When settlements are safe

Recent polling and reports have dubbed Ariel the safest city in Israel. A new revelation to some, this finding debunks conventional wisdom concerning life beyond the Green Line, while setting the stage for a fresh look at “settlements” in the past, present and future.

In 2007 I was Ariel’s English-speakers’ aliyah liaison. I still remember the highly inopportune phone call I received from the Zacks family, who was considering Ariel as their aliyah destination. “So, we really like what we’re hearing and reading about Ariel. Just one more question. We’re a bit concerned about the location. Is Ariel safe?” It was a fair question, the sort of thing that all Israelis living east of the Green Line are asked at one time or another. I just wished they would have asked a day earlier.

My response was meek at best; “Well, with the exception of today’s drive-by shooting near the entrance to the city, everything has been really peaceful and quiet.”

Fortunately, Natalie and Shauli Zacks, who were making aliyah from Detroit, weren’t all that intimidated by the incident. But what’s interesting is that Israel’s Public Security Ministry has now found that the Zacks aren’t the only people in Ariel who are comfortable at home. With a significant lead over all other cities polled, 92% of Ariel’s residents say they feel safe living in their community.

The report flies in the face of what people imagine life to be like in Judea and Samaria. “The settlements” are often considered an unruly, dangerous series of disjointed hilltops, subject to the whims of violent territorial disputes between Arabs and Jews. Needless to say, residents of the region indignantly refuse to be misrepresented.

Ron Nachman, who envisioned, founded and built Ariel until his passing in January of this year, refused to call Ariel a settlement. “It’s not a settlement, it’s a city” he would tell journalists, diplomats, academics and friends. Ron would explain; “The world calls me a settler. They think I have horns, that I push the Arabs out of their homes and that I carry two guns. Look [he would point to his belt] – no guns. Only two telephones”. Staunchly opposed to the pervasive portrayal of “settlers” as gun toting, militaristic, unkempt, messianic farmers and dreamers, Nachman boasted his city’s secularism, coexistence with neighboring Arab communities, industrial prowess and academic success. And yet, despite his consistent position across decades of his career, his wife recently suggested that it might be time to revisit “settler” terminology.

“I think that now, after Ron received the Israel Prize, he would be happy to use the term “settlement””, Dorith Nachman, who received her husband’s posthumous prize on his behalf, explained to guests who visited her husband’s grave. As someone who stood by her man for 35 years of Ariel’s history, and raised their children on what was then a barren hilltop with no running water and no disposable diapers, Dorith’s perspective speaks to the time-sensitive dynamics of the politically charged term.

Her affinity to the “settlement” concept is inspired by a season of life when every experience was new, and every small success immensely rewarding. Young families were weathering the brutal conditions, building a new community, and growing together. The more difficult, the more meaningful. The more unrealistic, the more encouraging. The pioneering spirit set the rhythm for a time whose luster can only be captured by the term “settlement”.

Ron and Dorith’s thoughts reflect different voices in Ariel. There are those who see Ariel as the elephant in the newsroom, which would swiftly dismantle the preconceived notions about residents of Judea and Samaria if only the journalists would dare visit and see the city for themselves. There are others who point to the idealistic beginnings of this Zionist initiative and proudly wear the “settler” badge in celebration of their successes against all odds. But irrespective of terminology trends, a number of underlying, essential life elements are shared among Ariel’s residents. A sense of personal security is one of them.

It’s true; “settlement” is a pejorative term, employed with the intent of describing Israeli communities and cities beyond the Green Line as transient, experimental villages with little hope for a sustainable future. But when a “settlement” is rated the safest place in Israel, maybe it’s time to reconsider not only the controversial “settlement” term, but the way we think about “safety” and “Israel” as well.

About the Author
Avi Zimmerman is the City of Ariel's international representative. He is the Executive Director of American Friends of Ariel and the Founder of TALK17.