Leveling the Fields (of Opportunity) on the Border with Gaza

Bikurim Youth VillageBy Jonathan Dekel-Chen

A little more than one year after the end of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, most Israelis along the border with Gaza have readjusted to life with a nearly permanent sense of insecurity that has permeated the region for the past several years. While Israel’s government and philanthropic organizations from abroad have taken steps to reassure people about safety along the Gaza border, a much longer term opportunity gap continues to plague the area and many other parts of the country.

Many friends of Israel still perceive the whole country as an amalgam of a brave, besieged democracy and a brash “start-up nation,” with a pioneering past, featuring socialist collectives populated by ardent, tanned youth building a vibrant homeland in the desert. Much of this imagery is indeed rooted in actual history. But it is equally true that a mostly unknown, painful part of contemporary Israel is a growing income disparity, which carries with it a widening opportunity gap for today’s young people. In recent decades, many communities outside of Israel’s relatively affluent central region have remained deeply underserved by the state. These gaps include access to high-quality education, healthcare and other human services. While most severe for Israel’s Arab minority, the differences in support cut across ethno-religious lines and are felt most acutely by those in geographic and social peripheries. Thousands of these young Israelis are left with little hope of realizing their dreams.

Over the years, Israel’s governments have proposed programs to correct this tragic imbalance, but peculiarities of the country’s political system, security issues and cultural trends have thwarted sustainable progress. A bold local initiative to help break this cycle of hopelessness began one year ago, when a group of longtime residents of the western Negev opened Bikurim: The Youth Village for the Performing Arts. Located in the Eshkol region (which borders the Gaza Strip), Bikurim, meaning “first harvest,” is a residential boarding school that provides an intensive, world-class performing and visual arts education to high school students with significant artistic potential. Now in its second year of operation, Bikurim is home to thirty-five highly gifted students from disadvantaged families who live in the development towns, kibbutzim, moshavim and underprivileged urban areas throughout Israel.

The Youth Village is creating a unique social, cultural and educational model that currently features music and visual arts programs led by the best artistic educators in the country. Over the next three years, Bikurim intends to add drama and dance programs. The students’ artistic training parallels a full matriculation program at the adjacent regional high school. As a result, Bikurim’s graduates will have acquired a superior educational experience while also becoming performance artists, capable of entering these professions immediately upon graduation.

Bikurim is on its way to becoming a thriving center of creativity and professional excellence, as well as an axis for local pride, in a part of Israel that, until now, has been associated almost exclusively with ongoing tensions with Gaza. This is a targeted investment with an important multiplier effect to correct a number of inequalities. The students will be taught to “give back” to their home communities and during school vacations the Village will organize national music workshops for school-age children from Israel’s underserved regions, thereby significantly extending its reach. The Village is becoming a springboard for the Eshkol region as a magnet for new, innovative models of cultural development and collaboration in Israel through its partnerships with local stakeholders, including the Ministry of Education and the Eshkol Regional Council. Renovations of the buildings at the Bikurim residential campus have been generously supported to date by JNF-UK, the JCA and the Settlement Department of the WZO.

Since its launch in September 2014, Bikurim has shown its potential as a replicable model to fulfill the dreams of young, gifted Israelis who would not otherwise have had this opportunity. It is the core belief of Bikurim that security and growth on the border with Gaza (and for all of Israel) demand not just military security; we also must invest in the potential of our young people and give them reasons, as well as tools, for hope.

Jonathan Dekel-Chen, co-founder of Bikurim, is a senior lecturer in modern history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a longtime member of Kibbutz Nir Oz, bordering on the Gaza Strip. For more information on Bikurim, please contact: jonathan.dekelchen@gmail.com