April 20, 2010
Reviving the Zionist Dream
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
Ayalim was created by a group of young Israeli friends, including Gliksberg, who had just completed their army service. They realized their purpose when, in 2002, their friends Eyal Sorek and his pregnant wife, Yael, were killed in a terrorist attack in their settlement town of Karmei Tzur, in the West Bank.
“Their deaths came to us as a sign that our generation has to fight to keep this country ours,” Gliksberg said, pointing to the immense stretch of desert landscape on both sides of the road where he stood.
Pointing out a tin and corrugated metal Bedouin shantytown in the distance, he added, “If we don’t develop the Negev and Galilee, we stand to lose these regions as well. These areas are not in dispute, but they are in danger, so we have to do everything we can now to hold on to this land and make good use of it.”
The friends pooled their army discharge grants, money given to soldiers who complete the required Israel Defense Forces service, and used the funds to found Ayalim — Hebrew for deer — in memory of Eyal (male deer) and Yael (female deer). Their first student village, Adiel, was built in 2005 in Ashalim, a town 30 miles south of Beer-Sheva. Just like the early Zionists, the students built it all themselves, hammering every nail, laying down every stone and painting every wall. The result is now a thriving mini-town that is the heart and headquarters of the movement. Their do-it-yourself attitude, emphasis on hard work and connection to the land remain core features of Ayalim, even as the association has grown in scale and funding.
These days, 90 students enrolled in various universities and colleges in the area live in Adiel. More than 500 students live in 10 other Ayalim villages throughout the Negev and Galilee. Each village has its own unique character: Adiel is a beautiful, sand-colored outpost of permanent buildings surrounding a neatly landscaped courtyard with gardens, palm trees and smooth walkways. The urban village in Dimona consists of renovated apartment units scattered throughout six buildings in the one of the southern city’s toughest neighborhoods.
These student enclaves share a purpose beyond simply drawing young Israelis from the overpopulated center of Israel to the poorer, less developed southern and northern regions. Ayalim’s mission is to harvest this new generation’s energy and passion and use it to improve conditions for others who are lacking education, infrastructure, social services, economic opportunity and cultural vibrancy.
Students volunteer 500 hours a year in building the villages and maintaining them, running the family centers they create in each community, mentoring and tutoring inner-city children, teaching extracurricular activities, creating programs for families and the elderly, sparking community initiatives and establishing social services. In exchange, the students, 95 percent of whom study at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, receive full scholarships and subsidized housing from Ayalim.
Idan Bin-nun, 28, now a graduate of the program and heading to Columbia University, helped clean up the Dimona neighborhood, building a performance stage for community activities, planting trees and gardens, introducing recycling and helping establish a family center.
“There was trash and rubble covering this entire area,” Bin-nun told a visitor to Dimona, gesturing to the now clean and tidy neighborhood square, the wooden stage at its center. All it took was leading by example, he said, recalling how residents of the rundown complex began to take pride in their neighborhood, picking up trash, watering the gardens, repainting peeling shutters.
At first, Bin-nun’s family, who lives in Jerusalem, couldn’t fathom why a young man would want to live in an impoverished Dimona neighborhood. “But then they came and saw the work we were doing, the effect we’ve had on the kids in the neighborhood, the changes we were effecting, and since then, they’ve been very supportive.”
Once they complete their studies, Ayalim graduates are encouraged to remain in the Negev and Galilee and start businesses that create jobs, build homes that raise property values and become active members of the surrounding communities. The goal is to attract other young Israelis to the region.
Although Bin-nun and his wife, also an Ayalim alumna, are now heading to New York to pursue degrees, he said they plan to return to the Negev. Asked if he is concerned about finding a good job when he gets back, he answered with casual confidence, “If there aren’t jobs, we’ll create them.”
Ayalim has managed, in its eight years of existence, to overcome the steep psychological barrier of living in such development towns as Dimona and Yerucham — so called because of their origins as dumping grounds for the waves of immigrants that flooded Israel during the 1950s, ’70s and ’90s. Israel’s government built cheap public-housing units in undesirable locations far from the bustling center of the country for new immigrants coming from Romania, Persia, Morocco and Russia, and these towns became infamous for high unemployment rates, poverty and crime.
The underdeveloped and resource-starved Negev and Galilee regions comprise 75 percent of Israel’s landmass, yet according to statistics cited by the Or Movement — which also promotes the regions’ development — only 30 percent of Israel’s population lives in those areas. Ayalim’s research cites another statistic: The Negev and Galilee account for only 8 percent of the jobs available in Israel.
The Ayalim students’ passionate and successful hands-on approach to revitalizing these regions — 85 percent of participants stay after graduating from the program — has drawn enthusiastic support and financial backing from the Israeli government, starting with Ariel Sharon’s commitment to the project and continuing with the dedication of numerous other politicians, among them President Shimon Peres and Yerucham Mayor Amram Mitzna. The movement breathes new life into the late Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s vision of a thriving Negev and is in line with what many Israeli and American politicians are calling the future of Israel.
In 2007, now-former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated that “the future of Israel is in building a strong Israeli state in places like the Negev and Galilee” and not in the West Bank. In March, President Shimon Peres attended the 2010 Negev Conference to discuss the nation’s plans to settle 300,000 people in the south by 2020, and called the Negev the region of the future. At the same conference, KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler said, “The Negev is the place for current-day pioneers and lends modern-day meaning to Zionism.”