Akko — Ariel Greenbaum insists he’s a settler. But he lives many miles from the West Bank.
“Settling the land also applies here,” he said in the Galilee synagogue where he spends his days studying Talmud.
This synagogue tells the story better than most places of the “settlement” activity Greenbaum and other young Jews are bringing to the city of Akko (also known as Acre) within Israel’s internationally recognized pre-1967 boundaries.
It is in the Akko’s Wolfson neighborhood, which has morphed in the past two decades from a predominantly Jewish area to one where about 70% of residents are now Arab. And with that demographic change, a few years ago the synagogue closed.
But Greenbaum is part of a group of 150 ideologically minded Orthodox Zionist families who have moved to the city in a bid to strengthen its economy, its Jewish life and, they hope, its demography. Two years ago they reopened the synagogue as a kollel, a study center where traditionally observant, married Jewish men study Talmud for a stipend they receive from the local community.
“Every Jewish family that comes here is settling the land no less than a family in Samaria,” Greenbaum said, using the Hebrew name for a region of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
This logic has inspired some people to move from the West Bank, normally considered the focus of religious Zionist aspirations, to Akko. Uriel Ofir, 31, arrived in the city last year after eight years living in the Shvut Rachel settlement. Ofir’s move reflected his realization that religious Zionists should be more outward looking than they are able to be in all-religious settlements. “I lived in a place where everyone is religious, but [I] went to a mixed university, and so I decided to join a garin,” he said.
Garinim, literally “seeds,” are groups of ideological Israelis who unite to build a particular type of community. Traditionally the term was used by youth movements or kibbutz groups who built farms on inhospitable land, but in the past decade, Israelis like Ofir have been joining religious Zionist garinim in droves that, like the Akko group, work in their chosen town or city to strengthen Jewish life and the economic reality of those around them. In that time the number of religious garinim has quadrupled to 80, and most run a wide range of programs from after-school clubs to charity food runs and religious services.
Daniel Tropper, head of the Fund for the Renewal of Communities in Israel, the main umbrella organization for garinim, said that the movement reflects a realization on the part of the Orthodox Zionist community that it was becoming too disconnected from mainstream Israel. The wake-up, he said, came after the Gaza disengagement in 2005, when Orthodox Zionists realized that their protests against the withdrawal had little resonance among non-Orthodox Israelis.
Tropper, an Orthodox rabbi who used to head the Gesher organization for secular-religious reconciliation and who helped to found the defunct left-wing religious party Meimad, said that the religious-Zionist community had been “absolutely fixated” on settling the West Bank and Gaza for three decades, and remembered in 2005 that it had “ignored the rest of the country.”
But while the garinim represent a dilution of the single-minded religious Zionist interest in West Bank settlement, when they locate in mixed Jewish-Arab cities their presence raises a difficult question. Are they injecting, to constructive end, the passion that religious Zionists often invest beyond the Green Line, or are they replicating the Arab-Jewish divisions that exist in the West Bank? The answer seems to be a bit of both.