Op-Ed: The Rebbe of Ariel: Ron Nachman and Zionism
Ron Nachman, mayor of Ariel, had a vision. “I want to build a city here that will be the center of a regional area, not a satellite of some larger place, an independent city of thirty or sixty thousand Jews, that will offer services to everyone – Jews and Arabs from the Jordan Valley to Petach Tikvah. And I want peace, real peace; coexistence, not separation.”
Nachman, a fourth generation Israeli, came from a long tradition of builders and public figures. His grandfather helped establish Nes Ziyyona, near Rehovot, in the early 1880’s; his father was the deputy mayor of the town. In 1977, Nachman came to an isolated hilltop 30 kilometers east of Tel Aviv with a handful of friends and envisioned a city. Today, that dream is an impressive reality.
Unlike his neighbors in Gush Emunim who took over sites that were, at first, in dispute, Nachman played strictly by the rules. He received government permission every step of the way, and the funds to build. At the time he was the deputy director-general of Israel Military Industries, and later became a director at IBA. In 1985, shortly after Ariel received its municipal council status, Nachman became its first elected mayor and served in that position ever since.
The dynamic mayor was simply undaunted by obstacles. Told that he could not receive thirty caravans to house new immigrants from the FSU, during a massive wave of aliyah, he fought with the Housing Ministry and eventually arranged for six hundred. He literally ran from one project to another, from classrooms where young children play with computers to libraries and planning meetings with the satisfaction of a proud father. Ariel was his child and his soul.
Boycotted by the Jewish Agency and visiting Federations from North America because Ariel is “over the green line,” Nachman found private funding from prominent philanthropists like the Milken Family Foundation and the Arison Foundation, as well as many church groups. These organizations have an ongoing and close relationship with Ariel, providing substantial financial and emotional support.
Involving Christian groups financially, however, was controversial for some Jews who fear missionary activity and mistrust their intentions. Other rabbinic authorities believe that this is permissible when there is no intent or desire to carry out missionary activity in any way.
Ariel officials insist that not only are the groups carefully screened, but also they bring an enthusiasm that is quite inspiring. Christians who follow the Bible are excited by what they see as the fulfillment of prophetic writings. With Nachman, they agree that “this is the land that was given by God to the Jewish People. If you want tangible proof that God keeps his promises, it’s Israel’s existence.”
Christian Zionism is certainly not new. The International Christian Embassy actively promotes Israel and Israeli causes -- much appreciated especially at a time when Israel is castigated throughout the world. For the most part, the churches that are involved with settlements are non-denominational evangelicals, the fastest-growing churches in America. Perhaps the main reason for their interest is theological. They accept the validity of “the Old Testament” along with (rather than replaced by) the New Testament. They believe that the Bible openly and clearly commands Christians to bless Israel materially, as well as spiritually.
It is ironic that these Christian groups bring an element of faith to Nachman, a devout non-observant Jew. Although wary of religious ties, his visits with the Lubavitcher Rebbe made a deep and lasting impression on him. “The Rebbe gave me a bracha and told me that the work I was doing – building Eretz Yisrael – was very important. That’s my religion.” Nachman had a picture of the Rebbe in his office and treasured a collection of dollar bills he received from him.
Nachman’s political Zionism centers on The Land of Israel and The Jewish People. Asked about “Torat Yisrael,” he responded. “I’m a pluralist, and a liberal. I care less about what someone believes, than what he does.” Although religion did not play a great role in Nachman’s daily life, he was deeply concerned about “yiddishkeit,” the lack of Jewish values in Israeli public schools, and the future of Israel.
More distressing, for him, was the lack of unity in the country. “Look what happens in the United States. The country is under attack and goes to war. Does anyone dare attack the government? Everyone supports each other. Here it’s just the opposite. The newspapers and media are against government. The Left shouts that we are the problem. Jews fight other Jews who live in Yesha and are being attacked and killed every day. What difference does it make where someone lives? A life is a life. A Jew is a Jew.”
Despite its location well beyond the “green line” Ariel is one of the few places that even Yossi Beilin was reluctant to relinquish to the Palestinians. “There is consensus,” Nachman emhasized. “We have reached a critical population mass and now very few speak about removing Ariel.”
One group that does is Peace Now. According to their spokesman, Didi Remez, “Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state depends on its ability to achieve a viable peace with the Palestinians. Any viable future peace agreement will be based on the 1967 borders, with minor territorial exchanges. Because Ariel lies deep within the West Bank, it will probably have to be dismantled. This will be a tragedy for the vast majority of its residents who were lured in with lucrative economic incentives and had no idea what a terrible price they would have to pay for the sake of a nationalistic ideology, which they do not necessarily share.”
Nachman dismissed such statements as nonsense. Is there a solution? “Tolerance,” Nachman believed. “We have to find a way to live together. I’ve always worked for that, and it will take time and patience. We have to be strong and determined. If the Palestinians want a state, let them have it in Jordan, with connections to their cities and towns in the West Bank. I am against transfer – of Jews, or Arabs. That won’t bring peace.”
“Before Oslo we had peace. Maybe it wasn’t the best, but it worked. Now, everything has changed. Arafat and his gang want to destroy us … And some Israelis helped him,” he added
“That’s what bothers me about (Yitzhak) Rabin, (Shimon) Peres, and (Yossi) Beilin. They divided the country. They took in 50,000 terrorists from all over the Arab world and gave them weapons. We tried to warn them, but they wouldn’t listen. They were blind. So instead of fighting them in Lebanon, or Tunis, we fight them in Kalkiliya and Kfar Saba.”
“We gave them control over 95% of the Palestinian people – we are not ‘occupying’ them – but it’s not enough for them. And it will never be. Arafat wants it all. When they see us fighting among ourselves, it only encourages them to kill more.”
“Oslo was a dream; it became a nightmare. We were supposed to get security; instead we got bloodshed. Instead of peace, we have war. And the world blames us. Well, I understand that. But our friends in America and Europe? And the Reform Movement? They won’t even invite me to speak in their congregations. Project Renewal? Partnership 2000? Not in Judea and Samaria. We have no ‘sister city.’ No one ‘adopted’ us. Why? What have we done?”
But Nachman remained undaunted. “I was brought up with a deep love for this country and for the Jewish people, all of them. Maybe it’s not enough, but I believe in God and I hope He believes in me.”
May his memory be for a blessing.