The city of Ariel is home to 19,000 Israelis, a university center of 12,000 students and a growing industrial park with 27 factories employing thousands of workers. The city’s backers describe Ariel as beautiful, diverse, peaceful. One repeat American visitor said, “It’s like driving into some San Diego suburb.”
But Ariel, whose nearly completed performing arts center recently became the subject of protest, is a Jewish settlement located in the heart of the West Bank, about 10 miles east of the pre-1967 border of Israel. It is within a region that may or may not become part of a future Palestinian state, because although Ariel is within commuting distance of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, two other major municipalities are geographically closer to the city-size settlement: the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Ramallah.
Established in 1978, Ariel has been aided in its growth by many generous American philanthropists, including a number from the Los Angeles Jewish community. Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman makes frequent trips to Los Angeles to raise funds for and awareness of Ariel. On his last visit here, he spoke from the bimah at Sinai Temple to nearly 1,000 congregants on a Shabbat morning.
Nachman, mayor since 1985, has done much to help cultivate relationships with Americans, who have dramatically strengthened Ariel and the Ariel University Center (AUC). Among the supporters are some of Los Angeles’ most well-known Jewish philanthropists. Real estate developer Larry Field estimates that he and his late wife, Eris, have given “a couple of million” dollars to the American Friends of Ariel over the past 15 years. Gifts from the Milken Family Foundation and the Lowell Milken Family Foundation to Ariel and the Ariel University Center add up to more than $2 million in 2006 and 2007 alone.
In late August, a group of Israeli theater professionals announced they would not appear at Ariel’s new performing arts center because of its West Bank location. The boycott set off a heated debate in Israel, made a few headlines internationally and recently garnered support from some American Jewish actors and writers.
Ariel’s supporters in Los Angeles, however, dismiss the controversy, and despite ongoing peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that could potentially redraw the boundaries of Israel, none seriously believe that Ariel will ever change hands.
“I think it’s nonsense,” Field said. “Even the Palestinians, in their last two times of drawing up what the West Bank would look like if it was given over to them, Ariel was one of the two major cities that was taken out of it.”
“Ariel is indeed within the consensus community,” said Avi Zimmerman, executive director of American Friends of Ariel. The understanding that Ariel is certain to remain part of Israel in any two-state settlement has helped to guide the L.A.-based philanthropists in their work. “We look at Ariel as part of the State of Israel, because the government of Israel looks at Ariel as part of the State of Israel,” said Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation and chairman of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. (The upper campus of AUC is known as the Milken Family Campus.)
Others disagree. “Any assertion that a settlement is a matter of national consensus is questionable, since the settlements are the most controversial subject on the Israeli national agenda,” Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Journal. Gorenberg is the author of “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977” (Times Books, 2006). “Keeping Ariel as part of Israel would mean having a finger of Israeli territory sticking into the West Bank,” Gorenberg wrote. “Whatever the odds on keeping other blocs in Israeli hands, the chances of keeping Ariel are lower.”
Ariel isn’t the largest urban center beyond the Green Line. Ma’aleh Adumim’s population was just under 35,000 in 2008, and many tens of thousands of Israelis live in parts of East Jerusalem that were captured by Israel in 1967. But Ariel is more distant from cities within Israel’s pre-1967 borders than are these other developed areas.
Given the popular conception of what settlements look like, foreign visitors are often surprised by Ariel. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, has taken U.S. senators and congressmen to Ariel. “They are always shocked that these are real cities,” Klein said of Ariel and the other large settlements in the West Bank. “They have these images of tents and one-room housing. They are shocked these are real cities — with schools and shopping centers.”
David N. Myers, chairman of UCLA’s history department, said that turning Ariel and other settlements into “real cities” is part of a broader effort to make Ariel feel “normal.” Ariel, Myers wrote in an e-mail, “has attempted to fashion itself as the ideal suburban bedroom community, and been quite successful. […] This work of normalization owes in no small part to the efforts of Ron Nachman. … He has repeatedly made the argument that Ariel is Israel no less than Tel Aviv, and Israeli politicians, for the most part, have listened.”
The American philanthropic dollars Nachman has helped bring to Ariel have helped make the city what it is today. “There are many projects that owe their entire existence and success to support from the United States,” said American Friends of Ariel’s Zimmerman. “It’s made the difference in terms of quality of life, and quality of education, and the quality of the different projects in our city.”
Perhaps no American Jewish family has been more supportive of Ariel than have the Milkens. “The Milken Foundation and the Milken family name appear on more buildings in Ariel than any other,” Zimmerman said.
“It’s not a political organization,” Sandler said of the Milken Family Foundation, which has been supporting schools in Ariel since the 1980s. “It’s no different than what we’ve always done,” he said, noting that the Milken family has supported every university in Israel. “We’ve always been involved in education, both here and in the State of Israel.”
Howard Lesner, executive director of Sinai Temple, echoed this apolitical theme when asked about the talk Nachman gave at the synagogue in April. “He [Nachman] basically came to give a message of what Ariel was. He didn’t talk about it in terms of it being a settlement. He didn’t talk about the political aspects of it. He talked about the growth of the city and encouraged people to visit,” Lesner said.
What happens to Ariel will impact the future of Israel and the future of any Palestinian state. The current 10-month moratorium on settlement building is set to expire on Sept. 26. Netanyahu has promised not to extend it; Abbas has said he will break off the talks if it is not extended.
“At this point in the current talks, the agenda itself is undecided,” Gorenberg wrote. “If and when borders are discussed, Ariel’s future will certainly be on the table.”
But Field, who has helped to establish “four or five projects” to improve Ariel’s quality of life — “We did a park, we did a gymnasium, we did a civic center,” he said — doesn’t believe Israel would ever walk away from Ariel. “I never thought it would be given up,” the philanthropist said.
And though the current controversy has generated much more heat in Israel than it has abroad, according to Ariel’s boosters, it hasn’t been felt much in the city itself.
“The same week in which there was this public outcry,” said Yigal Cohen-Orgad, the chancellor of Ariel University Center, “in that same week, we had two international conferences on our campus.”
Eldad Halachmi, also of AUC, said that the protest actually resulted in an increase in support for Ariel coming from elsewhere in Israel. “I was speaking to the mayor and to the manager of the new concert hall,” Halachmi said. “By now, he’s about to finish selling all the tickets for the season, maybe for the year.”