Manhattan, Moscow, Samaria: The Genesis of Ariel University

Cold rains couldn’t dampen the countless rallies that repeatedly swept the streets of Manhattan for more than a generation. Jews half a world away were punished and imprisoned for the crime of having an identity under a communist regime. Their brethren, who knew the taste of freedom, refused to remain complacent. “Let my people go” was their calling card. Optimistic naiveté was both their only vice, and their greatest asset.

The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry‘s campaign was driven by moral determination and inspired by a dream. They dreamed that a grass roots movement could change the world as we know it by making a dent in the Iron Curtain. Their message was not lost on those who they wished to set free. When the walls came tumbling down, countless refugees learned that dreams can indeed come true. It was a lesson that would continue to carry them as they faced the unknown.

It’s been said that Israelis love aliyah (the concept of Jews immigrating to Israel) but that they don’t necessarily love olim (those who immigrate). The influx of Russian olim in the early 1990’s to the Jewish State was no exception to the knee-jerk xenophobia. Roughly one million Jews and their family members arrived, increasing Israel’s population by an approximate 20% over the course of only a decade. Cultural differences, communication barriers and job competition were the hallmarks of the ever-developing demographic shifts and challenges.

But there were those who saw the new immigrants not as a threat but as an asset. Ron Nachman had the singular notion of building a city in Samaria. His goal was to grow his community to reach a functional and sustainable critical mass of residents, institutions and services. He was not satisfied with consistent Israeli government authorization for his every move on the ground. Ariel was considered by many a West Bank settlement on occupied land. Mayor Nachman opted to create facts on the ground to supersede and undermine political adversity.

It was more difficult than Ron Nachman imagined. Though many were nationalistic in mind and Zionistic at heart, the new immigrants did not share Nachman’s vision. They were educated, circumspect and practical. When they did choose Ariel, it was first and foremost for the opportunities that it offered.

The Barkan Industrial Park just down the road was an excellent source of initial and, in many cases, long term employment. Ariel’s air was crisp, the quality of life was always improving, and a new academic institution was budding at Ariel’s east end. Opportunity was knocking.

The College of Judea and Samaria first arrived in Ariel in 1986. At the time geographically isolated from Ariel’s apartment buildings and homes, construction of the college’s first faculty buildings was underway. The institution’s infancy made it a perfect fit for the newcomers. First, their output significantly outweighed their salary expectations. More importantly, their signature quality was research. Vocational education for their undergraduate students was only a secondary motivating factor, ranking far behind the prospects of establishing new laboratories on a burgeoning campus. These olim came from a culture that encouraged scientific curiosity and rewarded academic achievements. In Ariel they could dream to create a new reality, and succeed in doing so.

With the proliferation of Israeli colleges the added value of Ariel’s immigrant professors became even more pronounced. Research is the primary characteristic that distinguishes between Israeli colleges and universities. While other colleges sought to increase the number of tuition paying students, the College of Judea and Samaria was concerned with the number of internationally recognized studies that it published. With 4 faculties, 24 departments and 11 research centers, the Ariel University of today is a testimony to the perseverance of its immigrant academic staff.

But not everyone is pleased to see a university in Ariel. The dynamics of the Jewish Diaspora are such that many community leaders have taken a rigid anti-Israel stance on all issues relating to Judea and Samaria. Irrespective of the unequivocal support these immigrant academics once received before they naturalized as Israelis citizens, they’re often perceived and portrayed in a narrow political context by those who boycott their academic work and those who oppose their university’s recent upgrade.

Through its history and at its core, Ariel University is the story of individuals who were empowered to own their freedom and realize their ambitions. No adversity can stifle their spirit. Even if that adversity comes from their brethren who once taught them to dream.

About the Author
Avi Zimmerman is the CEO of the Integrated Business Roundtable and the President of the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry.