OR Initiative Lights Up Israel’s Negev Region

Flowering poppies in the Negev, April 2012. Photo by Avishai Teicher; Wikimedia Israel free image collection project.
Flowering poppies in the Negev, April 2012. Photo by Avishai Teicher; Wikimedia Israel free image collection project.

By Maayan Jaffe

“The younger generation of Israelis are looking for a challenge, to create,” says Ofir Fisher, co-founder of the OR Movement. “Every generation has to have its own interpretation of ‘Zionism.’”

Fisher believes that for young Israelis in 2015, the Negev and Galilee regions provide the answer.

“It’s not something secular, religious, right, left. It is something we can all connect around. The Negev and the Galilee are the solution to many of the problems Israelis are facing,” he says.

The OR Movement (OR is the Hebrew word for light) was founded in 2002 by Fisher and three other young, idealistic Israelis dedicated to making former prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom a reality. The idea for OR, however, was planted several years prior when Fisher and his friends traveled to Poland on a school trip.

“We came back from seeing the camps and we felt something happened to us,” Fisher recalls. “We decided we had to contribute as much as possible to strengthening our State of Israel.”

While two of the four seed members have dropped out of the OR project, one of Fisher’s friends, Roni Flamer, serves as CEO. In 1999, Fisher and Flamer worked with then minister of infrastructure Ariel Sharon to establish Sansana, which at the time was the first [new] Jewish community established in Israel in 15 years. They settled there and experienced firsthand the trials and rewards of life in Israel’s sparsely populated areas. Since then, the OR Movement has tackled these challenges head-on, successfully relocating more than 6,000 families to communities in the Negev and Galilee as well as facilitating more than 50 community and public building projects, including the planning, construction, and operation phases. OR has also forged fruitful government relationships, helping pass 17 Israeli government initiatives and decisions that provide relocation incentives, benefits, and assistance for the Negev and Galilee.

“The Negev and the Galilee account for between 60 and 70 percent of Israel’s land mass, yet they are home to less than 30 percent of the Israeli population,” explains Fisher. “These regions offer tremendous potential for innovation and growth.”

Jewish National Fund (JNF), one of OR’s most prominent strategic partners, has invested heavily in the Negev region over the last several decades. But JNF CEO Russell Robinson says the OR project has had an unprecedented impact there. He explains that in the 1950s, the Negev was a barren piece of un-farmable land. The Israeli government moved immigrants from North Africa and other Arab countries, such as Yemen, into the Negev out of necessity. This decision led to the establishment of what have become known as “development towns.” Yet the towns never really developed.

“The Negev became neglected. The population stagnant and decreasing. With the Ethiopian aliyah, the immigrants went south, too. When you send poverty to poverty, it leads to more poverty. So those who made it got out. And while Tel Aviv, Haifa and the Jerusalem corridor progressed, the people in the north and the south were forgotten,” Robinson says.

JNF recently conducted a survey of Israelis to better understand their opinions of the Negev. Most of them knew little about it. They said they either served in the army in Be’er Sheva, stopped in that city to get gas on their way to Eilat, or knew someone who went to Be’er Sheva-based Ben-Gurion University (BGU).

“There was plenty of room for development, housing, jobs,” says Robinson. “So why was it not being done? Image.”

 A sketch of the planned Be’er Sheva River Park - a water, environment, and economic development project that is transforming the Negev city's riverfront into a 1,700-acre civic paradise; photo courtesy JNF.
A sketch of the planned Be’er Sheva River Park – a water, environment, and economic development project that is transforming the Negev city’s riverfront into a 1,700-acre civic paradise; photo courtesy JNF.

Through its Blueprint Negev initiative, JNF has provided the means for a renaissance in the Negev region. The centerpiece of its efforts is the Be’er Sheva River Park, a massive water, environment, and economic development project that is transforming the riverfront into a 1,700-acre civic paradise. OR has taken that paradise and invested in the tools to recruit middle and upper class families to new neighborhoods and communities – religious, mixed, and secular, with opportunities to build, buy, or rent. Today, Be’er Sheva is the fastest-growing city in Israel.

Take the Da’el family. Parents Yoni and Shira recently moved their three children to the Negev’s Ofakim from the central Israeli city of Petah Tikvah.

“There are many stigmas about the development towns in southern Israel,” says Yoni Da’el, who served in the Negev during his army service and says he always wanted to make a difference in his country. Now, he feels he is a part of helping the development town progress and advancing the lives of his own offspring, too.

“My children have a high quality of life here, the education is excellent and the community is welcoming and warm,” he says.

Shira Da’el agrees. She says she is grateful to her husband at least once a week for pushing them toward this move.

Similarly, the Akabayov family moved to the Negev from Boston, where Barak Akabayov was working as a visiting scholar. Originally from central Israel, he now works in the chemistry department at BGU. The family lives in Omer‚ a small, suburban neighborhood about 15 minutes outside of Be’er Sheva.

“We never thought we would live in this area of Israel, but it is really great,” Akabayov says. “We really like the weather here; it is better than any other place in the country.”

He continues, “When the people from OR took us around to see the Negev, I saw that it has really developed into a modern city. It is really different than what I thought before.”

Robinson explains that unlike in the United States, where local chambers of commerce and visitor’s centers make it easier to learn about a community and move, such infrastructure does not yet exist in Israel. OR serves that role and provides the connections to communities, jobs, and cultural life that Israelis need in order to see themselves moving to the Negev.

Fisher says OR has stopped adding new towns, but instead is focused on developing those they have already birthed and investing in the recruitment of middle class Israelis to development towns, with the goal of forming what he calls “vital neighborhoods.” The objective is to have these new families bring about improved infrastructure and education, which ultimately will enhance the whole town and ensure that everybody wins. He would like to see the Negev and Galilee regions have 4.5 million new residents by 2048.

“The Negev and the Galilee will be independent centers of life, not dependent on Tel Aviv or the surrounding areas,” says Fisher. “Over the next decade, we will bring the next 150,000 people to these areas and this will create and ripple effect. This is all about being a visionary. … We are doing our part to keep the Zionist dream alive.”