On the 17th floor of a Manhattan conference building, young Jews from the New York area listened intently to two Israeli-Americans speak of the wonders of the Jewish state. They were going through the finer points of emigrating to Israel, talking up the varied benefits those who become citizens receive. Outside, it was a dreary and overcast Sunday. But the atmosphere inside was sunny: the banter light-hearted, the jokes from the speakers free-flowing, and all happy to be at the “Think Israel” conference (held on November 17th).
There was a serious task at hand, though: deciding how to choose a community in Israel where they would feel at home, which is part of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s core mission of encouraging aliyah to the Jewish state.
Ravit Greenberg, an Israeli citizen from upstate New York now working for Nefesh B’Nefesh, had just the right answer for them. They should move to the Negev in the south of Israel. It’s an area the government is encouraging Jews to move to with a variety of incentives. Greenberg was asked why the Negev was attractive by a boisterous and overeager pony-tailed man named Aaron.
“They want to encourage development,” Greenberg told him, talking about the Israeli government. And to help the Israeli government, Nefesh B’Nefesh seeks to enlist young North American Jews in the a key state project: populating the Negev with more Israeli Jews.
The crop of Jews sitting in on this session were seriously exploring making the jump from diaspora to what they call the Jewish homeland. One attendee probably in his late 30s or early 40s, who didn’t want his name published, gushed over his future plans. “At some point, you catch this feeling inside you,” he told me as we stood near the coffee and cookies laid out for us. “I really feel that someone who’s Jewish should be living in Israel…Here, what am I? I’m living in exile.”
The hundreds of attendees at the annual “Think Israel” conference organized by the Israeli group Nefesh B’Nefesh (”Soul by Soul” in English) had plenty of Israeli areas to choose from to get away from living in “exile.” There are communities in the occupied West Bank they could move to. There’s the north of Israel. There’s Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And then there’s the Negev, which Greenberg works on and has become a particular focus of Nefesh B’Nefesh over the past two years. The slogan of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Negev encouragement program is “Go South,” a pioneering ethos that echoes Horace Greeley’s “Go West, young man” slogan, used to push colonization of the American West.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, one of the many arms of the Israeli state–it has received a third of its funding from the government since 2008–began encouraging olim, immigrants who make aliyah, to move to the Negev two years ago, in the midst of an Israeli government drive to populate the area with Jews. The organizations boasts of “offering enhanced services and financial benefits to Olim interested in moving to Israel’s Southern communities.” With the major Israeli cities bursting at the seams, the Negev is a perfect place for the state to accomplish a number of aims: relieve population pressures on urban centers, populate the Negev with Jews and displace and corral the Palestinian-Bedouin population into concentrated, hand-picked areas. And the American Jews at the conference, enamored with the idea of Israel, could soon become the foot-soldiers of Israel’s plan for the Negev.
“It’s turned into a priority for the government of Israel, so as a side-arm, we’re trying to also help them,” Yael Katsman, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem-based organization, told me. “It’s a wide area that can still be populated…Wherever the Israeli government is populating cities or new areas, we’re basically doing whatever the Israeli government is dictating.”
The Negev is home to many of Israel’s unrecognized Bedouin communities. But for Israel, that’s a problem. The Bedouin Arabs stand in the way of populating the Negev with Jews, which has been a key aim of Zionism, particularly in the thinking of David Ben-Gurion. In 2005, the Jewish National Fund–another arm of the Israeli government that works with Nefesh B’Nefesh–launched “Blueprint Negev,” a $600 million project to build 25 new Jewish communities in the desert region, and in the process make the area a center of employment and business. Ron Lauder, a billionaire ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who helped fund “Blueprint Negev,” has said that “the United States had its Manifest Destiny in the West…For Israel, that land is the Negev.”
The importance of the Negev to Zionism was echoed by Rafael Cohen, the director of the Northeast branch of the Jewish Agency. “Today, if you want to be to a Zionist, you have to invest in the periphery…This is the new Zionism,” he said. “The Negev, which is two-thirds of Israel, should be settled by a lot of Jewish people…The olim [will be] a part of it.”
One of the most controversial ways Israel is trying to make the “new Zionism” happen is through the Prawer Plan, an initiative that could displace tens of thousands of Bedouins by demolishing their villages, relocating them to urban areas against their wish and building new Jewish towns on top of the ruins of Bedouin areas. It’s been winding its way through the government over protests from the Bedouin community since 2011, though it has yet to win final Knesset approval. The Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh employees seemed to be ignorant of the plan, though, despite the fact that it will help their aims.
Meanwhile, Israel has been moving forward on less ambitious plans to create new Jewish towns on top of Bedouin villages. On November 10, 2013, the Israeli government approved a plan to demolish the Bedouin villages of Umm al-Hiran and Atir, and to replace them with Israeli Jewish neighborhoods.
After Ravit Greenberg and a fellow employee finished their pitch about moving to Israel, Greenberg talked up the Negev to conference attendees at her “Go South” table. She pointed out towns like Sde Boker and Be’er Sheva on her map of where Jews could go live. Perhaps in a few years, Nefesh B’Nefesh will have to update their map of the Negev to include new Jewish towns built on top of Bedouin villages.