Negev News
New Frontiers
Haaretz - April 23, 2004
By Vered Levy-Barzilai

They don't want to be depicted as an unusual group of people. "There's nothing out of the ordinary about us," says Danny Glicksberg. "All we did was decide to build a students' village in the Negev, so for heaven's sake, don't turn us into some kind of who-knows-what." To which Matan Dahan adds: "We're a classic, typical cross-section of the 20-somethings in the country. We're also quite capable of going to restaurants and pubs and parties. We're not some kind of group of ascetic idealists, so please don't describe us as such."

Says Naama Dahan, Matan's sister: "What you have here is a totally regular group of people, who did their army service like everyone, did backpacking in all kinds of places like everyone, who are connected to the land of Israel and love the country, and are simply doing something about it, that's all, really."

The conversation with these typical young people takes place in one of three "transportable structures." From its windows, all you can see is desert. The four, hair unkempt and raggedly dressed, their bare feet covered with layers of yellow-white desert dust and sand, apologize for the fact that the soft drinks aren't cold, as the place isn't yet hooked up to the power grid. ("But it will be within a week, two tops.") The place is the start of Kfar Adiel, which will cost NIS 35 million to build, of which they have already raised NIS 10 million.

The founding group consists of eight young men and women from Jerusalem who established a not-for-profit association: Matan Dahan, conceiver and director-general; Danny Glicksberg, deputy director-general; attorney Naama Dahan, Matan's sister, a believer in the project; Micha Freind, who has completed law school and was formerly parliamentary assistant to Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, speaker of the Knesset; Shalom Fuchs, treasurer of the association; Alon Dor, on the way to Middle Eastern Studies; Barak Lev, owner of the Aroma cafe franchise on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and Yuval Cohen. Most of them are 24, apart from Micha Freind and Naama Dahan, who are 26.

Another thing they have in common is that all of them, with one exception - Alon Dor, who grew up in a secular home - are from religious families and graduates of the religious or traditionalist education system in Jerusalem. However, they describe themselves as secular, though the two Dahans call themselves "secular Shabbat observers." At the start of the interview, they announce their unwillingness to talk politics, although a day in their company makes it plain that their political profile is Labor and leftward, not Likud and rightward.

"We all dislike the settlements and think they shouldn't be there today," they say collectively, but transmit the feeling that they are not comfortable speaking against the settlers and the settlements. Some of their best friends are settlers. So they prefer to bypass this hurdle elegantly, saying that things can't go on like this, a change is needed, "all the resources" have to be diverted to the Negev. They expect Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to lead the turnabout.

Two or three years ago, to kick-start their project, each of the founders donated his or her discharge grant from the army, about NIS 14,000 each. Subsequently, each of the founders put in tens of thousands of shekels ("Just to make sure there are no scandals, write that it was with our parents' help, because it's obvious that we didn't have an agora"). The director-general and his deputy get a token salary of about NIS 2,500 a month.

On the cover of the glossy information pamphlet they have produced, in blue and white, is a quote from David Ben-Gurion: "The land is the source of life, and creativity and culture are the true independence." Their goals also appear to have been taken from a Zionist brochure: "Strengthening settlement in the Negev (and Galilee); restoring the pioneer heritage and the value of labor; encouraging young entrepreneurship in priority areas; and cultivating the productive bond between man and the land and between man and society in the land of Israel."

Their association seeks "to revive a model of settlement by establishing villages for students and alongside them, a relatively small number of young entrepreneurs. For the settlers, these villages will constitute an attractive base for getting to know the region and its latent potential."

Points of settlement

Matan Dahan first got the idea while he was still in the army, serving in the Orev unit of the Nahal brigade. The first time the idea was translated into the words "establishing a settlement project in the Negev" was when he was serving in south Lebanon. What prompts a soldier stationed in an outpost in Lebanon to come up with the idea of a student village in the Negev? He doesn't actually know. However, his sister is convinced that she knows, and convinces him to tell. At the time of their grandparents' generation, the Dahans, a liberal religious Jerusalem family, were divided between positions supported by Mapai (the forerunner of today's Labor Party) and the left-wing Mapam. Their mother, Ruth, has a cousin, Amos Rosenblum, 80, who 25 years ago crossed the lines, left Kfar Mordechai (near Ramle) and went to live in the settlement of Yakir, in the West Bank.

When the current intifada broke out, Matan served for a time, together with his good friend Adi (Adiel Zwebner, for whom the village is named), not far from Yakir. The two paid a visit to Rosenblum, who asked them what they were planning to do after the army. "The usual things," they replied. "Work, save some money, go on a long trip to the East." Rosenblum scowled at them and said, "If we had behaved like you, the country wouldn't have come into being."

Those words kept coming back to him, Dahan says. He didn't change his plans - after his discharge he worked, saved money and went to India, Tibet, Nepal and Thailand. But when he got back, he knew what he was going to do. "The villages will be settlement points in which the population will constantly be on the move: students will come and students will go," he says. "But at the same time the villages will also be jumping-off points for permanent settlement."

The participants will receive scholarships to study and will pay low rent; in return, they will undertake to volunteer 10 hours a week in social involvement projects in southern development towns. The initiators are convinced that three years of residence in the village, with the attendant benefits and the revolution - social, cultural, educational and in employment - that will be fomented all around, will have a profound impact on the participants. "The process we foresee is a track at the end of which the majority of the project participants decide to stay in the area and become permanent residents of the Negev," says Danny Glicksberg.

They speak of student villages in both the Negev and the Galilee, but are concentrating on the Negev initially. Kfar Adiel is adjacent to Moshav Ashalim, five minutes from Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh, and 25 minutes from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva. In the first stage, the village will have 150 residential units; 50 students, most of them undergraduates, have already signed up and received scholarships: NIS 10,000 for each year of study, enough to just about cover the tuition fee, a donation by the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, a private family fund that assists the underprivileged in Israel, focusing on children and special-needs populations in the country's geographic and social periphery ( For the shekel equivalent of $70 a month, the students will get housing of a higher level than that of the university dorms. An individual can have his own apartment; two co-tenants will receive a double unit (living room plus two bedrooms), and a couple with a child will have a family unit. By comparison, the dorms usually have two students per room. Here, as Naama Dahan says, "everyone has a private home, plus living room, plus garden, plus vast expanses for himself."

The regional council will organize transportation to and from the campus. The association is trying to obtain preferential conditions for the new desert dwellers in a range of local services, such as education and extracurricular activities that will be provided by Ashalim, or a discount on membership in a swimming pool and the natural baths at Neveh Midbar.

The Israeli story

What is their underlying motivation? What is the source of this drive to invest their time, money and energy in this project? They are surprised by the questions. "What are you talking about? We're Israelis," Naama Dahan replies. Micha Freind: "It comes from inside, it's a natural thing." Matan Dahan: "I don't know where it came from. From myself. From the person I am."

And Danny Glicksberg says, simply, "People do a lot of things."

Afterward, he tries to explain what the founding group has in common: "Our generation grew up in homes in the `good old land of Israel.' That was burned into our consciousness, and there's nothing especially new about that. We represent the young people in their twenties, and it doesn't matter all that much from where in the country, because all of them have more or less the same codes. The difference is that we decided to focus on it and do something with it."

When asked if he really believes that the majority of his peers in Israel were inculcated with values of Zionism, self-fulfillment and settlement, Glicksberg replies that everyone his age listened to same singers, saw the same films and learned the same values. "You'll ask: Why are so many wandering around lost? Because they finished giving three years of their lives to the state and now they have no continuing framework of values for self-fulfillment, apart from one type of `fulfillment': an obsessive preoccupation with themselves, with their needs, and again with themselves. That's a track without a horizon."

What's wrong with a situation in which a post-army young person starts to look for himself, to ask questions, to try out different roads, to experience life?

Micha Freind: "I'll explain. There was an educational lapse in our parents' generation. It's not that they `did something wrong.' They did the best they knew how. They worked themselves to the bone, and then they told us, `You children will forget about the big ideologies. We built the infrastructure for you, that stage is over, and now go and do your own thing.' That's a fiction. What's over? Nothing is over. They were wrong. When everything is directed only inwardly, into myself, there's no happiness there. A great many young people were sucked into that fiction and they live in a bubble."

What is the bubble?

"Channel 2, for example. It's a fictional world of instant gratification. Labels, everything that's beautiful, glittering, with no depth and no connection with anything - all that stuff and nonsense. The representation of reality overrides reality. We say that this is contrary to people's true needs. It can never satisfy anyone."

According to Matan Dahan, it also runs contrary to what he calls the Israeli story. "The Israeli story is one of renewal. And I say, only a patsy walks away from a beautiful story like that. Our parents dreamed of a `normal' life for us, the life of a French or American young person, and in fact created a situation in which people here started to live non-Israeli lives. What does that `normal' story have to do with us? A year ago we came to students at Ben-Gurion University and told them, `Come and hook up with the Israeli story.' To our great surprise, it's happening. In masses, in hundreds. We expected 50 at the first meeting, but 600 showed up. And many hundreds want to register for next year. We discovered that they are all like us and that we are like everyone else. We're looking for the Israeli story, we're nostalgic for it, we want to go back to it and put it back into our lives."

Naama Dahan points out: "The challenges posed by the Israeli reality can't leave people indifferent and don't allow them to proceed with their `normal' lives. That's impossible. Everything blows up in your face. At home, Matan and I were never educated to believe in the value of personal happiness. We know how to enjoy life, we don't forgo anything life has to offer, but we always remember that's only along the way, it's not the destination."

What is the destination?

"A large vacuum has been created, and we propose to fill the vacuum within us. We say to people of our age: Come to this place, take part in the project of settling the Negev. You will not be neglecting yourselves. You will learn, you will develop, you will be classy pioneers, in good living conditions, with terrific people and with a pub next door. In real life - not life as shown on Channel 2 - things happen. In the real world, there are lot of people who want to do something, but don't know what. We are telling them to come here: give more and you'll get more."

To young entrepreneurs they are offering inexpensive housing and a small office with office services - "Just bring a good business idea that's worth developing, that will make a contribution to this place," says Naama Dahan, "an idea that will provide jobs for people here in the future. Our motto is: `Give to those who give.'"

City vs. periphery

Good connections

The association's founders called it Eyalim, after Eyal and Yael Sorek, friends of theirs who were murdered two years ago by terrorists at the settlement of Carmei Tzur. Eyal had become religious and chose to live in a settlement; Yael was in her ninth month of pregnancy. The murder was a powerful shock. During the seven-day mourning period, Matan says, everything finally clicked into place: the strong feeling that "it's impossible to go on like this," together with the words of Amos Rosenblum and with the idea that was hatched in the army.

The village is named for Adiel (Adi) Zwebner, from Mevasseret Zion, a Jerusalem suburb, who was Matan's best friend, shared the dream, and died about a year ago while diving in a spring near Bar Giora in the Jerusalem hills. It was a place where they all dived, moving through an underground passage into a space where the water is shallow and where you could easily stand up and breathe air. But heavy rains had flooded the space with water and Adi wasn't able to get out. His family is accompanying the project with love and support.

The candidates were vetted by representatives of the association, the Rashi Foundation, and the university's social involvement unit. They interviewed the 600 applicants and chose the first 50, including two married couples, each of which has a child. A prior condition for being accepted to the project is army service or national service, and candidates must commit themselves to living in the village for at least two years. Priority is given to those with experience in group leadership and tutoring youngsters and to candidates from a weak socioeconomic background.

The 50 students who were awarded scholarships this year devoted six hours a week to tutoring students in the region - from Ofakim, Sderot, Yeruham, Dimona and Bedouin locales - in English and the sciences. Last week they all met for an evening of group solidarity in Bedouin style at Kfar Nokdim, near Arad. The 50 students come from big cities, development towns, kibbutzim and a few settlements in the territories. They are from diverse academic fields and do not react with even an iota of cynicism to talk about Zionism, settlement and self-fulfillment combined with studies. The great majority are secular - only four or five are religious. There are no Arabs yet, not even Druze or Bedouin.

Everything in Adiel Village is the handiwork of the members of the association and the students. They leveled the land, and planted trees, flowers and grass. The enthusiasm is infectious, and hanging over everything is the spirit of Ben-Gurion, whose name comes up in just about every other sentence.

The Students' Association at Ben-Gurion University helped them set up an information and application booth on campus. Based on the flow of applications, Dahan says, they expect 1,500 candidates next year, of whom 150 will receive scholarships. According to the vision, the project will consist of 10 student villages with about 1,500 residential units (one of the villages is earmarked for new immigrants). A great deal of money will be needed to see the project through. The members of the association will not enjoy scholarships or the better living conditions; they will live in "transportable structures" during the trial period of each village as it is built, and then will move on, to establish the next site. At the end of the process they intend to build themselves permanent homes in the Negev, without any connection to the project.

In the meantime, they need massive aid to complete the construction of the units at Adiel Village. They are asking the government for $2 million, and hope to get another $2 million in the form of donations by wealthy Jews who love the Negev and the idea. One of them, David Merage, from Denver, Colorado, a billionaire who donates regularly to Israel, visited them three months ago as the guest of Shmuel Rifman, the head of Ramat Hanegev Regional Council. Merage was bitten by the bug. He left them $25,000 on the spot and after returning home appointed a full-time fundraiser for the project.

An equally important supporter of the project is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He was invited to the ceremony at which the cornerstone for Adiel Village was laid, on December 1, 2003, but didn't attend; nor did he attend the annual memorial ceremony for David Ben-Gurion, which was held at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev - citing the same reason in both cases: a serious bout of the flu. "We feel honored that Arik Sharon didn't come to us or to Ben-Gurion for the same reason," says Matan Dahan.

The door of the Prime Minister's Office is open to them. Since the first meeting, two years ago, with Uzi Keren, Sharon's aide for settlement affairs, he has been working with them. At Sharon's instruction, Keren set up an "establishment committee" which meets once every two months and consists of representatives of the relevant government ministries (Prime Minister's Office, Housing, Infrastructure, Finance, Industry and Trade) along with one representative each from the Jewish Agency and the Rashi Foundation, and Rifman, head of the regional council.

Subsequently, Keren put them in touch with the Jewish Agency's Land Settlement Department, from which they received the three transportable structures and NIS 100,000. They used the money to pay for the work of the Pressler architectural firm. (Danny Glicksberg: "They gave us a discount of NIS 300,000.")

Yigal Arnon's law firm, one of the country's top law offices, was also captivated by the project and is supplying legal services free of charge. Asher Hayun, the finance minister's assistant, is their liaison in the ministry, which is crucial for the continued flow of the funds the government will approve for the association.

The outgoing director of the Prime Minister's Office, Avigdor Yitzhaki, has also joined the festivities. He decided to spare the association the bureaucracy that normally accompanies such projects and to act as the point man with the Israel Lands Administration, in order to get the land released for their use. In other words, Sharon has given the project the green light.

Though Sharon missed the inaugural ceremony, other dignitaries did not. Labor's Shimon Peres was invited and showed up, as did the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Sallai Meridor. However, until they won Meridor to their cause, the association members say, they had to overcome the usual obstacles. "We tried for a long time to set up a meeting with him, but nothing happened, so we went to his office and asked to meet with him. "There's no such thing, it doesn't work like that," we were told. Fine, we said, but we're not leaving until Sallai meets with us. We sat in the hall the whole day, until he finished what he was doing and came to us."

Meridor forgave the Israeli chutzpah, listened, and then instructed department directors and the Jewish Agency treasurer, Shai Hermesh, to work with them and show them full cooperation. Hermesh, formerly the head of Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, turned out to be an especially devoted supporter. To begin with, he pushed the Jewish Agency's board of trustees to pass a resolution adopting the project. The Jewish Agency then decided to exempt the association from paying $150,000 for the land. Had it not been for that gesture, it's unlikely that anything would be standing at the site today.

The real thing

Officialdom seems to be going out of its way to help, but long before the Prime Minister's Office and the other institutions there was the regional council and its head, Shmuel Rifman. "One day, around two years ago, two guys in sandals or barefoot - raggedy types, who looked lost - came to me," Rifman recalls. "They said they wanted to establish a student village in our area. From the first minute, I knew this was the real thing."

What was so special about them?

"Every day people come to see me - groups, entrepreneurs, hundreds, maybe thousands of people a year - with a lot of ideas. The big question is what to go for: what's real, what's right, what's suitable, who has a chance. Something about those two appealed to me. Their directness, their determination, their straightforward language - it gave me the feeling that they might be able to do something. They are a challenge to me, to us, to the country's whole leadership. They're bringing something with deep and genuine content."

And you discerned all that in the first meeting?

"Yes. I called in Erez [Yardeni, the director-general of the economic company for the development of Ramat Hanegev] and assigned him to deal with the two. Later, I heard that others had reacted in the same way, and I saw that I hadn't been mistaken."

Who, for example?

"I'm in touch with a great and generous man, David Merage, from Denver, who heads the Operation Queen Esther Fund, which assists Iranian new immigrants in Israel. He came to see me, and I took him on a tour of the area to try to interest him in some projects. One of the projects was Eyalim. This is a person who not long ago sold his company for $2.5 billion, right? He knows what it's all about. He and his wife, Laura, came and sat with the youngsters, and after a while I see that the two of them are simply crying.

David came over to me and said, "Shmulik, this is the story. This is what we've been looking for. This is what the Negev needs. It's the real thing."

The two young people who came to see Rifman that first time were Danny Glicksberg and Matan Dahan. Rifman listened carefully. He persuaded them to choose a site close to an existing community and suggested Ashalim, where 50 families live, authorized the land grant of 31 dunams (7.5 acres) and provided an annual budget of NIS 130,000 for the ongoing operations of the association. The next meetings were held with Erez Yardeni.

"It's important that you understand that we are not dealing with them, we are working for them. For the past two years, Shmulik has been working for them. I am working for them. The spokeswoman of the council works for them. We work for them, and believe me, it's a great feeling."

Dahan and Glicksberg find it difficult to come up with words that will express the close, warm, supportive and generous bond that they found in the council. "We go there barefoot," they say finally, with a smile that is all pride.

After Rifman, the person who converted the idea from dream to reality is Elie Elalouf, director-General of the Sacta-Rashi Foundation and a childhood friend of Dinar Dahan, the father of Matan and Naama. Elalouf volunteered to underwrite the scholarships for the first 50 students of the project, at a cost of NIS 500,000 a year.

"The Rashi Foundation, which belongs to the Leven family, from France, supports the Jewish people in its land," Elalouf says. "The foundation finances projects in the Negev. I heard about this group from Shmulik Rifman, and I met with them. They are truly special, filled with enthusiasm, without any personal interests. They came to give themselves to a national project, period."

Nevertheless, the group still lacks millions in order to complete Adiel Village according to the plan. "We won't let them go down," Elalouf promises. He has undertaken to finance another 25 scholarships (NIS 250,000). The Regional Council is committed to underwrite an additional 10 scholarships (NIS 100,000), and the association is in advanced stages of negotiation with the Education Ministry and the Council for Higher Education to fund the remaining 65 scholarships.

What is the secret of their charm? Why does everyone say yes to them? What's their success formula? Rifman: "Directness, resolve, words you can understand." Erez Yardeni: "They're different. They're not macherim [wheeler-dealers]." Elalouf: "They reminded me of my immigration from Morocco at the age of 20. They bring an energy that can bring about change, just as we did. And they come without ego."

Lova Eliav, the veteran developer of national projects in the south, is working with the project and spoke to the students who are registered in it. "They came with a fine and correct idea, a fusion of education and settlement," he says. "It's not a case of one thing at the expense of another. I see them as welcome young partners. This is another way station in the settlement of the Negev, part of a broader and larger picture. They are serious and possess a high level of integrity."

Shimon Peres also waxes enthusiastic: "This is a spectacular effort by young people that was not dictated by any institution. It's an initiative by youngsters who want to go to a remote and isolated spot. They are the modern pioneers. The secret of their charm? The innocence of youth and a captivating sincerity. I believe in their chances to realize the dream, because the big industry is the education industry. I was extraordinarily impressed by them. We [the Labor Party] have a convention in the Negev in a week's time. I invited them, and I plan to spotlight them as much as possible."

Does the Peres Peace Center plan to assist them with funding?

"The center is now in the midst of a large technological project in the Negev. But they are definitely no less a center of attention for me."

There was only one person who wasn't taken by their charm: the president of Ben-Gurion University, Prof. Avishai Braverman. "He didn't really want to hear about us, he apparently sees us as an element that is a threat to him in some sense," they say.

A threat? In what way?

"Maybe he's afraid that the students won't want to live in his dorms. Besides that, he's interested in strengthening the city rather than the periphery. His slogan is the `metropolis,' and what's unsuitable for Braverman's plans doesn't exist as far as he's concerned."

They say they tried to interest Braverman in their plans several times but that he gave them an elegant brush-off. "I don't know the details of the story and prefer not to address what I am not familiar with," Braverman said in response.

How can that be? They're the newest hit on your campus. Hundreds of students are signing up for their project.

"I didn't say I never heard of it. I am aware of their existence. They came to see me once, maybe twice, a year or so ago, but I don't remember exactly what they talked about. I am busier now with the project of strengthening the metropolis."

They spoke to you about establishing a student village in the Negev, about incentives and about bringing students from all over the country to Ben-Gurion University and to those villages. Shouldn't that interest you?

"I told you, I simply don't remember and am not informed about the details. I will want to familiarize myself with the details before talking about it." (V L.-B.)n