• ISRAEL \ Jul 15, 2001
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    Donations in the name of God
Donations in the name of God Living in a virtual enclave

As if to convey a message of business as usual, at the beginning of the week Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman convened the heads of the Automation Company, which handles computerization for the Union of Local Authorities. About 20 people sat at a round table in the conference room of the Ariel municipality and listened to the mayor's vision of the future. When it is achieved in full, Ariel will be the first smart city in Israel, if not in the entire world.For the average layman, it was difficult to follow the hyper-technological discourse going on in the conference room, but one thing was clear to everyone. At the end of the process, the inhabitants of Ariel will be hooked up to real and virtual networks, and the entire world will be within reach of their home computers. They will not have to leave home in order to work, shop at the supermarket or find out how their neighbors are doing. Their children will not have to sit in classrooms in front of boring teachers. They will learn at home, and their final grades will be sent to them via the community communications network.

The language at the meeting was highly technical. It was said that bandwidth must be two mega, that the telephone must be Internet-based and the cameras in the control rooms must be hooked up to the Internet. There was also talk of regulators, and of calls going out via satellite and of one "Med," short for Mediterranean.

While the members convened to discuss the future, outside the conference room waited Irina Vodislavsky. She has still not solved the problems of her past, and had come to the mayor's office to talk about establishing a Holocaust museum in the town. She and her husband Yaakov have been living in Ariel quite happily for 10 years now. Before that, they lived in Ramat Gan, but felt the lack of mountain air and quality of life, of which they finally found plenty in Ariel.

"My husband was in the Holocaust and I was too, a bit, and therefore we decided to memorialize the victims of the Holocaust," she explains. The idea was conceived by her husband only recently, and he hastened to acquire another house in the town to serve as a Holocaust museum. The mayor heard about the idea and was enthusiastic. Is there an answer to the Holocaust more to the point than the creation of Ariel out of naked scrub land in the heart of Samaria?

"My husband got a bee in his bonnet," adds Irina, "and he decided to memorialize the members of his family and the other victims of the Holocaust. We would like young people to come and learn what the Holocaust is and what my husband went through. I think that if you hear testimony from someone and hear what happened to him, it enters your mind." According to an agreement achieved with the mayor, the museum will become municipal property when Mr. and Mrs. Vodislavsky pass away.

The meeting ended and the Automation Company people were about to return to central Israel. The trans-Samaria highway is the main transportation artery linking Ariel to Israel on the other side of the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border. Ever since Palestinian anger erupted in September 2000, the amount of traffic has dwindled considerably. Every shooting incident on the road is frightening, and keeps Israeli travelers away. Fearing for their lives, providers of goods and services have stopped coming to Ariel and the nearby settlements. Government and public utility workers have also stopped using this major transportation artery, and in so doing have isolated the inhabitants of Ariel. The bold do come - after they are promised transport in specially armored vehicles or in a military convoy. The less bold are not prepared to travel this road at all.

Ron Nachman takes advantage of the opportunity to praise the automation people, who traversed the trans-Samaria highway without armored protection and without military escort. Only Irina, waiting for the mayor to finish what he was doing, does not understand what all the fuss was about. "They shouldn't talk to me about dangers in Ariel," she says. "It's the safest place in the world. It's more dangerous to ride the train in Poland. The whole time you are frightened that they will rob you."

Conspiracy theory

Ron Nachman feels like someone who has been robbed of his city and robbed of its inhabitants' joie de vivre. Sometimes he is sure that the state institutions, led by the media, have formed a conspiracy and put out a contract to eliminate Ariel. Otherwise, why aren't they rallying to repel the dangers that have befallen him and his city during the past 10 months? Why aren't they visiting the town to raise morale? Why are they remaining silent in the face of the delegitimization campaign that is going on against Jewish settlement beyond the 1967 borders? He had especially hoped that the media would give supportive coverage to the poor Jewish settlements surrounded by bloodthirsty enemies, as he puts it.

To his sorrow, this has not been the case. As an act of revenge for the media's irresponsible behavior, he told his office manager not to put the daily newspapers Yedioth Ahronoth and Ma'ariv on his desk because they fanned fears in people's hearts and caused them to stay away from the Jewish settlements beyond the Green Line.

"My feeling is that the way things are presented in the media serves [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat's aims," he says decisively. "The media coverage is hurting the inhabitants, is hurting registration for Ariel College, is hurting people who want to live here. I ask you: Why should a person come to study at the college when the media are sowing fear every day? Why shouldn't he prefer to go to Tel Hai College in Kiryat Shmona, where things are very quiet? I never imagined that one report in the media could wipe out an entire town. Providers of goods and services have stopped coming here, people are afraid to visit because they hear about shooting incidents on the radio. The media have made a direct connection between terror attacks and Judea and Samaria."

Some time ago there was an incident that made him really angry. Driving test administrators from the Transportation Ministry informed him that they did not intend to give tests in his town. "I said to them, are you out of your minds?" he recalls. "They told me that they were afraid to go on the trans-Samaria highway. I told them that if they did not come, I would make a scene. They told me that they wanted a specially armored vehicle. Finally the army arranged it for them and they came."

Nachman is certain that the atmosphere of panic among the Israeli public is a creation of the media, and he therefore decided to teach them a lesson, re-educate them. Almost anyone who writes against the Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 borders gets a brutal answer from him. "You are so busy with astronomy that you're living on another planet," he wrote to Prof. Elia Leibowitz, who proposed on the pages of Ha'aretz a plan for withdrawing from the territories. About two weeks ago, he communicated with U.S. President George W. Bush, hinting that if Bush dares to hurt the settlements, God could hurt him back. "Your decision in this spirit will be a declaration of war against God's promise to the Jewish people," he wrote, and invited the president to be his guest in Ariel to gain a better understanding of the problems of the region.

Evangelical Christians in fundamentalist circles are Nachman's best friends and his main pillar of strength in the United States. At every turn, he draws a parallel between the contents of the New Testament and the act of settling in the territories, as if they were made for each another. Last Easter, he was the guest of a church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and wrung accolades from thousands of believers. He aimed at proving to the congregation, with signs and wonders, that the settlements are nurtured by divine command; they nodded their heads in agreement. According to evangelical Christian beliefs, Jesus will appear again on earth only after the Jews return to the land that was promised them, and only after they convert en masse to Christianity. Therefore, these firm believers have the supreme moral obligation to support the State of Israel. This is a necessary precondition for the coming of the redemption that will save them and the entire world.

Nachman's most urgent mission is to educate the radio and television reporters before they thin out his city's population. According to him, every time they report on a shooting incident in the area and mention Ariel, fear descends upon visitors and guests in the town, and they vanish as if the earth had swallowed them up.

"I have more than 100 teachers who come from the outside," he says, raising his voice. "I have educators, outside workers and hundreds more people who come to Ariel. The moment they hear about a shooting incident, not one of them wants to come here." A month ago he contacted Israel radio and the Israel Defense Forces spokesman and demanded that they mend their ways. "These reports cause anxiety among worried citizens," he wrote to IDF Spokesman Ron Kitri. "There are 6,500 students who study at the college and they aren't coming because of the reports on the radio. In the wake of these reports, there was a huge decline in the number of students registering for the college and a rise in the feeling of anxiety among the inhabitants of Ariel."

Nachman is tense as the beginning of the academic year approaches. Only at the start of September will he know how many families will have left the town to follow in the footsteps of their children, whom they have enrolled in schools inside the Green Line. Only at the end of September will he know how many students have registered at Ariel College. "If, God forbid, I find out that there has been damage to the town and the college, I will demand that the government compensate me for the damages. It hurts me to talk about this because I feel insulted, scorned," he says.

Happy campers

The summer camps have opened as usual, and the children of Ariel received compensation for the difficult year they've been through. The decision by Education Minister Limor Livnat to subsidize the summer camps for the children of the Jewish settlements has almost doubled the number of children from Ariel who are taking part, to more than 1,000. Merav Dror, a senior counselor at the summer camp, says that this year was terrible for the children of Ariel. Since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, they have not left the town, they have not gone to places of entertainment in central Israel, they have not visited friends inside the Green Line and they have not had visits from out-of-town relatives.

"They deserve a bit of fun," says Dror with an understanding smile. During the five years she has lived in Ariel, many of her friends have refrained from visiting her. During the past year, not one has come. "Even my parents haven't come to visit me, and you know what? I understand them. What can I tell a person who is afraid? That he should come anyway? Of course not. I understand every person who is afraid to come to us."

In the class she taught this year, she allowed the children to express their anxieties. "I had one girl in my class who started wetting again," related Merav. "I had a boy who drew a Jew with a gun facing an Arab with a stone and between them stood an Israeli tank. I also had a little girl who drew many drops symbolizing tears and above them she wrote: 'Both an Arab mother and a Jewish mother cry over their children.'"

In a month's time, Dror is to give birth at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, and she plans to spend the time after the birth in Ashdod, with relatives. "If I didn't do that, no one would come to visit me," she says calmly.

Children of new immigrants are having a wonderful time at summer camp. In one class, 20 children aged 6, 7 and 8 who had arrived in Israel last week were playing. All are very fair and blue-eyed. The counselor explains that all had immigrated from Ukraine and Belarus. There are three girls named Anastasia, two called Anya, one named Rita and one Denise. Two of the boys are named Artium. Forming a circle, the brand-new little immigrants join Israeli children and sing Israeli songs they have just learned. It is astonishing to see the swiftness with which Israeli society inhales its new members. Almost half of the 17,000 inhabitants of Ariel came during the immigration wave of the 1990s from the CIS. During the last year, the stream of immigrants has dwindled. Ron Nachman once admitted that without immigrants from Russia, there would be no Ariel.

Dror is now even more convinced that Israel must find a solution, even at a painful price. She says she moved to Ariel because the state determined that Ariel is a legitimate settlement that will remain on the ground even after an agreement with the Palestinians. "It's comfortable and convenient for me to live here," she explained. "Like many inhabitants, I have no ideological ideas. Ariel is not like Gush Katif or Psagot. Living there is like living in the fire. I believe that they shouldn't be there, because the moment a settlement needs more soldiers than inhabitants, there is no justification for its existence."

At the exit from Ariel stands the Eshel Hashomron Hotel. In recent months the hotel has been almost completely empty of visitors. About two months ago, Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi visited and left behind a trail of high hopes, informing the residents that he was going to put the city of Ariel on the world tourism map. None of the participants laughed.In the modest commercial center of Ariel sat a woman and her good friend, having lunch. Felafel, shwarma, hummus, tehina, pita and local salads. This is Vicky Hearst's third visit to Ariel, and each time, her Christian belief that the Jews are the only owners of this land is fortified. Vicky Hearst is the granddaughter of the late press mogul William Randolph Hearst, whose life served as the inspiration for Orson Welles' film "Citizen Kane." Her sister is Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped in 1974 by a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, became captivated by its ideas and joined its members in carrying out an armed robbery. She was arrested, tried and sent to prison. Books have been written about her and films produced.

Vicky led a hedonistic life before she had a crisis and found comfort in turning to religion, she says. "It was about five years ago," she relates. "God did not exist for me except as the last of my priorities. All that interested me was my own needs and how to waste my money, what I was wearing and how I looked. I repented because of a bad relationship with a man I loved. I went into a deep depression, I was crying all the time and I suffered from severe chest pains. I was sure that this relationship would kill me. And then a girlfriend of mine from Colorado, who had repented, invited me to stay with her. In the bedroom there was an open Bible. I read it as if Jesus had commanded me to read the Bible from beginning to end."

Repentence changed her life. Her relations with her family improved, and especially with her father, Randolph Hearst, who died half a year ago at the age of 85. "I was glad at his funeral that I had reconciled with him and I knew that he was on his way to God," she related. "I envied him for being about to see God and I still had to wait."

Her minister in Missouri planted in her a great love for Israel and its Jewish inhabitants. Every time she comes to Israel she visits the places mentioned in the Bible and prays at them. She is angry at the Palestinians, who are disobeying the divine command that deeded the land of Israel to the Jews. "There is no doubt that this is not a conflict between Jews and Arabs," she explained. "This is a conflict between Islam and God, and there will be no peace until the Messiah comes. I do not understand the forgiving attitude toward Yasser Arafat. For me he is a new edition of Adolf Hitler and he hates Christians just as much as he hates Jews."

Vicky Hearst has donated part of the huge inheritance from her father to open a rehabilitation workshop in Ariel that will be named after him. Soon she will also donate money to build a tennis court there. She loves to play tennis.

When she is asked how Patty is doing she replies: "Great. She has two daughters and they are wonderful."