Israeli group aims to help Arabs — and contain them

He says he’s a leader of a “Zionist settlement” movement, but Raz Sofer’s home is no West Bank outpost.

Sofer, 25, is the manager of a 100-member student village in this mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel. The village, comprised of several apartment complexes, offers students cheap rent in exchange for volunteer work with Lod’s poor residents, many of them Arab-Israelis.

Sofer is fluent in Arabic and is proud of the students who volunteer in Arab kindergartens or run extracurricular activities for Arab youth. He loves when local Arabs come to the nonprofit bar he and other students founded on the ground floor of their apartment building.

But he also believes that despite their shared Israeli citizenship, “the conflict is not over.”

“They don’t see themselves as Israeli,” Sofer said. “If they see themselves in a certain way, and that conflicts unequivocally with the values I have, we have a conflict.”

The Lod village is the largest of 13 such communities across Israel, all of them located in the economically depressed areas that Israelis refer to as the “periphery.” They are run by Ayalim, an organization with a dual mission whose components might appear to be incompatible.

In exchange for reduced rent, students volunteer at least two hours each week in their communities, often serving their Arab neighbors. But their presence there is inspired by a belief that Arab-Israelis represent a demographic threat to the Jewish state — a threat that can be countered by bringing Jews to settle areas in which Arabs constitute a majority.

Ayalim’s founders acknowledge the tension inherent in that mission, but say it’s not a problem as long as Arabs accept the idea of being a minority in a Jewish state.

“There’s tension, and maybe you can live with it,” said Ayalim co-founder Effy Rubin. “Our state contains many conflicts, but the Zionist movement is very young. We want Jewish industriousness in the land of Israel, and we also know how to embrace the minorities who are here.”

Ayalim’s founders employ the language of Israel’s West Bank settlement movement, insisting that a physical Jewish presence — what settlers often call “facts on the ground” — is the best bulwark against threats to Jewish sovereignty. But the threats they are countering are not from West Bank Palestinians clamoring for statehood but Arab citizens of Israel.

Rubin says that if the state neglects to ensure a Jewish majority in the South, it could create a power vacuum that will lead to Arab-Israelis insisting on independence from Israel.

“In the place where we won’t be a majority, it won’t be ours,” Rubin said.

But Rubin also says he is a defender of Arab-Israeli rights and faults the government for giving them scant resources. Though he deems them a threat, Rubin believes his work is crucial to their welfare.

“Even though we’re super Zionist, we’re really not anti-Arab, anti-Bedouin,” Rubin said. “They have no less of a right to this land. They need to be here and have total equal rights.”

Activists say Ayalim can’t have it both ways. Improving the lot of Israel’s Arab communities should be done by direct investment, not treating them as a fifth column.

“Essentially they’re relating to a part of the population in Israel as a threat and not as citizens,” said Haia Noach, executive director of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. “It doesn’t bother me that Jews come to the Negev, just like it doesn’t bother me that Arabs live in the Negev. It’s strange that a state decides it has to be scared of its citizens.”

Such criticism hasn’t stunted Ayalim’s growth. Founded in 2002 by two Israeli students living in a trailer in the southern town of Ashalim, the group now houses more than 1,000 students in its 13 villages. A new village in the embattled southern border town of Sderot will house an additional 300 students next year.

The group has received funding from several mainstream Jewish and Israeli organizations, including the American federation system and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Most of its 2015 budget is coming directly from the Israeli government, which has made assisting the South a priority.

Nor does the demographic mission deter Arab-Israeli members from joining. Students appreciate the cheap rent — Sofer pays less than $150 a month for a room in a comfortable, renovated apartment — and they say the villages foster a sense of community and do important work with underserved populations.

“I like the organization’s activism,” said Habeeb Hajaj, an Arab resident of the Lod village who says he doesn’t enjoy the occasional group lectures on Zionism but values his volunteer work with Arab youth. “In general it does good because it gives so many solutions and responses to people around it, and it starts with the students.”

Ayalim doesn’t expect to turn Arab-Israelis into Zionists, but the group does hope to demonstrate to them that Israel is here to stay. Eventually Ayalim hopes to grow into a larger movement for settlement in the periphery and is building 120 residential units for young people across the North and South. The entire effort, Rubin says, aims to resurrect the pioneering spirit of the early Zionists.

“We have young people who come in concentrated groups, go to faraway places for an ideology and make the desert bloom,” Rubin said. “Aside from the demographic problem, the significance of Ayalim is that we created a national movement of young people.”


Summer for young adults in Israel for $1,000

Pioneering Israeli youth movement Ayalim (Hebrew for “deer”) is offering the opportunity for young adults in their 20s and 30s to spend this summer volunteering in Israel for just $1,000, including round-trip airfare, room and board.

Ayalim is a neo-Zionist organization that is developing the Negev and the Galilee. The relatively new organization needs volunteers — ability to speak Hebrew not required — to work alongside Israeli students in building ecological houses and structures in student and entrepreneurial villages in the Negev, a desert region in the south of Israel.

With The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles footing most of the bill, the trip — taking place from July 9 through August 5 — costs participants $1,000, which is less than a regular round-trip airline ticket to Israel.

Ayalim’s vision for a new type of Zionism consists of building communities, including student and entrepreneurial housing, in undisputed and underused territories around Israel.

For more information, contact or call Maor Shaffin at (323) 761-8154.

A Student Oasis on the Rise

Entering university can be a tough transition, especially for Israelis, who have probably spent the previous decade of their lives prepping for the army, serving in the army and recovering from the army.

“Once you get out of the army, everything you used to study, to stand for, is gone; religiously, Zionistically –any kind of idealism,” says Tzvicka Deutch, a Ben Gurion University (BGU) grad student who won third place in the popular Israeli reality show, “The Ambassador,” in which young Israelis competed to represent the Jewish state in its worldwide public relations efforts.

The enthusiastic Deutch is a top-notch unofficial ambassador for Ayalim, an organization of pioneering university students who want to settle the Negev and the Galilee, the underpopulated southern and northern regions of Israel. Through students at Ben Gurion University in the Negev, where the program is first starting, Ayalim hopes to restore the connection of Israelis to the land and to the community, like the old kibbutz movement.

“When you get to university it’s like you’re just for yourself. It’s post-Zionist,” Deutch tells me in his crisp British accent — courtesy of his English parents — over lunch at the BGU cafeteria.

“There are still vital energies and resources, and if you stop now, there won’t be any way for the country to hold onto its roots,” he says, shaking his semi-long semi-red curly hair, which is topped by a small, knitted yarmulka.

Ayalim was founded in September 2002 by post-army Jerusalemites looking to contribute to society.

The 26-year-old former reality TV star is one of 30 students living in Ayalim’s first settlement, Adiel, where they each contribute at least 10 hours of community service in exchange for scholarships and discounted housing.

Right now, Adiel is made up of concrete caravans a half-hour’s drive from BGU and Be’er Sheva, the Negev’s main city. Ayalim hopes to change the centrality of Be’er Sheva by popularizing other parts of the Negev. The plan is to make Adiel into a thriving “student and entrepreneurial village” and then build five others like it.

There’s something about Ayalim that has struck a chord with Israelis. More than 1,000 BGU students have applied for next fall’s 200 spots, probably more for the chance to build this student oasis in the desert than for the housing and tuition subsidies.

The new towns are intended to serve a student population at first, and later a business community. They are meant to give these students a taste of life in the Negev so that they will move to the region. And to create an educated workforce in the Negev, so that companies — primarily high-tech — will also set up shop here.

“Seventeen-thousand students arrive here [at BGU] every year, and then they leave,” Deutch says. “Nobody thinks 100 percent of the students will stay. But if 5 [percent] to10 percent stay…. ”

His voice trails off hopefully.

I didn’t stop by Adiel during my recent trip to the Negev, but some Ayalim representatives visiting Los Angeles on a fundraising mission showed me a video demo of the proposed village.

“What we wanted was to take the Negev and transform it into a place where people want to live, to make it sexy,” says Na’ama Dahan, a 28-year-old Israeli lawyer whose brother is one of the founders of Ayalim. In the video, the Adiel of the future has a hundred apartments, a library, a cultural hall and office space on eight acres. The town will cost $10.6 million to build. So far, they are about $2.5 million short.

One of the contributors, in addition to the Israeli government, is the Los Angeles-based Queen Esther Foundation, a private fund dedicated to assist innovative projects in Israel.

Los Angeles resident Soraya Nazarian, a representative of the Queen Esther fund, has seen the development of Adiel from the start. Nazarian has family in Be’er Sheva, and visited the village site in March 2004.

“When I went there to see the land, there was nothing there. And when they told me about their vision I was really moved. It reminded me of Exodus and Paul Newman,” says Nazarian. She was impressed by the idealistic youth, especially compared to the young people in Los Angeles, “who want everything to be served to a silver platter,” she says.

There are some apparent kinks in the plan — such as how these student villages will be much more than just satellite dorms for BGU, and what, besides a pioneering spirit, these young students will contribute.

I asked Deutch about this in Be’er Sheva.

“It sounds like a bit of a dream,” Deutch confesses, leaning his head sideways with that boyish smile that almost made him “The Ambassador.” “But that’s how Israel was built.