Ofir Fisher and Roni Flamer, who founded the OR Movement 15 years ago, are two of the four childhood friends who vowed, while still in high school, to devote their lives to doing something for Israel. At first, they werent sure exactly what that would entail, but after they both completed their army service in elite units, they started to search for a mission. It didnt take them long to realize that 75% of Israels land was sparsely inhabited, while the vast majority of the population was crowded in the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem regions, and that this fact was creating a huge problem for Israel.
We decided to focus on the Negev and the Galilee for two reasons, recalls Ofir Fisher, ORs Executive VP and Co-Founder. The first is that these regions are part of the consensus and arent political. Its an opportunity to create a new Zionism in Israel. The second reason is pragmatic: by helping people settle in these areas, we are providing solutions to real problems, such as a shortage of affordable housing and coping with the high cost of living in Central Israel.
Shortly after reaching this decision, the four were introduced to then-Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon — who was himself a long-time resident of the Negev. Sharon decided to adopt the group and helped them found the Negevs first new town in over 15 years. Sansana was founded on Israels Independence Day in 1999, Fisher notes proudly. At first there were just five caravans with a generator. Today, over 1,000 people live there. Sansana taught us how to build a new community, how to understand the needs of families with children. Indeed, Ofir and Roni were barely 23 years old at the time, and found themselves devising solutions to all sorts of problems.
40,000 new residents
People interested in moving to the Negev started approaching the four friends and the movement was officially founded in 2002 to provide a more structured platform for their operations.
They started to plan more new communities, but at the same time gave a great deal of thought to the bigger picture. We started to think about where Israel is heading in the future, explains Roni Flamer, ORs CEO and Co-Founder. In 2005, we devised our first strategic plan. We realized that we have to be innovative and that it isnt enough just to build new communities. We must also breathe new life into existing rural communities and development towns, he continues. As a result, ORs strategic plan called for the establishment of ten new towns in the Negev and Galilee, as well as significantly expanding the populations of 60 rural communities and ten development towns.
Roni and Ofir did not and still dont intend to do all this alone. Throughout their 15 years of innovative and hard work, they created strategic partnerships with hundreds of government officials of all levels, municipalities, Jewish Federations around the US, family foundations, KKL-JNF and many individuals from all over the world who believe in their vision for Israel.
OR is well on the way to meeting these ambitious goals. So far, the movement has founded nine new towns: Sansana, Carmit, Beer Milka, Eliav, Givot Bar, Merchav Am, Chiran and Shizaf in the south, and Mitzpe Ilan in the north. It is also responsible for settling thousands of new residents and infusing hope in 56 underpopulated rural communities, including development towns.
We built a leadership model with the existing communities to absorb new people who belong to seed groups and adapt existing facilities to meet their needs. Its a communal process, Roni elaborates. In the past 15 years, we have assisted 40,000 people in moving to the Negev and Galilee, among them 32 seed groups and many individual families, and there are currently 40,000 more families (160,000 people) who are in the process of finding their future homes and have shown interest, he continues.
The OR Movement operates an Information Center for anyone who is interested in relocation. Their consultants speak three languages and guide people through every step of the way: choosing their destination, finding schooling and housing, making the final decision, and settling into their new surroundings.
Each community is treated with fresh eyes and an action plan that looks at three factors: which type of people will thrive in this community, how can the existing residents be encouraged to welcome and absorb new members, and which infrastructure must be provided for the new residents to successfully be absorbed. Most importantly, the newcomers need adequate homes. Often, communities stopped growing too early and have too few homes, or they have many abandoned houses which need to be renovated. Some communities havent had young children in decades, and need preschools. Often the regional schools arent equipped for growth at all, and when communities lack vital community infrastructure, these need to be built.
Impending demographic crisis
While much of ORs efforts are devoted to the practical aspects of helping thousands of people settle in the Negev and Galilee, Roni, Ofir and their colleagues are deeply concerned about the larger picture. According to Israels Central Bureau of Statistics, Israels population is going to double by 2048, the countrys centennial year, to 16 million. The Negev is expected to grow to 1.6 million and the Galilee to 2.4 million residents, most of whom will be on the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum. If strategic decisions arent taken at a national level to ensure a major shift in Israels demographic distribution, the result will be no less than catastrophic, ORs founders insist. If the same conditions persist in the future, three-quarters of the residents of the Galilee and Negev will live below the poverty line. This means that 75% of Israel will resemble the Third World, warns Roni.
ORs vision is that by 2048 there will be strong populations of at least three million people in both the Galilee and the Negev who wont be dependent on the Center of the country for jobs and basic services. The solution is to build two more mega-metropolitan areas in Haifa and Beer Sheva, as well as additional economic clusters in the Galilee.
By 2048, Israel must consist of three self-sustaining and independent economic centers – one in Tel Aviv/Jerusalem, another in the Galilee and a third in the Negev, asserts Roni. Otherwise, the State of Tel Aviv will be an ivory tower for the very wealthy, but the Galilee and Negev wont be plausible alternatives because of the lack of a suitable economic infrastructure. The result will be that people will simply escape from the country.
ORs leaders believe that this somewhat apocalyptic scenario can be avoided if proper plans are made and implemented today. We know that the population will continue to grow rapidly, so why wait if we can plan today? asks Ofir. Israel needs to change its strategic plan. OR wont solve these problems on its own, but it can be a catalyst.
In-depth studies carried out by OR indicate that three million people can sustain an independent economy and be a magnet for a stronger population, which is why the OR Movement has set a goal of reaching at least three million people in the Negev and three million in the Galilee by 2048. In order to achieve this goal, several steps must be taken in the next five years, such as planning for one million more jobs and 700,000 more homes in these regions, and planning them correctly so that they will attract a strong population, stresses Ofir.
ORs vision is based on years of experience on the ground, witnessing so many positive developments and significant government decisions. We looked for the vision that could tie together all of this activity and direct it towards much more significant goals than bringing 20 families to this community or 15 people to that one. Once we started to dive into the numbers and understand the demographic problems ramifications for Israel, we devised our vision for 2048, says Roni.
Addressing the challenges
We are working on three fronts, explains Ofir. The first is advocacy; we work closely with the Government and 11 different Ministries to urge them to invest heavily in the Galilee and Negev and make suitable policy decisions. The second is hasbara both in Israel and among the Jewish Diaspora. Everyone should be aware of the demographic situation here, and solving it should be high on their agenda. The third is to continue working in the field, bringing as many people as possible to new and existing communities.
OR is developing new tools to address these challenges. Impact investing is one such tool; the Movement is looking for social entrepreneurs and other partners interested in strengthening the Negev and Galilee through investments that are both profitable and beneficial to the community. The goal is to create living environments that will attract educated professionals to relocate to previously floundering communities and development towns. In order to move to such places, they need job opportunities as well as decent transportation, schools and cultural offerings.
In recent years, many people who work in high-tech, finance and other white-collar professions have relocated to ORs communities in the Negev and Galilee. The problem is not the demand but the supply. Not enough is being done on the ground to encourage these people to move and, in particular, there isnt enough suitable housing available. OR is currently helping 700 families settle in a new neighborhood being built in Ofakim, a development town in the northwest Negev – among other initiatives.
Ilan Cohen, Chairman of ORs Board of Directors and a former Director General of the Prime Ministers Office, adds that, The OR Movement succeeds in combining a long-term vision of facts on the ground with extensive work in cooperation with all the government offices, thereby creating the most significant changes in the Negev and Galilee.
We have a proven track record, concludes Ofir. Were not a think tank. We understand the urgency of the situation based on 15 years of hard work and intensive involvement on the ground. Our dream is that Israel will take the suitable steps today so that in 2048, Israels 16 million citizens will celebrate the countrys 100th birthday in comfort, prosperity and peace.
The Greenberg Traurig law firm of Chicago is assisting the OR Movement create impact investment tools that will help fulfill their vision for 2048. The firm has more than 2000 attorneys in 38 offices worldwide and in 2016 was among the top 20 law firms in The American Lawyers Global 100 ranking.
For more information about settling in the Negev and Galilee or becoming a partner: ormovement.org.
The Gateway to the Negev Visitors Center
The OR Movements newly opened state-of-the-art Visitors Center in Beer Shevas historic Old City invites you to learn about all the exciting opportunities available in Israels southern region. The center aims to improve the Negevs image by removing misconceptions and stereotypes, and by showcasing the rich history of the Negevs population throughout history, thereby inspiring visitors to appreciate the spirit of the Negev.
The Visitors Center offers interactive tours of the center itself, as well as tours of the Negev led by the Centers guides, during which visitors meet local residents and visit different types of communities, such as high-tech companies, kibbutzim, new communities, Bedouin communities, and more. For more information: www.negevisit.org.il.