prime Minister Golda Meir was at the ceremony marking the establishment of the new settlement, which was founded on the remains of a French kibbutz abandoned in the years following Israel’s establishment.
Telz-Stone is an ultra-Orthdox community officially known as Kiryat Yearim. Mentioned in the Bible as the home for twenty years of the Ark of the Covenant as it made its way to King David’s Jerusalem, the modern town is named in honor of American Greetings founder-chairman Irving I. Stone. Israel’s 2005 census listed Telz-Stone as having 3,500 residents (with a high percentage of North American and European immigrants). Today, construction in the Haredi community is pushing it closer and closer to Highway 1 and the population is much, much higher than it was ten years ago.
Yad Hashmona was founded in 1971 by Finnish Christians and named for eight Jewish refugees from Austria who escaped to Finland in 1938. The veteran kibbutzim Maale HaHamisha and Kiryat Anavim are nestled in the nearby hills, as are Nataf and Beit Nekofa and the Arab villages of Ein Rafa and Ein Nakuba.
All of these communities are located literally right next door to Abu Gosh. Known not only for its good relations with Israelis and Jews from before the establishment of the State, Abu Gosh is in the Guinness Book of World Records because a local restaurant there served up the largest dish of hummus anywhere (in direct competition with a restaurant in Lebanon).
Abu Gosh is home primarily to Muslims. The recently constructed Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, with its four Disneylandish minarets, was funded by the government of Chechnya due to the origins of the first residents of the town. There is a small minority of Christians in the town, as well as a Benedictine monastery and the Church of Notre Dame.
Some of the residents of the aforementioned communities (certainly a very, very small minority), take their exercise walks along a paved section of highway curving through the hills from Abu Gosh to Highway 1. This road passes next to Telz-Stone (where the entrance is closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays) and reaches the Elvis-themed restaurant and gas station at the turnoff to Neve Ilan and Yad Hashmona.
The people walking on the bricked sidewalks include religious Jews – yeshiva students, young mothers, families of ten or more children, and bearded older men. Walking briskly up the hill toward Abu Gosh and back are residents of Neve Ilan and tourists staying at the Yad Hasmona guesthouse. Couples take their dogs for walks, competing for space with strolling couples and others taking in the hilly surroundings and the crisp, fresh air.
Probably the most colorful walkers are those who come from Abu Gosh. The modest women not only cover their hair with a hijab (similar to the scarves of Orthodox women from Telz-Stone), but also wear traditional black Arab dresses, embroidered in color. On occasion, the men of the town gallop down the middle of the highway on their white horses, an event that draws attention but leaves impediments to those walking for enjoyment.
The highway is a virtual Peace Walk, especially considering that it leads directly into the Derech Hashalom, the main road crossing through Abu Gosh.
But it’s not just at exercise time that residents of the area walk side by side. A recent gathering in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim included volunteers from the “hill communities” who were willing to initiate joint activities with the goal of bringing the varied population of the Judean Hills closer together. Sitting at one table were the former mazkirim (general secretaries) of Maale HaHamisha, Neve Ilan, and Kiryat Anavim, and an Arab woman who cooks at the Majda restaurant in the village of Ein Rafa, a restaurant with mixed Jewish-Muslim ownership that itself serves as a symbol of culinary coexistence.
The gathering was a grassroots initiative, totally unconnected to the ‘official’ activities of the Harei Yehuda (Judean Hills) Regional Council. The various ‘tables’ at Kiryat Anavim discussed everything from an area arts and crafts fair to visits by members into the homes of neighbors – in communities they really only know by name.
Whether they gather together to plan for a more neighborly future, or whether they jog along a stretch of pavement in the outskirts of Jerusalem, residents of the Judean Hills are proving that coexistence is entirely possible. And it all starts by walking.