Aliya beyond the Green Line

Quality of life, low-cost housing, generous subsidies rather than politics are drawing new immigrants – including growing community of English-speakers – to W.Bank city of Ariel.

Ariel 521 (photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
Ariel 521
(photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
On a Facebook group for English-speakers in Israel, American immigrant Yael Tilevitz Lockerman is spreading the word about her new hometown.
“Looking for that perfect place? Young, central and affordable, [it] is a place with stunning views, and a great climate located in the center of Israel.
[It] is a microcosm of Israel, with religious and secular, young and old, Israelis and immigrants,” Lockerman writes.
The city in question is not Ra’anana or Kfar Saba, Herzliya or Ramat Hasharon, but the West Bank city of Ariel.
A secular, largely Russian-speaking outpost in the hills of Samaria, Ariel is fast becoming a hot aliya destination for olim from the US, Canada and South Africa.
South African-born Hillel Maizels is the rabbi of Ariel’s Ohel Efraim synagogue and the unofficial Anglo community rabbi. He describes the majority of the city’s new English-speaking residents as young, religious families.
“Around 95 percent are varying shades of modern Orthodox,” says Maizels, adding that there is a handful of nonreligious olim too.
Is Ariel’s new aliya trend motivated by ideology, the desire to put down roots and help build a Jewish city in the ancient region of Samaria? Or are more practical considerations attracting Anglo olim here? Metro took a trip to Ariel to try to understand its allure.
It’s extremely easy – and cheap – to get to Ariel. The heavily subsidized bus ride from Tel Aviv costs less than NIS 10 and takes about an hour via Road 5, a fast, four-lane highway. It’s a beautiful journey, once you leave behind the traffic jams and concrete apartment blocks of Petah Tikva and drive east past Rosh Ha’ayin.
As the road cuts through hillsides stepped with ancient olive terraces, I catch glimpses of white spires of minarets rising like columns of smoke from Arab villages, soldiers waiting at a bus stop, a white-bearded man riding a donkey.
Seventeen kilometers east of the Green Line is Ariel, its elongated shape stretched like a five-kilometer- long finger across a stony hilltop. Founded in 1978 on land provided by the government, Ariel has considerable strategic importance: Travel another 34 kilometers east, and you’ll hit the river Jordan; just 42 kilometers west is Tel Aviv.
With a population of 18,000 (and growing), Ariel is the fourth-largest West Bank settlement after Modi’in Illit, Betar Illit and Ma’aleh Adumim.
It’s also the deepest behind the Green Line, the line drawn in the 1949 cease-fire between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, which held until the 1967 Six Day War.
TODAY’S ARIEL has the look and feel of an ordinary Israeli small town, with a heavy Russian influence – unsurprising, as 45% of the city’s residents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In the outdoor shopping center I count two delicatessens selling kolbasa, a cured pork sausage, and a store selling tinsel-bedecked holiday trees and red-and-white Santa hats – not Christmas decorations, but secular accoutrements of the Soviet New Year holiday.
Dotted here and there are telltale signs of Ariel’s growing English-speaking community. “The Jerusalem Post sold here!” reads an English sign firmly tacked above a newsstand.
Ariel’s wave of Anglo aliya started just two years ago when the Ariel Municipality launched a special initiative to boost immigration to the city.
Dubbed the Ariel Community Aliya Program, the project is a partnership with the Jewish Agency and the Absorption Ministry and initially targeted North American Jews. Recently, its outreach has been extended to the UK and South Africa.
“Ariel’s founder and visionary, Mayor Ron Nachman, envisioned increasing North American aliya to Ariel as an enriching component of its society,” explains Avi Zimmerman, director of the Ariel Development Fund and former Community Aliya program coordinator.
“This followed the success of the city’s mass absorption of olim from the former USSR, which had a very positive impact on the city, including in terms of culture and academics.” In the past two years, Ariel’s English-speaking community has swelled to 50 families, of which 40 made aliya directly to the city, while 10 are a mix of longerterm Anglo residents and veteran olim who moved from other cities like Beit Shemesh.
Missouri-born Natalie Zacks made aliya to Ariel two years ago, one of the first of the new Anglo olim to come here. She certainly fits Rabbi Maizels’s description of a typical member of Ariel’s new “Anglo” community: She’s young, modern Orthodox, married with three small children, well-educated and Zionist.
Energetic, with an infectious smile, Zacks exudes enthusiasm for her new hometown.
“Ariel has what I want – a nice mix of nice people, and the community is very welcoming and warm,” she says, occasionally calling out greetings to passersby as if she has lived here all her life.
Why did the Zacks family choose Ariel instead of one of the more traditional locations for religious Anglo olim like Beit Shemesh, Modi’in or Jerusalem? “My husband and I had different ideas about where we wanted to live in Israel,” recalls Zacks. “I dreamed of a hilltop community where my kids could run barefoot, but he wanted to have stores close by.” It was the Zacks’s local Nefesh B’Nefesh representative who first suggested that Ariel might be the perfect match for the young family’s diverse needs.
“Ariel offered us the best of both worlds. It has the convenience of a city but it’s small,” says Zacks. “Ariel has a young religious community, housing is cheap and it’s close to everything – so it’s easy to travel to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.”
New olim are also drawn to Ariel by a lucrative package of additional government-sponsored incentives.
ARIEL IS one of five cities (the others are Haifa, Jerusalem, Ma’aleh Adumim and Modi’in) promoted by the Jewish Agency as part of its Communal Aliya and Absorption Project. People making aliya to these cities receive extra incentives to their regular aliya benefits – including a month’s temporary accommodation, generous housing subsidies, extra ulpan hours and additional help for children in schools – which all boost Ariel’s attractiveness, particularly for young families on a tight budget.
In its bid to spread the word about the city and its benefits to potential olim, Ariel has had help from Anglo aliya organizations.
AACI (the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel), the South African organization Telfed and the religious aliya movement Tehilla all organize pilot tours to Ariel.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, which promotes and organizes aliya from North America and the UK, says that the Ariel municipality approached them in 2008.
Nefesh B’Nefesh representatives suggest the city as a good option for potential olim searching for a suitable community in Israel.
“In Ariel, the mayor recognized that American olim needed to be attracted to the city, so they spoke to us,” says Nefesh B’Nefesh Executive Vice President Danny Oberman.
“We want to offer people as many options as possible, so they have a choice.”
Emmanuel Kushner, a teacher and tour guide who recently made aliya from the UK with his wife Rivka and two young children, says that his family also initially described the type of community they were looking for to Nefesh B’Nefesh, who suggested Ariel.
“We wanted a place that was bigger than a yishuv and smaller than a major city and a mixture of people, religious and non-religious,” says Kushner.
The Kushners say they eventually chose Ariel because of its proximity to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, its cheap housing and the presence of a yeshiva and good schools.
While Ariel’s Anglo community is growing, it is still very much a minority.
“Ariel is definitely not an English-speaking bubble,” stresses Reuven Franks, Ariel’s aliya coordinator.
“There’s no one English-speaking neighborhood here, like there is in Modi’in, for example. That’s a big plus because it allows people to integrate.”
Both Zimmerman and Franks say that political concerns like Ariel’s location beyond the Green Line are definitely not factors that motivate people to immigrate here.
“People don’t come here to make a political statement,” says Zimmerman. “They are drawn here because of the quality of life Ariel offers.”
British oleh Emmanuel Kusher says that the fact that Ariel is in the West Bank was neither a push nor a pull factor in his family’s decision to move there.
“We feel that all of Israel belongs to the Jews and, as such, we can choose anywhere in the country we want to live,” he adds.
IT’S NOT only English-speakers for whom Ariel is a popular aliya destination. The city’s most significant population group – around 45% of the total, or 8,000 residents – are Russian-speaking olim.
Their numbers, too, are growing as Jews from former Soviet countries continue to move here, encouraged like their Anglophone neighbors by the city’s amenities and its low cost of living boosted by generous incentives.
Irena Vilshansky works in the Ariel municipality’s aliya department, promoting the city as a destination of choice for Russians. She made aliya here 20 years ago and has emotional memories of her arrival.
“I remember how warmly I was welcomed to Ariel,” recalls Vilshansky, whose love of her adopted hometown is such that she has devoted her career to convincing others to move here too.
“Ariel is called the Israeli Switzerland for its crystal mountain air, picturesque views, and European comfort!” enthuses the city’s Russian-language promotional booklet for olim, which tempts would-be immigrants with colorful photos of the city’s sports center and swimming pool, its breathtaking views, high-quality housing and schools. Yelena Belousova and her daughter Marina moved to Ariel from Kaliningrad, Russia, two months ago.
“We picked Ariel because it’s European, it’s modern and it has a great climate,” says Belousov, who researched several Israeli cities on the Internet before finally deciding on Ariel. “It’s also very close to Tel Aviv and other cities in the center of Israel.”
Dr. Tatiana Tikhonova, a biologist who made aliya from Kharkov, Ukraine, last year and works at the Ariel University Center, is similarly enthusiastic about her new city.
“Ariel is very beautiful and contemporary,” she says. “It’s a Russian city.”
Like their English-speaking counterparts, Tikhonova and Belousova say Ariel’s convenient location close to employment centers and its education facilities, including the University Center, are factors that drove their choice.
They stress the availability of good-quality yet low-cost accommodation – made cheaper still by the extra housing subsidies immigrants receive when coming to Ariel – as another significant incentive.
EVEN WITHOUT a subsidy, housing really is cheap here. A trip to a local real estate agent turns up a seven-room, 160-square-meter apartment for NIS 1.1m.; a similar-sized property in Petah Tikva costs NIS 1.98m. On the rental market, a four-room, 100-sq.-m. family apartment in Ariel is available for a monthly rent of NIS 3,200 compared to around NIS 4,500 in Petah Tikva.
Like their Anglo counterparts, Ariel’s location beyond the Green Line neither attracted nor deterred Russian olim Belousova and Tikhonova from moving here. They describe Ariel as just another Israeli town.
“This is an Israeli city in the heart of Israel, not a remote place on the periphery,” Tikhonova says.
Belousova echoes this sentiment. “Stick a pin right in the center of the map of Israel, and there you’ll find Ariel,” she says. However, even if lifestyle factors are what attract olim to Ariel, once they are there, it’s surely difficult to ignore politics.
The 10-month building freeze prohibiting construction in Israel’s settlements, for example, meant that Ariel could not build new housing or expand its University Center.
The freeze impacted Ariel’s Anglo aliya program, says Avi Zimmerman of the Ariel Development Fund.
“We haven’t been able to bring as many new people because we couldn’t build,” he says.
Ariel drew criticism nationally and internationally in February when it upgraded its college into a University Center, and last month it was at the center of another row, this time over its new 530- seat Cultural Center. A group of Israeli artists, including novelist David Grossman, playwright Yeshoshua Sobol and filmmaker Eytan Fox, declared a boycott of the center because of its West Bank location.
The row over the cultural center boycott has not dampened Ariel’s spirits, however.
“It made people even more proud,” says Franks, adding that the increased media attention Ariel received as the row over the boycott hit the headlines translated into good publicity for the city.
“We got a lot of support, including a lot of requests from artists wanting to perform,” he says.
“And performances are all packed solid.”
THE ARIEL Cultural Center is the last of many public facilities to be built in the city aimed at improving the well-being of its residents and attracting visitors from other parts of the region.
Other facilities include the Ariel National Leadership Development Center, an outdoor learning facility providing personal leadership training, which attracts groups from all over the country including IDF elite units and the police force. Industrial parks in Ariel and nearby Barkan are major regional employers, and the University Center, the largest employer in the West Bank, has 9,000 undergraduate students, including 500 Israeli Arabs.
These facilities, together with its large population, connect Ariel with the rest of the country and help cement its position as a regional center and Israeli stronghold.
But what are Ariel’s chances of remaining part of Israel in the long term? Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu re-pledged his support for Ariel during a visit earlier this year, dubbing it the “capital of Samaria” and an “integral part of Israel.
“EVERYONE WHO understands the geography of Israel knows how important Ariel is. It is the heart of our country, and we will stay here,” said Netanyahu, whose Likud party received a whopping 45% of the Ariel vote in the 2009 election – unsurprising given its long-term support of the settlement.
Netanyahu’s speech echoed his words of 12 years earlier, when, during a ceremony conferring city status on Ariel, he declared it “a permanent place, part of Israel in any future final-status agreement.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is also popular here, not perhaps surprising given the city’s large Russian-speaking population. His Israel Beiteinu party, which won 31% of the city’s vote in 2009, has consistently pledged vocal support for Ariel.
OTHERS ARE less optimistic. Yossi Alpher, a strategic analyst and former director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, says the city’s future as part of Israel is not guaranteed.
“I would put Ariel’s chances of remaining part of Israel in a final status or even partial agreement map at about 50%,” he says. A major issue is how the city could survive as an isolated Israeli enclave within a future Palestinian state.
“If Ariel does remain part of Israel, this will be problematic from a security standpoint because of the length and narrowness of the corridor that will probably be negotiated to attach Ariel to Israel,” says Alpher.
“Even in a relatively tranquil Israeli-Palestinian relationship after peace, a handful of Palestinian villagers would be able to breach the corridor and detach Ariel, thereby potentially triggering renewed tension or even conflict.”
Ariel’s growing Anglo community, however, is largely not concerned about the city’s future.
“People here don’t feel that way,” says Rabbi Maizels. “This is a city of 18,000 people, and it’s still growing. If we get to the stage where Ariel had to be disengaged, I’d say the State of Israel would be in a pretty bad way.”
Meanwhile, Ariel’s mayor – and the city’s founder – Ron Nachman reacts angrily to questions about Ariel’s long-term future.
“Ariel is a 30-year-old city, the center of Samaria.
I am building a city the same as any other in Israel, with industry, academics, public facilities,” says Nachman.
“Go to Tel Aviv and ask Ron Huldai the same questions. Ariel is Israel. Period.”
Nachman says the city has long-term plans to increase aliya from English-speaking countries.
“I want to bring 6,000 olim from the USA, the same number as we brought from the former USSR,” says Nachman. “That’s my plan. That’s my vision.”