Ariel’s Mermaid Breeding Ground

A visit to the pool in the West Bank settlement’s country club − financed by U.S. Jews and spearheaded by Mayor Ron Nachman − reveals a small-scale, watery melting pot.

In its vision, its wide open spaces and its public buildings, the city of Ariel embodies the ultimate yearnings of bourgeois families with three children, who are preoccupied with the question of who will drive the kids to after-school activities. This is mainstream Israel − in the West Bank. Ariel is home, for example, to a settler who may have a barbecue on Shabbat afternoon and attend a play that evening − the antithesis of his fellow Hardal ‏(ultra-Orthodox nationalist‏) resident, who did his army service studying in a local hesder yeshiva. Ariel, home to 18,000 residents, is proud to have public facilities that one cannot find in the settlements of Karnei Shomron, Eli and Shiloh. First of all, there is the Ariel University Center of Samaria, which exactly a year from now will officially become a recognized university, and the Ariel cultural center, which was the focus of an artists’ boycott when it opened last autumn. Then there is the country club − a spacious 2,400-square-meter complex, equipped with the latest sports-related innovations, in a three-story building that also serves as a community center.

The country club, built three years ago, is open only to Ariel residents who pay a membership fee. It features a 400-square-meter fitness room and a semi-Olympic swimming pool with a sliding roof, under which is a filtering system that cleans the water every four hours. Next to the pool is a branch of the Cafe Cafe chain, where expensive coffee is sold just like in upscale Kikar Hamedina in Tel Aviv; there’s a large playroom for children and lawns for sunbathing, and a kiosk that sells ice-cream pops and so on.

pool and fitness
Alex Levac

The complex is surrounded by one-story homes, situated at the foot of a mountain chain.

On the other side of the hills, far from the eye, are Palestinian villages.

Ariel’s pool would not have been built without Mayor Ron Nachman. He managed to raise NIS 40 million for construction of the country-club complex from American Jews.

Everything has a plaque: The entire structure is dedicated to Lowell Milken of Los Angeles, the pool to the Berman family, the entrance to the pool was built thanks to the generosity of Miriam and Herman Tauber, and the reception area is dedicated to Leah Hebert.

“It’s all because of Yasser Arafat,” says Nachman. “The road to Ariel used to pass right through Arab villages. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 2000, they threw stones at 70 cars, injuring 140 people. I arrived at the emergency clinic and there were no intravenous bags for the wounded. At that moment I decided to do two things. One, to pave a new road to Ariel, and the second, to open a center for the residents. While [Palestinians] were firing on houses from Salfit, and helicopters were firing back, I wanted them to have something to do other than just watching television.”

Nachman’s model was the community centers in the United States, which combine sports and other activities for the entire family.

“I started to raise money,” he explains. “The government didn’t give us a single shekel, neither from the Toto [sports gambling council] nor the Lotto [national lottery]. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came here in July 2005 and promised me NIS 2 million, but the justice minister didn’t approve the transfer. Without donations, I wouldn’t have been able to build the place. Who would have given me a loan to build something like this?”

Nachman gave the franchise for operating the country club to an external company that he says is obligated to charge low prices. A combined membership to the pool and fitness room costs NIS 265 per person per month, and NIS 190 for an additional family member; for children the fee is NIS 103 per month. For a family with three children, the monthly payment would be NIS 764, including entrance on weekends and enrichment activities in the afternoons. Babies enter for free, and can also use the Gymboree play and music center. So far the limit of 4,000 members has been reached, and there is a long waiting list.

Because of the demand, the place is closed to residents from neighboring settlements. In effect, the country club has replaced the old municipal swimming pool, built by the Housing Ministry in the 1980s, although that is still in operation too in the summer, and entry there is far cheaper than that at the country club.

Nachman dismisses the claim that there are two classes of citizen in Ariel: those who can afford membership in the country club and those who can’t. But, he adds, “We aren’t socialists.”

‘Russian culture’

A visit to the pool shows that it serves as a small-scale melting pot, which encourages the integration of immigrants from the Commonwealth of Independent States into local society.

While the immigrants constitute a minority of the city’s population, at the pool they have a clear numerical advantage. Indeed, Russian is the dominant language there.

“They’re crazy about water,” explains one local resident. “Entire families come and sit in it all day long.” An older woman who doesn’t speak a word of Hebrew passes by with a walker, apparently going to grab some sun. Roman Kuman, 11, has already been in the water for three hours. When he gets tired of it, he says, he’ll go to the inflatables. Summer vacation.

Dr. Boris Birantakdi, an ophthalmologist in Ariel, swims every afternoon. “It’s part of Russian culture,” he says.

David Amira, who has been running such facilities for 22 years, is in charge of operations here. For 18 years he was director of the country club in the settlement of Kadima, until he was offered the job at Ariel. He gets up at 5 A.M. to take water samples and welcome the first swimmers − and then goes back home to sleep. At 11 P.M. he’s the last one there, making sure that the cleaners have done their job properly.

Amira roams around the lower levels of the building in which the pool is located, explaining the drainage mechanism, the water-purification and heating and cooling systems. The pool is built on a 80-centimeter-thick concrete base, uncer which are a series of concrete pillars three meters apart. In the winter he heats the water to 28 degrees centigrade. No more and no less.

Amira claims to know all the pool members personally. When an employee complained about a child’s behavior, Amira removed the child from the pool and quickly informed the mayor. The mayor backed him up. He knows the child from the local school. The child got dressed and left.

Every tomorrow is another day at the country club in Ariel, the most normal settlement, 500 meters from Salfit.