ON A hilltop close to the Israeli-Egyptian border on March 21, the spring equinox, groups of Jews, Christians and Muslims marked the date on which the length of day and night are equal by praying together – in three different directions. The participants were students, volunteers and teaching staff, all members of a remarkable institution – the Nitzana Rural Educational Community.Located in the middle of the desert, Nitzana – which has just celebrated its 30th year – has become a model of environmental and educational progress, attracting thousands of young people annually from Israel and abroad.
Little grows in the southwest Negev desert. The barren hills in dull shades of gray and beige are home to the Ketziot Prison and Holot Detention Center for African refugees, army bases and firing ranges. The area is also home to Moshav Kadesh Barnea (Nitzanei Sinai) and Tel Nitzana, the remains of an ancient Nabatean city.Nearby is the stunning three-kilometer- long “Path of Peace” constructed by Israel’s famous environmental sculptor Dani Karavan ‒ 100 sand-colored stone pillars, each inscribed with the word “peace” in a different language.It’s here, at “the end of the world,” that an extraordinary educational facility is located. Unlike any place else in the world, Nitzana is a combination field school, academic research center, summer camp, sports training center, new immigrant home, boarding school and model eco-village.“I’m not afraid of using the term ‘Zionist’ here,” declares Nitzana’s longtime dynamic director David Palmach. “We’re using it in the best sense and in a contemporary sense.” Palmach has the intensity and the presence of a man with a vision, liberally quoting Nitzana’s late founder, the legendary politician and social activist Arie (Lova) Eliav, whose concept for Nitzana was “a school to teach respect for humanity and its place in developing the arid wilderness.” Originally called a “Youth Village” when first founded in 1987, its formal name today is the Nitzana Youth Empowerment and Educational Village. It is owned and partially funded by the Jewish Agency.According to Palmach, there are currently 24 families living in the community, 70 volunteer workers from the Jewish Agency and 300 full-time students on various educational programs. Some 17,000 young people from Israel and abroad come to Nitzana every year to experience desert living ‒ some for just a few days. The Negev represents more than half the area of the state of Israel, Palmach points out.“We believe this is the future of Israel. The idea is to expose the youth who come here to a part of Israel they wouldn’t see. Many of them will be in the army one day, and what they see as soldiers won’t endear them to the Negev. But if they’ve experi-enced a bike tour or camel tour, they will already have a different feeling. There’s wine, honey, desalinized water, camels, bikes, and there’s fun.”In 1986, Eliav approached educator Ze’ev Zivan, then head of the Israel Scouts Movement and a Young Judea envoy, about setting up a youth village in Nitzana.Eliav (who in 1988 would be given the Israel Prize for his contribution to society) had famously guided the planning and construction of 50 villages and a town in the Lachish region, which was then the northernmost reaches of the Negev desert, and also had spearheaded the establishment of the city of Arad above the Dead Sea.Eliav’s concept for Nitzana was for a new Youth Aliya village that would be an expression of David Ben-Gurion’s vision for the development and settlement of the Negev. The idea was for a place for the then 20,000 young people from Youth Aliya, who were studying and living in the villages around the country, to come to the Negev to experience life there.Zivan tried to dissuade Eliav. “I told him that no one would come to a totally isolated place and it would be nothing but trouble,” recalls Zivan. “I was speaking from my experience of living for 36 years in [the remote Negev settlement of] Sde Boker, but Lova was always stubborn, remembering how he’d founded Lachish and Arad. He said, ‘You’ll eat zhabes [Yiddish for frogs] but you’ll do it anyway.’”And he did. Zivan became Nitzana’s educational director for its first decade. “At the beginning, we were more like a field school than a youth village and, at first, the Jewish Agency didn’t care much about the whole project,” he says. “Lova knew everyone and everyone loved him. He was someone who could pick up a phone and persuade donors, talk to all the top officials ‒ even those in different political parties were willing to help.” An expert in informal education, Zivan organized bike tours, a donkey shelter, courses in desert navigation and local wildlife. The youngsters planted trees, picked tomatoes in hot houses and, in general, experienced life in the desert.They also joined the nearby archeological dig. “The most important thing we did was to create a program out of the landscape,” says Zivan. “Eliav always said that once there is an archeological tel [hill] in an area, it’s possible to make a modern settlement. Archeologists and their students will always come, and you know that somewhere there is water. It’s a good gimmick, and also provides employment. Eliav did this in Lachish and Arad and Nitzana. The model works.”Nitzana soon attracted well-known figures in politics and the arts who would come down for visits or to perform. “Everyone in government used to come to visit us, except members of the Labor Party,” recalls Zivan. “They held a grudge against Lova Eliav because he’d resigned from the party.”OVER THE years, the community developed and started incorporating branches not found in classical youth villages: seminars, environmental and science studies, programs for high school kids from problematic backgrounds and “shnat sherut” – the pre-army year of service program. Today, the campus includes two schools, a clubhouse, a center for science study and research, residential quarters for staff and students, a large communal dining hall, a swimming pool, a synagogue, gymnasium and a state-of-the art solar park.When the mass aliya started from the FSU and Ethiopia in the 1990s, Nitzana began boarding school ulpans to teach Hebrew to young Russian and Ethiopian immigrants.Their place was eventually taken by young Africans who had crossed the nearby border with Egypt seeking asylum. Beginning in 2005, hundreds of migrants from Eritrea and Sudan began infiltrating into Israel daily, seeking asylum, work and a place to stay. On his daily morning runs, Palmach regularly watched as traumatized refugees crossed the border and collapsed.“Every day they’d arrive, asking for the ‘camp,’ meaning the nearby IDF camp because they’d been told there was food and a doctor,” recalls Palmach. The migrants included many children as young as 12 or 13 years old. “They came all the way on foot; all of them had been raped or abused. Their parents had paid ransom to release them from Beduin in the Sinai who were torturing them.”Today, the 242-kilometer-long barrier fence constructed along the Israeli-Egyptian border has effectively blocked African migrants but, at the time, the children coming over the border were taken to prison-like facilities along with the adults.Israel has still not come to grips with its policies regarding the estimated 45,000- 60,000 migrants from Africa claiming refugee status, imprisoning many and leaving most in a state of legal limbo. According to Israeli law, however, the state is required to provide education to children under the age of 18, even if their parents are illegal residents.In 2012, Palmach offered to take 50 of the boys who were alone and set up a school for them in Nitzana. It was a controversial decision because Israel doesn’t lack for its own needy citizens, but Palmach insisted it was the right thing to do. They called the school “Tikkun Olam” (a Hebrew expression meaning repairing the world). Some of the boys were illiterate; others with some education could be bused to a regular Israeli high school. However, once the boys reached 18, the state no longer paid for their upkeep and they eventually all dispersed ‒ some to work at nearby farms, but most to Tel Aviv.ALTHOUGH THERE are no more Eritrean refugee boys, their place, in a sense, has been taken by young Beduin boys. “One of the problems of the Negev is that the Beduin are going in one direction and the Jews in another,” states Palmach. “You can be in a fine situation, but if the guy across the road has nothing he will steal from you. They’re citizens of the state, but we’ve neglected them; it’s the fault of the state that a kid comes to 9th grade without knowing Hebrew.”Beginning as a base for a leadership project for gifted young Beduin men called “Stars of the Desert” that has since relocated, three years ago Nitzana decided to set up the first (and still only) boarding school for youngsters of high school age from the surrounding Beduin villages.Palmach admits that it was, at first, an uncertain prospect, but he was determined to take on a population that has been generally abandoned and underserved. The 9th graders were often illiterate in Arabic and knew no Hebrew.“You can’t imagine the gaps in [mainstream] culture. Some of them come from encampments where there are no toilets and we had to teach them basic sanitation,” he says.“We want to provide an alternative to their heroes who are smugglers and [that they] can make a lot of money,” he continues. The school, which now has grades 9 to 11, teaches agriculture and environmental studies in addition to academic subjects.He concedes, however, that it’s been an extremely difficult process. “Vandalism, theft ‒ but little by little they’re learning how to behave. If we succeed, we can be a model for the rest of the country.”Finding staff for the school, both Arab and Jewish, is also a challenge. Diab Omar, an educator from the north of the country, is the school’s principal. “I think of my job as a kind of mission. We’ve taken boys that have a totally different culture and values than the rest of the Israeli population,” he explains. “They wouldn’t survive in a standard school. You have to think outside the box, to do things no one else would dare. You can’t work by the book because no one’s written that book. It’s been hard finding staff, because this is so new.“We’re not yet on a level we’re striving for, but low grades are not my concern at this point. We’re trying to give them the tools so they are not tempted to get involved in crime.”Last year, a group of high school students from Hof Hasharon, a well-to-do area of the country, came for a three-day ecology seminar at the field school in Nitzana. They went off on a desert star-gazing trip in the middle of the night only to return to discover their smart phones and chargers had been stolen.“I got a phone call from their [the visiting students’] principal saying she was going to call the police. I said I’d deal with it myself,” Palmach relates. Omar, he says, spoke to his students “in a language they understand about honor and pride [and], an hour later, all the phones had been returned.”A week later, Palmach received a phone call from the Hof Hasharon principal. “I thought, oh no, she’s missing something else; maybe she’s going to report this to the police.” But, instead, she was calling to propose a twinning project of the 10th grades, and the schools have already had successful exchanges.Nitzana also hosts two programs for students from the former Soviet Union ‒ a 10- month sports-training program for young adults and an academic preparatory course for young people who have come to Israel without their parents.Nitzana has created an ecological village that practices what it teaches. It runs various seminars and courses on environmental awareness; the centerpiece of the community is the cutting-edge work with solar energy and water conservation.The recycling center, built from discarded waste, teaches the community’s new immigrant students and Israeli high school students how to minimize their ecological footprint. One much-photographed site is the study area where the participants sit on “toilet seats” and learn about recycling. The area was, in fact, built over what were once degraded toilets to help learn about water reclamation.“THERE’S AN amazing uniqueness to the community here of so many different people: the Christian volunteers, the Beduin, new Russian immigrants, people exploring coming to Israel and youngsters doing their pre-army service [Shinshinim],” remarks Nir Lahav, director of the Jewish Agency’s Youth Social Activism Unit. “It’s all the best practices and idealism in the country put together in one small place.”Palmach admits Nitzana is a kind of environmental bubble, a fact he sees in both the positive and the negative sense. In some ways, it is removed from many of the problems of Israeli society, but, he says, this also enables it to maintain a certain standard.He hopes that a housing plan for 98 lots will receive final approval by November, attracting new families to the community.I ask Palmach if Lova Eliav were suddenly to appear in Nitzana today, what would he say? Palmach confesses that he and Eliav “sometimes talk.”“We have a dialogue about how I’ve behaved toward a pupil. Certainly, he would be impressed by all the programs run in Nitzana that he never envisioned, and he would love the fact that people are building their homes here in the Negev, that today we’re not only an educational settlement, but a real living, populated community.”