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Pluralism and multilingualism took center stage on Wednesday night, at the Swiss national day celebration in Israel. This year the Embassy of Switzerland chose to mark the occasion at Wahat al-Salaam--Neve Shalom, a Jewish-Arab village that lives up to its name: “Oasis of Peace.”


Swiss children joined Jewish and Palestinian children in carrying traditional Swiss lamps, as a band performed music together with child musicians from the village.



Minister of Construction and Housing Yoav Galant, opened the evening on behalf of the Israeli government. Galant noted the long-standing historical ties between Jewish Zionist leaders and Switzerland, as well as the current partnerships between Israel and Switzerland. Minister Galant thanked Swiss citizens living and working in Israel for their work in connecting the two countries. In closing, the minister congratulated the people of Switzerland and expressed support for the Swiss-Israel relationship to continue to grow.


May Shbeta, a second-generation resident of Wahat al-Salaam, and the child of Palestinian and Swiss Jewish parents spoke next. Greeting the guests in over half a dozen languages, she epitomized the multiculturalism and multilingualism stressed in both Switzerland and in the village. In addition to being a Swiss citizen, Shbeta is also involved in Israeli-Palestinian initiatives supported by the Embassy of Switzerland. Shbeta explained that the diversity and coexistence in her village reminded her of Switzerland. Shbeta finished her remarks by observing that she couldn’t see herself living anywhere else, but that she hoped that in the future there would be many more Jewish-Arab communities because of genuine friendships.

Sameh Saleimah, a feminist activist, and leader from Wahat al-Salaam, also spoke. Speaking on behalf of the community and its leadership, she extended a warm welcome to the Embassy of Switzerland and its guests. Saleimah was chosen as one of the 10 most influential social activists in Israel and had spoken earlier in the week at the “world’s largest Arabic lesson” held in Tel Aviv when thousands of Jews and Arabs gathered in a show of solidarity and support for coexistence.


Saleimah told the guests that they were actually sitting in the playground of the first binational bilingual school in the world, with thousands of students now having come through the system. Explaining some of the challenges with such an environment, Saleimah referred to the national holidays and memorial days as the “sensitive” days, as residents and their children struggle to raise a balance between the vastly different sentiments of Jews and Palestinians. These struggles led to success, as Saleimah explained that they created their own curriculum and that today there were at least seven Jewish-Arab schools around Israel. She noted that their alumni were active in virtually every Israeli-Palestinian coexistence initiative.


Ambassador Jean-Daniel Ruch thanked the hosts and expressing his support for pluralism, and the importance of multilingualism. He noted that there is still a very strong Swiss-Israel connection, and that specifically Swiss donors are among the most active supporters of coexistence initiatives in Israel. Ambassador Ruch mentioned Peter Dreyfus, former President of the Swiss Friends of Neve Shalom association, who passed away earlier this year. The ambassador noted that although Switzerland is a pluralistic, multilingual country, often Swiss people remain segregated by native tongue, and that in that sense there was much to be emulated from Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salaam and Israeli coexistence initiatives. Ambassador Ruch concluded by observing that living together in diverse societies requires respect, tolerance, and compromise and that these should be guiding principles whether in Israel or in Switzerland.



After the performance of the national anthems, the guests enjoyed a catered buffet, as well as imported Swiss cheeses and fine wines. A binational art exhibit at the Wahat al-Salaam art gallery was also open, with the curator providing explanations about the exhibits. The guests at the evening included many diplomats, civil society leaders, and peace activists, including Doubi Schwartz, regional program officer for the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALL-MEP);Ambassador Meron Reuben, chief of state protocol in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Nitza Raz-Silbiger - Director of the Israel Protocol Department (and several other Ministers and government officials); Dan Catarivas, Director General – Foreign Trade and International Relations at the Manufacturers’ Association of Israel head of International Relations at the Federation of Israeli Economic Organizations (FIEO); Uri Ben Assa and Ahmad Helou from Combatants for Peace; and Nadav Tamir, senior advisor at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.


Diplomacy.co.il congratulates the Embassy of Switzerland on its national day.


Steven Aiello




Photos by Silvia G.Golan