Michael Weil
Wandering Jewish communal guy with an opinion

Thinking of a better future for the ravaged settlements in Southern Israel?

22 villages in southern Israel were invaded on October 7, their residents attacked viciously, ravaged, raped and most of these settlements were virtually destroyed. They will never be the same. The stories of butchery and destruction are too painful to hear, and the pictures are impossible to comprehend.

The damage to these communities is tremendous and multi-faceted. The human damage to families and individuals, the communal damage to whole communities, the physical damage to buildings, gardens, fields and playgrounds, the economic damage to factories, fields, livestock and livelihoods are each massive on their own while the emotional damage which probably can never be repaired.

Yet, we need to think about the future. Not just about immediate responses of medical attention, lodging, food and solace. Not only about temporary dwellings and community services for the months ahead. But also, about the long term future of these settlements.

Having studied disaster response and rebuilding processes and having led the recovery (and subsequent transformation) of the Jewish community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I know a little about the complexity and direction of these processes.

When it comes to long term solutions, the temptation is to rebuild exactly what was; possibly as an attempt to partially negate the disaster. But rebuilding exactly what was is probably the worst and least likely solution and may in the end just become a painful reminder of the tragedy. More importantly, the long term solution needs to address the needs and desires of today and especially of tomorrow. We must bear in mind that most of the settlements were established and then expanded and developed over many years in a patchwork fashion. If you were to ask settlers, they would probably agree that the nature of their village before October 7 was far from perfect and could have done with a lot of changes.

I am reminded of the case of the Beth Israel Synagogue in New Orleans that was completely devastated after hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the conversations I had with synagogue members in considering future options, most agreed that the destroyed synagogue was far from ideal physically. It was located in a neighborhood where there were by then fewer Jewish families, the building was in practice far too large for the now smaller community and the layout was “unfriendly” and not attractive. Ultimately, they chose to build a brand new synagogue in a different growing neighborhood, in a much smaller building, and with a modular design attractive to young people.

In New York after 9/11, it took years for the city to consider what the future physical solution to Ground Zero might be. It was clear that rebuilding the Twin Towers as they were was not an option. The first structure built was a museum to commemorate the tragic event. Then a number of towers were built over a few years later, with some still under construction. A park, church and transportation hub were added and recently a new performing arts center was opened. In fact, the area today bears little resemblance to what was.

For the different villages, kibbutzim and moshavim in the south of Israel, they have a number of choices, such as:

  • Rebuilding exactly as it was
  • Rebuilding on the same site but differently
  • Moving to a different location, close by or maybe far away

And various permutations of the above

But probably before anything else, the settlers need to rebuild their community. Many lives have been lost and many souls severely damaged, families torn to shreds and some leaders are no longer. Rebuilding and recreating the community structure is a first step. Then deciding what sort of community they want to be in the future; whether a kibbutz or moshav as before or maybe a different social configuration. Similarly, new leadership may well emerge.

One of the strengths of the villages in the South is that they are close knit, well organized communities with well-defined social and economic structures. While these have now been fractured, they have the basis from which to rebuild that fabric.

In the case of the synagogue in New Orleans, it too became apparent that planning construction was premature when the community itself had been ravaged. The synagogue president had left the city, the rabbi died of a heart attack and many members had dispersed to other locations. So, in the end the first step was to find a new rabbi and rebuild the community as a community. They were indeed very successful in this approach. A young charismatic rabbi was hired to lead the community and together they redefined their community and determined anew the physical space that they would need in the future.

It was many of the poorest neighborhoods of the city of New Orleans that were damaged the most, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, but many of the inhabitants of those areas indeed preferred to rebuild on site. However, the new housing hardly resembled the old. It was hurricane and flood resistant but also energy efficient and climate friendly, and parks and community and buildings were added.

Complicating matters is that for many of the settlements in southern Israel, their economic infrastructure has been destroyed or at least severely damaged. Fields burnt, factories destroyed, and workers killed or absent. Here too, soul searching is necessary to decide whether it is feasible to recreate the old revenue making structures or whether new avenues of productivity are needed. These questions are urgent because without answers to them the villagers will be without income and at the mercy of the public coffers. In the long run, however, we can expect significant economic investments both in each individual settlement and in the region.

Indeed, study of the long term impacts of disasters and wars shows that significant far reaching positive change and development do take place in most cases. The 1919 so called Spanish Flu led to the creation of the National Health Service in the UK, the Second World War led to the rebuilding of Western Europe, the creation of the United Nations and ultimately to the establishment of the European Union.

The Southeast Asia Earthquake and Tsunami in 2004 were transformational too. As a consequence of the Tsunami, a regional early warning system was created and substantially improved infrastructure was put in place. Better health, education, water and sanitation services were introduced in most of the affected countries. The Bande Aceh area of Northern Indonesia where some 200,000 people died or were missing, was totally rebuilt and transformed at a cost of $7 billion and in parallel, the Government of Indonesia and the separatist Free Aceh Movement signed a peace agreement in 2005 after 70 years of conflict. In general, the Tsunami provided an important opportunity to address underlying social inequities and strengthen human rights protection for vulnerable groups in Indonesia, India and other countries.

While it may sound like a pipedream at this point, I am sure that the long-term impacts of the October 7 tragic events will also be transformational and will change this region of southern Israel substantially. And maybe like in the case of Indonesia, bring about positive political change in the relations between Israel and Gaza.

After Hurricane Katrina, a wave of tens of thousands of volunteers descended on New Orleans, mostly young people wanting to be part of the rebuilding effort and expressing their notion of Tikkun Olam. The amazing current response at this time of so many Israelis who have volunteered to help and initiate numerous support programs has been inspiring, and it is expected that these efforts will continue, albeit changing as the needs develop.

What followed in New Orleans was also a great influx of newcomers who were inspired to move to the city after the catastrophe. New Orleans was transformed from a sleepy stagnant city before Katrina to one of innovation (both technological and cultural), of demographic growth and of hope and vitality. Change, reform and transformation were in fact discovered to be common themes of many of the post disaster developments around the world.

Part of the rebuilding efforts of southern Israel should also include a massive drive to repopulate and increase the community, with incentives to encourage young families to move there. Indeed, to my mind, settling in this area will be the “new zionism”.

Logically, it would seem that responses to a disaster should be taken one step at a time in a linear fashion. First, immediate urgent response, then interim temporary solutions and only later implementing the long term solutions when people are ready to consider those. But in essence, the converse is preferable. Namely, we need  to start thinking of long term solutions as soon as possible, or at least once the most immediate crisis and urgent needs are met. One of the reasons for this is that the long term solutions may well dictate and define the intermediate solutions. For example, a kibbutz may decide that it wants to relocate to the center of the country. In which case, there is no point in providing interim housing in the north of the country and far from where they might wish to be.

The planning should be done both at the village community level and the regional level.

In parallel, the towns of Sderot, Ofakim and Netivot, each need to create their own redevelopment plans.

The process of rebuilding and renewal will take time. It should not be rushed. It should be creative and thoughtful. But it should start as soon as possible. Thinking and planning about the future creates a positive and constructive approach. And it in some small way, it helps deal with the pain and the grief.

The rebuilding of the ravaged south must be viewed as a national project and a national effort with high priority. This is what the new Zionism means in 2023.

The way forward at this difficult time for the residents of the South is not easy but it should move in the direction of the future, a better future, and a transformational future.

About the Author
Michael Weil is an British born economist and strategic planning consultant based in Jerusalem and Arizona. Until recently, he was the Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and led the recovery of the community after hurricane Katrina. Previously, he was a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, held senior positions at World ORT and the Israel Prime Minister’s Office as well as heading an international consulting practice for two decades. He is active on boards in Israel and USA. Loves to paint, hike, opera and dry jokes.
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