Making the Negev prosper during the coronavirus pandemic

#32 - Bulldozing the Negev and Galilee: Danny Atar

Danny Atar (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Danny Atar
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), Israel’s largest environmental agency, Danny Atar is spearheading an initiative to create real change on the ground for residents of the periphery by encouraging a million Israelis to relocate to the Negev and half a million others to the Galilee.
Atar believes that the Jewish state’s resilience depends on narrowing gaps between people in the center of the country and outlying areas. KKL-JNF’s flagship program, Israel 2040 aims to transform the Negev and Galilee into advanced hi-tech areas or local Silicon Valleys, attracting young individuals and families from Israel and all over the world.
Atar has initiated many other key KKL-JNF projects, including Houses of Excellence, which serve as educational centers for students on the periphery, and KKL-Tech Centers, which serve as anchor points for companies to move operations to the periphery, allowing large employment centers in a variety of fields.
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How is KKL-JNF coping with the COVID-19 pandemic?
The coronavirus crisis has forced us all to make significant changes in our lifestyle. With the outbreak of the virus, KKL-JNF acted in accordance with the guidelines of the Ministry of Health and called on travelers to avoid visiting its sites in order to maintain their health.
KKL-JNF adapted all its activities to the guidelines of the Ministry of Health and mobilized to help the citizens of Israel face the challenges of the hour. For example, the KKL-JNF House for Excellence in Nof Harim, which serves as a center for educational technology, transferred its activities and auxiliary lessons to an advanced remote learning system and continued to assist students in their studies. Together with the students of the premilitary academies, we worked to help Israeli farmers with the citrus harvest to ensure that the agricultural produce would not be destroyed. After a prolonged closure, we opened the Agamon Hahula – initially to families with autistic children – to allow them to be the first to enjoy the fresh air.
Recently, the JNF launched the JNF Hall in the Ben Shemen Forest, where we host weekly performances by top Israeli artists while strictly adhering to social distance procedures, thus enabling Israeli citizens to resume cultural activities while encouraging the music and the arts industry to resume its work. Precisely because of the challenges of the coronavirus, we need to continue to make nature accessible to citizens, allow visits and tours in the open space, and offer a variety of leisure activities within our beautiful country.
How is Israel 2040 progressing?
“Israel 2040,” KKL-JNF’s flagship program, is a national plan that will lead to the settlement of one million Israelis in the Negev and half a million more in the Galilee. KKL-JNF sees these areas as the generators of national change and believes that strengthening these areas will fortify the economic and strategic resilience of the State of Israel. After hundreds of hours of thinking and research, consultants, reports, programs and in cooperation with Israel’s business and technology communities, local authorities, and various organizations, we realized that the real change could come by turning these areas into hi-tech and technology hubs.
Two projects have already been implemented, with the first being the KKL Houses of Excellence project, which serve as centers for learning and education, the purpose which is to give students on the periphery equal opportunity to receive a quality science education, a full high school diploma, and an equal chance to perform significant service in the IDF and study in higher education. The house that already operates in Nof Harim has proven its assistance to the youth in the settlement, and its average matriculation scores have risen in the first two years of its activities. By the next school year, three additional KKL-JNF houses in Ofakim, Sderot and Kiryat Malachi will be operational.
In addition, KKL-Tech Centers, employment areas focused on hi-tech –  each in a specific field – have begun operations. These tech centers are intended as anchor points for companies to move operations to the periphery, allowing large employment centers in a variety of fields. KKL-Tech is already active in Tzemach, which is located on the shores of Lake Kinneret; in Arad; and in the coming year, the centers at Sha’ar Hanegev, Sderot, and Beersheba will also begin operations.
How is KKL-JNF working to encourage new immigrants to move to the North and South?
The COVID-19 crisis has shown that we cannot continue to crowd the population in the center of the country and that we must take advantage of the great potential of the Galilee and the Negev. In the current reality, in which the unemployment rate is rising, and many citizens face unprecedented economic challenges, only a comprehensive national plan that will enable families to move to all parts of the country by lowering living costs, while at the same time allowing for a decent livelihood in various professions – even in the hi-tech sectors – will create change and expand Israel’s economic horizons.
In order to encourage settlement in the Galilee and the Negev, KKL-JNF is committed to narrowing the gaps between the center and the periphery and allowing every Israeli citizen wherever he or she lives to enjoy similar conditions in employment, education, health, and leisure. This will encourage those with young families to move to the Negev and the Galilee. KKL-JNF promotes employment throughout the country to empower other areas and give the future generation both in the Negev and in the Galilee economic opportunity while giving economic leverage to the entire region.
What is your vision for the future?
This year KKL-JNF marks 120 years of activity. For 120 years, the organization has been working on behalf of the Jewish people to fulfill Jewish vision and strengthen the status of the State of Israel. KKL-JNF has acted on behalf of the Jewish settlement in the land of Israel beginning with the Ottoman period, during the British Mandatory period, and, of course, since the State came into being. KKL-JNF has acted as the agent of change to carry out every task that the Jewish people sought to accomplish. Though the challenges of the people and the State changed over the years, KKL-JNF has continued to be relevant. We changed the tasks, the ways of getting things done, and adapted them to the challenges. In the coming year, and for the next 120 years, we must continue to continue the organization’s activities and adjust to the changing needs and reality, so that we can continue to serve the Jewish people faithfully and become a power multiplier for the various State authorities, in every value-based, educational, settlement and Zionist project in the State of Israel.
In the face of the wave of antisemitism around the world, KKL-JNF is also committed to helping, maintaining, and strengthening the Jews of the Diaspora as a community, and enabling those who want to immigrate to Israel and settle there. The coronavirus, which presents the entire world with new challenges, will also challenge the organization’s activities. I have no doubt that we will also be able to offer support and assistance and work to create a healthy and safe way of life for the citizens of Israel.