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Settlers Leave West Bank for Israel’s Mixed Arab-Jewish Towns

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.

Most of what the garin does in Akko, where about a quarter of the residents are Arab, would be considered, uncontroversial tikkun olam or world repair in America’s Jewish communities — though all specifically target Akko’s Jewish community rather than those in need at large. There are educational programs to help struggling schoolchildren, economic coaching programs for poor families, after-school centers for at-risk kids and clubs for “vulnerable” women.

In an Akko warehouse, a retired soldier, Dudu Abadi, oversees a dozen schoolchildren who are packing up crates of reject-grade onions and other vegetables for poor families. Some 400 food parcels leave this warehouse weekly. “The garin has changed the quality of life in Acre,” said Abadi, who has lived in the city all his life. A few hours earlier, different volunteers made 700 sandwiches, as they do every school day, for children whose families cannot afford to make their own.

The Akko garin, which was one of the first, opening 16 years ago, was prompted not only by the traditional Zionist ideal of boosting the Jewish population of the heavily Arab Galilee region, but also by the fact that many Jews were leaving Akko. “People didn’t understand — everyone was leaving Acre, and people were arriving,” said Amichai Cohen, head of the garin’s projects. There was concern that the Jewish population of Akko may drop significantly and that the proportion of the population that is Arab would grow significantly.

The garin insists that there is nothing untoward about its desire to boost Jewish life in Akko. “We’re not against anyone; we’re just helping the [Jewish] community not to feel alone,” said its rabbi, Yaakov Dano. Cohen commented: “I don’t want there to be fewer Arabs, but I want Acre to remain Jewish.” He insisted that the garin’s programs and activities don’t impinge on the Arab population, and a leading coexistence activist in the city agreed. Muhammad Fahili, director of Akko’s Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Centre, said, “Until now, they don’t bother anyone.”

In the predominantly Arab Wolfson neighborhood where the kollel opened, a group of Arab women sitting in a courtyard drinking coffee said that they had no problem with the garin — apart from a general feeling that its members lack regard for them. “We respect them, but they don’t respect us,” said Nada Musa, 30.

Gil Gan-Mor, attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that if the garin operates without causing friction, he, too, has no objection to its desire to strengthen Jewish life. “If they say they want to make Acre a nicer city so more Jews will live there, that’s fine,” he said.

Those who voice opposition to mixed-city garinim often offer only vague conjecture to explain themselves. Noga Eitan, a documentary filmmaker who plans to release a report on the subject through the Molad think tank, said that she considers the garinim’s social and educational concerns to be a “façade.” She thinks that there is a more radical agenda, but she was not specific on how this manifests itself, given that she said their members are “tactful” and “careful” not to appear extreme. Asked to further explain her negative view, she objected to the fact that the members are fervently nationalist and traditionally observant, saying that what she finds “dangerous” is “that they are not coming from a civic point of view but from a religious Orthodox point of view.”

But away from the noise often surrounding the subject of mixed-city garinim, what is clear is that the zeal to strengthen the Jewish population can lead to a disregard for Israel’s equal opportunities law. Ten minutes away from the Akko kollel, a sign marks “Acre’s Religious Neighborhood,” and the 153 homes that are under construction there have been marketed and sold exclusively to traditionally observant Orthodox Jews.

The garin was the initiator of the project, and Cohen said that it has interviewed buyers to check that they are, indeed, Orthodox and observant. He said that this is fair, as a neighborhood of economically able residents who will strengthen the city’s Jewish character will be good for Akko. But the only way the garin got away with the screening was by keeping it under the radar of the law, which requires open sale of homes except in the case of certain groups deemed to have special housing needs. These include Bedouins and Haredim, but there is no precedent for including religious-Zionists.

When ACRI challenged the screening in 2012, after the process was complete and all units were sold off plan, a court agreed that the units should not have been limited to religious Jews. However, it said that it could act only if there was a complainant who was turned down as a buyer, which there was not.

Gan-Mor believes that the Israel Land Authority, the state body that released the land for building, should have been forced to remove the tender from the development group that involved the garin and reallocate it — a request that the court rejected. “It should be prohibited to discriminate in housing as in other areas of life,” he said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at [email protected]

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