Arad isn’t throwing in the towel

Once a model of urban vision, the closest city to Masada is battling to overcome economic crisis and social transition.

The Arad Towels factory stands empty (photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN)
The Arad Towels factory stands empty
(photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN)
We wanted to build a new city in the desert, a modern city that would transform the entire region,” recalled the late Aryeh Eliav decades after having led, in 1961, a knot of planners through the treeless summits overlooking the southern Dead Sea.
“We climbed the Arad Heights,” he waxed poetic, “and when we reached the national watershed at an elevation of 600 meters, we imagined – as if in a mirage – a city’s houses, towers and streets, as we were intoxicated by the view, the clear and dry air, and the sense of Genesis.”
Visually, the sense of genesis is still there.
The eastern reaches of Arad, an elegant city of 27,000 that indeed sprang up where its founders stood dreaming, still overlook a bewitching moonscape of rolling hills whose brown, yellow and bronze summits cascade silently into the Dead Sea’s azure flatness opposite the pinkish slopes of the Mountains of Moab.
Economically, however, genesis has given way to exodus.
A succession of major employers have left town, the latest being Arad Towels amid angry protests at various locations – the factory’s shuttered gates, the city’s humble entrance, and Jerusalem’s stolid government buildings. The American-owned production line’s closure in late October left another 200 residents jobless, including households that lost both their salaries overnight.
The plant’s closure, the protests, and the media commotion they caused underscore an uphill struggle to restore a marginalized town’s original status as a model of geographic defiance, urban vision and social vitality.
Arad, founded in 1962, was a development town unlike the rest. Here the government did not dump clueless immigrants after trucking them from Haifa Port. Arad was built by well-educated Israeli-born idealists, some of whom were even blue-blooded.
Such, for instance, was Tama Eshkol, daughter of Levi Eshkol, who was finance minister when Arad was planned and prime minister when it was built.
Tama came to Arad with her husband, young civil engineer Avraham “Baiga” Shochat who, himself, was later finance minister under prime ministers Rabin, Peres and Barak. Before that, Shochat headed the burgeoning Arad’s regional council for nearly a quarter of a century, during which he was elected repeatedly by majorities larger even than those for legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.
Under Shochat’s leadership, Arad became a social, economic and architectural oasis between the Negev and the Judean Desert. Arad was largely planned and built by architects and engineers who actually lived there. Their intimate familiarity with the desert and their personal concern for their town produced handsome apartment blocks that surrounded a broad commercial center while enjoying stupendous desert views interconnected by shaded pavements that kept children safely removed from traffic.
It was this concern for detail that led Arad’s founders to build its factories away from their apartment buildings, some of which pioneered Israel’s first patios, while others introduced the county’s first “build your own” private homes.
Yet, while ahead of their times in such environmental respects, economically Arad’s founders were people of their times, quintessential products of the age of central planning and state-aided industry. The consequent plan, to base the local economy on low-tech plants as well as several hotels and the Dead Sea’s mineral industries, still defines the town’s economic DNA. However, it no longer works.
“Last week there still were 120 people working here,” says Moshe Ben-Shabbat pointing at Arad Towels’ suddenly orphaned bleaching, dying and warping machines, whose webs of white, orange, green and turquoise strings still stretch toward the ceiling, as if their operators had only left for a sandwich.
“I am 52 and have been working here for the past 29 years,” says Ben-Shabbat, the plant’s former safety officer, a yellow bulb still blinking behind him above a dormant red light amid a small forestation of buttons, meters and handles. “I intend to move out,” he says of the town where his kids grew up, before concluding, “It’s sad.”
So sad, in fact, that despite having job offers from SodaStream and Intel in other locations in the Negev, Ben-Shabbat says he is headed toward the coastal plain. “I have to change the setting,” he tells The Jerusalem Report , citing the Hebrew adage “changing one’s place changes one’s luck.”
OUTSIDE THE front offices, a visibly exhausted personnel manager Naomi Bitton is having a smoke, staring blankly into the plant’s closed gates, after having delivered in person most of the dismissal letters.
Arad Towels was but a link in a long chain of low-tech failures in Arad, beginning with the knitwear factory planted by the town’s founders, and proceeding later to makers of prefabs, wood panels, bottle corks, and what-not.
The failure of Arad Towels, however, is particularly debilitating, for two reasons. First, it follows the departure of Flextronics, which made components for Motorola devices be - fore its operations in Arad were first down-sized, and then finally moved to Ofakim; and secondly, because the towel factory is 40 years old, and for a long time was actually a remarkable success.
A subsidiary of Cincinnati-based Standard Textile, a privately held company that reportedly had a $620 million turnover in 2010, the plant’s biography is a microcosm of the periphery’s original economy. Eager to employ thousands of unskilled immigrants, the government offered investors, often warm Dias - pora Jews, tax breaks to open labor-intensive conveyor belts in remote locations.
Ultimately the markets came knocking, brandishing competing products produced in distant lands with cheaper labor. That is how Polgat Textile, once an employer of 6,000 with a $270 million turnover, closed its production complex in Kiryat Gat last decade, and that is how ATA, once Israel’s largest clothing manufacturer, shut down three decades ago.
The 200 workers Arad Towels just laid off were but a fraction of the 700 it employed a decade ago when its Arad plant, and a smaller one up north, reached annual sales of $650 million, largely fueled by exports to American clients like Hilton, Sheraton and Four Seasons, as well as 60,000 of Las Vegas’s 150,000 hotel rooms.
The Israeli plant’s performance was the pride of Gary Heiman, Standard Textiles’ owner and a good Zionist, whose German-born grandfather, Charles, established the company, and whose father, Paul, established the Israeli venture thanks to a capital-aid deal brokered by then Arad council head Shochat. The venture was a model enterprise until the 2008 meltdown dented overseas demand and gradually compelled Standard Textile to shift Israeli activity to China and Jordan.
The Heimans remain revered in Arad where employees and city officials blame their plight not on the investors in Cincinnati but on the government in Jerusalem, which, as they see it, should help Arad Towels endure its middle-age crisis the way it helped it through its infancy and adolescence.
“It’s not the labor costs that make Arad Towels unprofitable,” claims Mayor Tali Ploskov. “It’s the operational costs.” In the US, she argues, gas and real estate are cheaper, and taxes are lower. It follows, from her viewpoint, that the government should slash the plant’s water bill and connect it to a gas pipeline that runs south of Arad, in addition to generally cutting local factories’ corporate and property taxes.
Ploskov cannot be accused of being detached from the crisis. Her husband, Michael, a shift manager at Arad Towels, is among the newly jobless. She joined the demonstrators not only as a mayor but also as a wife, carrying a sign outside the Prime Minister’s Office that read “No giving up on Arad.”
Fending off attempts to discuss her personal situation – “Michael will be fine,” she tells The Report – the mayor shifts the conversation back to tax breaks, aid packages and gas pipes.
Yet Arad’s problem is about more than just a better state-aid formula.
For one thing, Ploskov’s brave prediction that the government would grant her town new incentives because her demand is backed by all major coalition factions soon proved overly optimistic. Rather than extend new aid, the Treasury announced a deal with food - maker Osem to set up an ice cream factory in Arad, which the company and the government promise will absorb all of Arad Towels’ fired workers.
Ploskov may have underestimated the Treasury’s fear that aid to losing plants would help cultivate a culture of corporate welfare. Yet, even had she succeeded, Arad’s real problem is that the state’s economic transition from labor intensive to knowledge industries has skipped the town that once symbolized Israeli resourcefulness.
Arad already has a food factory, a Unilever-Telma plant that makes cereals in a plant that succeeded the founders’ knitwear factory. Time, therefore, may show that food manufacturing in Israel can last longer than textiles. But, even if this proves true and Arad’s labor market stops hemorrhaging, there is no denying the town’s deeper weakness – location.
In a twist of events that no one could have foreseen, a mere half decade after its establishment Arad’s geography transformed overnight.
Initially, Arad was on the road from the coastal plain to the Dead Sea. In those days, when the Judean Desert and the northern Dead Sea were part of Jordan, the shortest way to the Dead Sea from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Galilee meant going south, around the Hebron Hills, and traveling via Arad. However, ever since the Six Day War, tourists get to Masada and the Dead Sea via Jerusalem if they come from the coast, and through the Jordan Valley if they come from the north.
Like Venice after Columbus, Arad suddenly was marginalized.
WORSE YET, Arad’s tourism sector, which had been planned to attract asthma patients, found itself dwarfed by the Dead Sea’s newly sprung Riviera of 15 hotels. A 25-minute car ride away, the Dead Sea’s hotels, mineral mines and petrochemical industries employ most of Arad’s work force, but they also marginalize its three hotels, which between them have fewer than 500 beds as opposed to the Dead Sea’s 4,000. (Arad’s most well-known resident, best-selling novelist Amos Oz, moved there with his family in 1986 for the sake of their son Daniel’s asthma.) Arad’s unassuming hotels are doing fine, but Masada Hotel, for years the town’s nicest, now stands eerily abandoned, shuttered, and decomposing opposite the same breathtaking desert scenery that once animated its lobby and now seems to have turned its face to the Dead Sea and its back on Arad.
Worse, educated, high-income residents have been leaving Arad in recent years making way for under-educated, low-income populations. First, Hasidic followers of the Rabbi of Gur began moving in, and then illegal immigrants from Sudan emerged, grad - ually centering in the patio apartments that were the pride of Arad’s founders.
Now, for better or worse, these two populations are part of Arad’s scenery. And though the Sudanese population has plunged in recent years from several thousand to several hundred, and thus became anecdotal, the ultra-Orthodox influx has been firm, and may yet grow.
“They are now 15 percent of this city, and we have to preserve this ratio,” says Ploskov, conceding that at stake is Arad’s secular character.
At the same time, some of the city’s veterans have become fatalistic about its social transition. “There is an attitude problem here,” says 30-something Nili Sirkis. “Older people here admire those who left and made it outside Arad.”
SIRKIS RUNS a state-funded building where communities of young adults are offered 112 handsome studio apartments above an invit - ing lobby and stylish lounge with cushy sofas, round tables, Wi-Fi, and a large TV screen.
“The idea,” she says, “is to help young people discover Arad.”
Ironically, the building she runs is the one that earned fame during the decades when it bustled with American students who came to Arad to study Hebrew under the auspices of the World Union of Jewish Students. In 2006, after 38 years in Arad, the program left for Jerusalem, both reflecting and worsening Arad’s creeping marginalization and encapsulating its declining attractiveness as a wellspring of pioneering spirit.
In short, great transitions from within and without have shaken the town that once embodied innocence and innovation and now begs reinvention. The reinvention, however, though it will take years to ripen, seems to be on its way.
Arad’s salvation will come from the same three sources of its crisis: location, business and spirit.
“This country is but the size of one Turkish metropolis; fold Israel’s map and Arad will be at the center,” says Sirkis, adding that her Arad-born husband’s business does caulking jobs “anywhere” in Israel. “When trains will run between Tel Aviv and Arad all our problems will be solved,” she says.
Ploskov agrees. “Arad shouldn’t be Tel Aviv, but it should be a simple train ride from there,” she says.
Just how simple the ride will be is not clear.
National planners prefer a southern route, via Beersheba, which they say will be cheaper to build. Ploskov wants a more northern route via the Nevatim military base. This way, she says, Tel Aviv will be a mere 80-minute pleasant train ride away – a conventional commute in America and Europe. People will be able to live in Arad and work in Tel Aviv, and high-tech firms that currently cluster along the coast may relocate in quieter, and cheaper, Arad.
Work on Arad’s railway has yet to begin, and a deadline for its completion has yet to be set, but the project has been approved and by the end of the decade trains are likely to be tooting 1,000 meters above the Dead Sea and 20 kilometers west of Masada.
Even so, just like it won’t be breastfed by the Treasury to its north, Arad’s economy will not be reprogrammed by the techies to its west, but rather by the desert to its east, say the city’s new breed of entrepreneurs.
“The desert is not a production line that someone might relocate,” says Councilman Mati Rose, who runs a local dormitory for underprivileged children from across Israel, while also heading Arad’s tourism department.
A father of five who moved with his wife to Arad from Beersheba 14 years ago, Rose has an obsession. The amphitheater at Masada’s western foothills currently seats 800 and hosts annually but a handful of concerts. “It should be expanded to 3,500 seats and hold dozens of concerts – rock, pop, classical, opera, anything.” The audience will lodge in Arad.
“We will be Israel’s desert-tours capital,” says Ploskov, who plans to treble Arad’s tourism industry and make it the town’s major source of income. “In my vision,” she says, “50 percent of the city will be employed in the tourism industry, to which we will add 1,000 beds.”
Such a vision could not have been considered back when the city was planned because the Judean Desert was mostly in Jordan at the time, just like no one back then braced for the emergence along the Dead Sea of a world-renowned health-tourism industry that would sideline Arad as an asthma patients’ retreat.
“Arad is a natural tourism city,” says Gili Sofer, who left Tel Aviv suburb Hod Hasharon three years ago to come with his wife and two children to Arad, where he opened the 15-room boutique Hotel Yehelim.
Sitting on the patio under a 1,800 shekel per night royal suite with a bathtub overlooking the desert, Sofer waves his hand around the scenery of tranquility and purity, repeats his mantra, and elaborates, “Arad is a natural tourism city; like a sport wagon, you just have to fill her up, pump some air in the tires, and step on the gas.”
Ploskov’s tourism blueprint is simple and cheap. Rather than build large hotels, a category in which Arad will never beat the Dead Sea’s behemoths, she is designating a new area, where entrepreneurs will be offered plots on which they will build private homes backed by assorted incentives on the condition that they create tourism enterprises in their homes. The result, she says, will be a new cluster of boutique hotels and B&Bs that eventually will contain 1,000 new tourist beds.
After explaining that the 1,000 beds the mayor is planning will host the 3,500 spectators at the amphitheater of which he is dreaming, Councilman Rose makes a simple calculation. Based on 50 percent occupancy and a typical tourist’s daily 750 shekels in lo - cal spending, the city will earn an annual 136 million shekels, besides gaining hundreds of new jobs in the hotels, B&Bs and concert park, and in the trekking activity and alternative healing industry the new quarter will generate. Arad’s entire budget is currently 140 million shekels, of which just 36 percent comes from local taxation, with the rest coming from the government.
In short, changing times have challenged Arad, but they did not eradicate the spirit of entrepreneurship without which Arad would not have been born.
ARAD’S PROBLEMS are mostly not unique to the town. The decline of the original city center, for instance, is not a reflection of Arad’s labor crisis, but of the appearance of the elegant Arad Mall, which did here what the big malls have done since the 1990s to Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street and Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road.
The same goes for Arad’s social fabric.
The city did not invent the problem of ultra- Orthodox non-work, and that population is transforming in Arad as it is elsewhere – only here the process is aided by veteran residents’ spirit of enterprise and pragmatism.
“I have been here 32 years,” says Shuki Rusek, the Argentinian-born principal of the Ort Zur technological high school, which turns its 70 underprivileged students into machine technicians. “A Hasidic man approached me recently,” says Rusek, “and asked whether we could train some members of the community. I said, ‘Sure, provided somebody pays.’” Someone is indeed paying – an unidentified nonprofit dedicated to this cause – and 12 ultra-Orthodox residents of Arad will soon be doing in the evenings what a roomful of Rusek’s students are doing as we speak – bent in overalls over computerized cutting-machines while producing, in this case, silvery axles for robotic wheelchairs.
Arad similarly has been on the receiving end of the country’s biggest social transition in recent decades – the Russian immigration.
The “for sale” notes coating local realtors’ storefronts are arranged in two halves –Hebrew on this side, Russian on that – as would befit a town where the Russian speakers who arrived since 1990 comprise more than half its residents. One of them is Ploskov.
Speaking fast and assertively in a flawless Hebrew, it’s hard to believe the stocky Ploskov spoke not a word of the Holy Tongue until age 25 when she began studying it in her native town of Belz, Moldova, from worn, Xeroxed sheets that had passed from hand to hand in far-flung Soviet locations.
Though a trained psychologist, she first sought work in one of the Dead Sea hotels where she was hired as a chambermaid be - fore being promoted within three days to supervisor because she was the only one on the premises with both Russian and Hebrew.
Sometime later, while working as a secretary for a moving company, Ploskov entered a local bank to deposit checks. She looked around, was impressed with the atmosphere and figured she would like to work there.
Ploskov marched into the manager’s office and said she wanted to work in his branch.
Three days later she passed an exam and began what would be 16 years of work in Bank Leumi Arad, where she climbed to director of private credit.
Politics came when a previous mayoral candidate asked her to help and she suddenly found herself on the city council. Mayoralty arrived in 2010, hardly two decades after Tali and Michael arrived in Arad with nothing in their pockets but a $10 bill.
Tali Ploskov, then, is proof that the can-do spirit of Arad’s original pioneers has not died, but just passed on to a new breed.