On Israel Independence Day, Israelis take great pride in the hard work and military victories that have built the world’s only Jewish state. At the same time, many detractors of Israel continue push for boycotts and divestment from elements of that state.
The accomplishments of 2013 Israel Prize awardee Ron Nachman, however, have managed to transcend much of the contemporary criticism of Israel. Nachman invested his entire life in a barren mountain in Samaria and turned it into a sprawling, modern and controversial metropolis—a city that many have grown to see as a symbol of Israeli perseverance, chutzpah and ingenuity.
“Ron was very happy with the boycotts as they brought added attention to the city,” Avi Zimmerman, the city of Ariel’s international representative and executive director of the Ariel Development Fund, told JNS.org. “The detractors were represented by a small but vocal minority. The majority of Israelis are more practical and appreciate the depth Ariel gives to Israel’s narrow waistline.”
After passing away at age 70 in January, Nachman will be honored posthumously with the 2013 Israel Prize, one of the nation’s highest honors, on this Israel Independence Day (April 16) for his dedication and achievements as the founder and longtime mayor of Ariel, one of Israel’s largest Jewish communities situated beyond the 1967 Green Line (the armistice line following that year’s Six Day War).
Nachman literally made his mark on Israel’s landscape by turning a barren hilltop once called “Jabel Mawat,” meaning the hill of death, into the unofficial “capital of Samaria,” a city whose name, Ariel, means Lion of God, a synonym for Jerusalem. He died 35 years after founding Ariel.
Today, Ariel boasts a population of 20,000 residents and all the social and cultural services of a major Israeli metropolitan center. Nachman became the city’s first mayor in 1985 and held that post until he recently lost an extended battle with cancer.
“Ron was a force of nature, a machine, or what Israelis would call a ‘bulldozer.’ It must be in his family’s genes,” Zimmerman told JNS.org.
In the early 1970s, the city of Ariel was just a concept, developed to establish a presence that would provide strategic depth to Israel’s narrow waistline.
Ariel was conceived as part of an understanding that Israel allegedly had with the U.S. State Department following the Begin-Sadat Peace Deal that U.S. President Jimmy Carter brokered between Israel and Egypt.
The understanding called for establishing strategic development communities that would enable Israel to defend its key population centers from the mountains above. Tel Aviv sits just 25 miles to the west of Ariel. Its skyline is clearly visible in the distance.
Ariel is considered one of the major Jewish communities beyond the Green Line that would remain in Israeli control in any peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. But unlike the other communities in that category, Ariel is quite a bit further and more isolated from other heavily populated areas.
Ariel is inside a narrow extension of the separation barrier meant to fence off Palestinian communities from Israeli population centers. The city is protected by its own security fence on three sides.
Much to the dismay of its detractors, every inch of Ariel was built with Israeli governmental approval, on both state-owned and privately purchased land. Today, one of Israel’s largest highways, Route 5, makes Ariel a short and pleasant ride from Israel’s coast.
According to Zimmerman, Nachman abided by three guiding principles in the development of Ariel. “First, Ron saw Ariel as an extension of Tel Aviv and was unwilling to establish the new community without full authorization,” he said. “Second, Ron insisted on building and developing Ariel with government approval and licensing. Third, he insisted on building a full-scale and diverse city, suitable for a wide-range of residents.”
Before the first tent was pitched, Nachman created what he referred to as the “nucleus” of Ariel, with pledges from 6,000 future residents to come live in the city.
“Ron went door to door explaining to families the merits of coming to live in Ariel, and describing his vision for a city,” Zimmerman said.
In 1978, the first tents were pitched and were soon followed by the first temporary and later permanent structures. A truck delivered water, and generators provided electricity.
Approvals for the community were signed by then-Minister of Defense Shimon Peres. As president of Israel, Peres would deliver the keynote address at the city’s 30-year anniversary celebration.
Today, Ariel sprawls over 12 kilometers from East to West with two industrial centers and an academic institution that became a major point of national contention last year when it achieved university status—the first Israeli educational institution to become a university in over 30 years and the first higher learning and research institution in Judea and Samaria, commonly known as the West Bank.
The university started out as a branch of Bar Ilan University in the nearby Jewish community of Kedumim, before moving to Ariel in 1986. The branch soon became an independent college that over the years trained thousands of students to become professionals. The college grew along with the city that bears its name, and today is a center of learning for Jewish and Arab, religious and secular students alike. It is fast becoming a world-class research facility.
During the 1990s, Nachman saw a unique opportunity for Ariel, to grow its size by becoming a home for Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.
“Ron sent emissaries to Russia to explain to immigrants the benefits of moving to Ariel,” Zimmerman told JNS.org. “Today, roughly half of Ariel’s residents are Russian.”
Since then, building across Ariel has been severely restricted due to freezes on construction across Judea and Samaria. Ariel’s newest residential neighborhood is a community for former residents of the Gush Katif (Gaza) settlement of Netzarim, who were evacuated from their homes by the Israeli government in the summer of 2005.
Yet, even during the freezes, Nachman’s creativity and his desire to build could not be contained. He turned his energies toward building cultural and community centers that have further cemented Ariel’s status as a permanent part of the State of Israel and what its residents call a great place to live.
When Ariel opened an $11 million Performing Arts Center in 2010, several notable Israeli artists called for boycotting the facility, turning Ariel into a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement flashpoint. But Nachman did not consider that development bad news, per se, because he held by the well-known adage that “there is no such thing as bad PR,” according to Zimmerman.
“Ariel may be the most boycotted city in the world,” Zimmerman said.
Yet, according to Zimmerman, even Ariel’s staunchest detractors had great respect for the work, vision and perseverance of Nachman, the recipient of a government prize whose significance is unquestioned in Israel.
“Even his political adversaries recommended him for the prize,” Zimmerman said.