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Issue Date:  March 5, 2004

Fred Schlomka
Peace from the ground up

Social entrepreneur Fred Schlomka seeks to desegregate Israeli housing


Fred Schlomka is counting on “Pennies for Peace” boxes to help bankroll his plan for new communities in Israel that integrate Israeli Arabs and Jews. The simple cardboard cartons meant to capture donors’ spare change will be placed in shops, libraries, offices, food co-ops and other public places in the United States and Israel. It’s a small but important component in Schlomka’s effort to develop funds and grass-roots support for integrated housing in Israel. Peace begins on the ground, he contends, with Arabs and Jews learning to live together as neighbors. Even as the current Israeli government is erecting a wall between Israelis and Palestinians, Schlomka is trying to tear down walls between the communities.

A $60,000 grant from the Echoing Green Foundation in New York is giving Schlomka seed money to fund his plan for new “mosaic communities” in Israel where Arabs and Jews will live side by side. Schlomka was one of 10 recipients selected this past summer out of a field of around 1,000. The New York-based foundation funds social entrepreneurs with innovative approaches to combating intractable social problems, and over the past 15 years has awarded more than $20 million to 350 fellows, funding projects in 28 countries. In addition to seed money, the foundation will provide Schlomka with support services and mentors to help him realize his plans.

For Schlomka, the effort to bring Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel together as neighbors is an outgrowth of his prior work in Israel. Until last spring, Schlomka was operations manager of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, an Israeli peace group that protests the demolition of Palestinian homes. Some 12,000 homes have been demolished since the Occupation began in 1967, leaving more than 100,000 people homeless. Less than 5 percent of the homes that have been destroyed are those of terrorists, Schlomka said. Most belong to ordinary Palestinians whose property is located in or next to existing Palestinian communities that Israeli land planning keeps from expanding.

“To illustrate the bizarre nature of the situation, imagine if you will the [U.S.] federal government controlling the zoning of a city and zoning all the areas around existing black neighborhoods ‘for whites only’ so the black neighborhood would not expand,” Schlomka said. “The way the government does this is they zone individual building plots as agricultural land.”

Denied building permits to alter their homes, many Palestinians live two or three families in the same house. Some risk demolition by adding on to their house without permits. Schlomka said one of the saddest cases he’d witnessed was a Palestinian family who had renovated a shed next to their house for their handicapped adult son. Denied a permit by the Israeli government, the family was careful not to change the exterior, but made everything inside the shed handicap-accessible. Despite family pleas, the Israeli army demolished the structure when it learned of the renovation.

Arab communities in Israel also face restrictions on expanding. Recently, there’s been a “tremendous upsurge” in Israeli house demolitions of Arab homes in Israel, Schlomka noted.

It’s this need for housing that Schlomka’s mosaic communities seek to address. Structured as a cooperative, the enterprise, which has five Arabs and three Jews on the board of directors, will purchase private land and also get rights to build on government-controlled land already zoned for residential use. Schlomka said he and the other directors will look at land that was not confiscated from Palestinian refugees and will issue shares of stock that investors may purchase. The cooperative will subsidize housing mortgages in a similar fashion to what the Israeli government does now for Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories.

With the second intifada now dragging into its fourth year and peace between Palestinians and Israelis more elusive than ever, Schlomka said the time seemed right to start a new venture in Israel that will lay the ground for a common civil society.

“As I’ve seen many of my colleagues lose hope, I felt the time was right to begin building something new, to lay the foundations for a new way of living together,” he told NCR.

Except for a few places such as Haifa and Neve Shalom where Arabs and Jews live in common, Israel mandates segregation in housing and public schools. This, Schlomka said, is part of the problem. “The only way to learn how to live together is to live together,” Schlomka said. “One day we’re going to have to learn to live together or we’ll kill each other.”

Schlomka said Israeli society currently emphasizes differences between the two communities rather than similarities. He noted that his experience working for the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions in the Occupied Territories brought him a better understanding of the common values shared by Arabs and Jews.

“What I’ve come to understand from working with Palestinians ... has reinforced my belief that they want the same things as Israeli Jews: good jobs, decent schools and a nice environment,” he said.

The future, Schlomka asserted, is in Arabs and Jews living together in one state; prospects for a two-state solution passed sometime in the mid-1990s, he said. Israeli settlements are now so interwoven into the Occupied Territories that Schlomka believes the Israeli government will never remove them. Instead, he predicted the eventual demise of Zionism. A Palestinian state may come into being, but Schlomka said if it does it’s likely to be so carved up that it will resemble the bantustans of South Africa.

Right now, it may be a toss-up as to whether Jews or Arabs find Schlomka’s plan for mixed housing more threatening. On one hand, integrated housing as a step leading to what Schlomka hopes will be land reform and equal political rights for Israeli Arabs and Jews undermines the Zionist foundation of the Jewish state. Many Arabs, on the other hand, fear the dissolution of their traditional way of life, a way of life rooted in family, clan and village.

“Our communities will probably appeal to the more secularist members of the Jewish and Arab population,” Schlomka acknowledged. “If anything is going to save our society, it’s going to be the development of a new civic society where mixing is the norm.”

To some degree, that society is already developing, Schlomka asserted, noting that many Arabs are developing a more cosmopolitan identity on top of their traditional affiliations and that Jews and Arabs mix in nightclubs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

A faint Scottish burr underlies Schlomka’s speech. The 49-year-old entrepreneur grew up in Scotland, though his family had roots in Palestine, which they left in 1948 right before war broke out. Schlomka’s father died at an early age; his mother subsequently had a nervous breakdown. “We were essentially orphaned,” said Schlomka, who observed that his current work with mosaic communities reflects his personal search for family and community.

Schlomka met his wife in Jerusalem in 1985. She was American, and for several years the two of them lived in the United States with frequent trips back to Israel before moving to Israel permanently in 2000.

It was not an auspicious time to return to Israel, but Schlomka said he and his family were committed to living in Israel. A traditional Jew who regularly attends religious services, Schlomka is also a committed democrat, dedicated to the idea that Israel should become a fully democratic state with equal rights for all its citizens.

In the meantime, Schlomka is trying to find support wherever he can -- hence his nonprofit group Friends of Mosaic Communities USA and the cardboard boxes emblazoned with the words “Pennies for Peace Campaign” that he’s hoping Americans will contribute to.

“The ultimate goal is to get a picture of President Bush with one of the boxes on his desk,” Schlomka said. “That would be a long shot,” he admitted.

Margot Patterson is NCR opinion editor. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 2004

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