LOD, Israel (JTA) — He says he’s a leader of a “Zionist settlement” movement, but Raz Sofer’s home is no West Bank outpost.
Sofer, 25, is the manager of a 100-member student village in this mixed Jewish-Arab city in central Israel. The village, comprised of several apartment complexes, offers students cheap rent in exchange for volunteer work with Lod’s poor residents, many of them Arab-Israelis.
Sofer is fluent in Arabic and is proud of the students who volunteer in Arab kindergartens or run extracurricular activities for Arab youth. He loves when local Arabs come to the nonprofit bar he and other students founded on the ground floor of their apartment building.
But he also believes that despite their shared Israeli citizenship, “the conflict is not over.”
“They don’t see themselves as Israeli,” Sofer said. “If they see themselves in a certain way, and that conflicts unequivocally with the values I have, we have a conflict.”
The Lod village is the largest of 13 such communities across Israel, all of them located in the economically depressed areas that Israelis refer to as the “periphery.” They are run by Ayalim, an organization with a dual mission whose components might appear to be incompatible.
In exchange for reduced rent, students volunteer at least two hours each week in their communities, often serving their Arab neighbors. But their presence there is inspired by a belief that Arab-Israelis represent a demographic threat to the Jewish state — a threat that can be countered by bringing Jews to settle areas in which Arabs constitute a majority.
Ayalim’s founders acknowledge the tension inherent in that mission, but say it’s not a problem as long as Arabs accept the idea of being a minority in a Jewish state.
“There’s tension, and maybe you can live with it,” said Ayalim co-founder Effy Rubin. “Our state contains many conflicts, but the Zionist movement is very young. We want Jewish industriousness in the land of Israel, and we also know how to embrace the minorities who are here.”
Ayalim’s founders employ the language of Israel’s West Bank settlement movement, insisting that a physical Jewish presence — what settlers often call “facts on the ground” — is the best bulwark against threats to Jewish sovereignty. But the threats they are countering are not from West Bank Palestinians clamoring for statehood but Arab citizens of Israel.
Rubin says that if the state neglects to ensure a Jewish majority in the South, it could create a power vacuum that will lead to Arab-Israelis insisting on independence from Israel.
“In the place where we won’t be a majority, it won’t be ours,” Rubin said.
But Rubin also says he is a defender of Arab-Israeli rights and faults the government for giving them scant resources. Though he deems them a threat, Rubin believes his work is crucial to their welfare.
“Even though we’re super Zionist, we’re really not anti-Arab, anti-Bedouin,” Rubin said. “They have no less of a right to this land. They need to be here and have total equal rights.”
Activists say Ayalim can’t have it both ways. Improving the lot of Israel’s Arab communities should be done by direct investment, not treating them as a fifth column.
“Essentially they’re relating to a part of the population in Israel as a threat and not as citizens,” said Haia Noach, executive director of the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality. “It doesn’t bother me that Jews come to the Negev, just like it doesn’t bother me that Arabs live in the Negev. It’s strange that a state decides it has to be scared of its citizens.”
Such criticism hasn’t stunted Ayalim’s growth. Founded in 2002 by two Israeli students living in a trailer in the southern town of Ashalim, the group now houses more than 1,000 students in its 13 villages. A new village in the embattled southern border town of Sderot will house an additional 300 students next year.
The group has received funding from several mainstream Jewish and Israeli organizations, including the American federation system and the Jewish Agency for Israel. Most of its 2015 budget is coming directly from the Israeli government, which has made assisting the South a priority.
Nor does the demographic mission deter Arab-Israeli members from joining. Students appreciate the cheap rent — Sofer pays less than $150 a month for a room in a comfortable, renovated apartment — and they say the villages foster a sense of community and do important work with underserved populations.
“I like the organization’s activism,” said Habeeb Hajaj, an Arab resident of the Lod village who says he doesn’t enjoy the occasional group lectures on Zionism but values his volunteer work with Arab youth. “In general it does good because it gives so many solutions and responses to people around it, and it starts with the students.”
Ayalim doesn’t expect to turn Arab-Israelis into Zionists, but the group does hope to demonstrate to them that Israel is here to stay. Eventually Ayalim hopes to grow into a larger movement for settlement in the periphery and is building 120 residential units for young people across the North and South. The entire effort, Rubin says, aims to resurrect the pioneering spirit of the early Zionists.
“We have young people who come in concentrated groups, go to faraway places for an ideology and make the desert bloom,” Rubin said. “Aside from the demographic problem, the significance of Ayalim is that we created a national movement of young people.”