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Social revolution and the new Negev pioneers

The third anniversary of the social justice movement was marked in Sheizaf with great satisfaction: A young, flourishing community has been established in the Negev Desert and several education and development plans are in store.
A man walks near the village of al-Sira, one of dozens of ramshackle Bedouin Arab communities in the Negev desert which are not recognised by the Israeli state, in southern Israel August 20, 2013. For decades Arab Bedouins have eked out a meagre existence in the Negev desert, largely under the Israeli government's radar, but now many will have to make way for new developments. Israel has already invested around $5.6 billion to build military bases in the Negev desert and plans to build 10 new communities th

Throughout Israel and around the world Jews have been building this week the traditional sukkah hut, honoring the Feast of Tabernacles. But in Tel Aviv there are still some families and individuals who live in huts and tents for several months on end and even up to three years, ever since the 2011 social justice protests. Those people have become almost transparent to the public around them.

Over the past few weeks, it seems as if the protest has been standing again at our doorstep. The campaign over the price of chocolate pudding snacks has stirred up a public debate over the legitimacy of leaving the country — for the sake of life in places where the cost of living is lower. In a special festive interview on the eve of the Jewish Sukkot holiday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said, ''We have failed in whatever concerns housing prices and cost of living, and we, the government, must deal with that.'' Nevertheless, Ya'alon called on young people not to give up: ''I don't believe that because of this people should leave the country. Those who care [about Israel] must stay here and help change things, lead the change.''

A Sad Anniversary,” wrote journalist and activist Noam Sheizaf on the site Sicha Mekomit (Local Conversation) in July 2014, but in the same column he made sure to note that not everything is bad. “It [the protest] helped some of the most interesting developments in Israel today,” he tempers his sobering analysis of the socioeconomic situation in Israel. And that’s right. Alongside fascinating initiatives such as cooperative supermarkets and community banks, the social protest has empowered groups of citizens who sought to create change and gave them backing to realize dreams that in the past, before the summer of 2011, they would have abandoned in despair or lack of faith in themselves. Some of them chose to move to Berlin or to other European capitals to fulfill their dreams. Others chose a different, creative and local route.

When I arrive at Sheizaf, a tiny secular-religious community of 15 families in the Negev Desert, residents quickly explain that this is exactly the spirit that moved them to establish the community. “In the social protest we asked ourselves what to do,” said Ron Segal, 34, the oldest member of the community, originally from the southern community of Netiv Ha-asarah, “and establishing this community is the answer. The protest was marked by the notion of 'instead of complaining, get up and do something.' So we got up and did it. I look at the 15 trailers here in the village, and I say to you that this is our Rothschild.”

Segal referred to Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, which in the summer of 2011 was home to hundreds of tents erected by young people who decided to live in the public space in protest of the high cost of living and house prices.

The establishment of Sheizaf was a little less subversive and received the approval of the Ramat HaNegev Regional Council. Today, the head of the council, Shmulik Rifman, said, “Sheizaf is part of the council’s policy of achieving the settlement goal in Ramat HaNegev of 15,000 residents in the next decade, and answers the desire and need of many young people to live in a mixed religious and secular communal settlement.” Two years ago, on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat in 2012, the date of the establishment of the community, the scenario was rather similar: 10 families simply got up on a hilltop in the Negev Desert and established their homes there.

Shmuel and Dafi Adler lived in the southern town of Dimona and fell in love with the Negev. “Their dream was to create a mixed community of religious and secular Jews,” Segal said. “It started with an email they sent to friends and it caught on quickly. A sequence of determination, luck and a window of opportunity brought us here.”

This pioneering spirit has moved Sheizaf’s residents from birth: Segal’s parents, for instance, were among the founders of the Netiv Ha-asarah community. Vered Orenstein, who joined the community a year ago with her partner and son Zuri, who is now a year and nine months old, said her parents were among the founders of Shiloh in Samaria. “It’s a similar story, we are young and we haven’t grown tired of life. I have energy for adventures.”

And indeed they had energy. “When we came to the head of the Ramat HaNegev Regional Council he told us, “I see a lot of people like you,” Segal said. Unlike others, this group was fueled by the protest, determined to create change. “We didn’t give up,” Segal added.

The Or movement, a nongovernmental organization that encourages settlement in the Negev and the Galilee, reports that this pioneering spirit, of moving to the Negev and making the desert bloom in the spirit of Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, inspires tens of thousands of Israelis. Forty requests to join the community are sitting in Segal’s email inbox, testimony that the desire to lead social change is shared by many others. “I imagine standing on this hill in another 15 years and seeing 200 families,” Segal said as we stand on the hill overlooking the settlement. “Then I’d recall the process of establishing the community and know that we did something. That we brought change.”

“The spirit, the willingness and the ability of the members of Sheizaf realize the dream of making the desert bloom every day,” Roni Palmer, director and founder of the Or movement, told Al-Monitor. “I call upon anyone who ever dreamed about living in the Negev or the Galilee to simply call us and come.”

As befits social change leaders, about 10 of the 30 adults who live in the community are educators. The trailers surround a large playground that is used by the 20 children who live in Sheizaf. “Education is part of the story here,” Segal said. “We weren’t searching for an economic bonanza or a real estate opportunity. We want to create a preschool, a school, maybe a university-prep program. Education is at the top of our priorities. We wanted to establish a framework in the community for all the children, but bureaucratic issues prevented it from happening this year. Next year, we’ll have a preschool.”

In the meantime, in only two years the population of the community has doubled, thanks to the arrival of another five families, and to nine births in the last year alone. In embarrassment, residents joke, “There’s actually nothing much to do here …” But the growth in population is welcome in their view. The community has grown from 25 founders to 50 residents.

From the hill, one can look out on the tiny community that numbers 15 trailers, 60 square meters (646 square feet) each, arranged in two terraces. “Upper Sheizaf and neglected Sheizaf,” Segal said.

Meital Raz, the alumni coordinator of the Negev army preparatory program, said, “[I] want to grow old in the Negev, I love the landscape, the wide open spaces, that there’s only a few people around. It’s a community with a good quality of life that provides what I love: good education and good people.”

Indeed, all the ingredients needed for a revolution.

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