Move to Israel's Arava Desert, Just Sort Out Your Income First

Incentives for moving to the dry south seem to be mainly spiritual but agriculture is dead, so you better make sure you have some way to make a living.

Eyal Toueg

Buying 60 hectares of arable land plus three acres of land to build a house at Moshav Idan cost Nir and Doris Shir 180,000 shekels ($46,000). There probably aren’t many other areas in Israel where you can buy that amount of property for that low a price. But the moshav is in the central Arava, about as far from the center of the country as you can get.

Moreover, they’re coming to the Arava from the bastion of capitalism, the U.S., where they had been selling Dead Sea cosmetics and hygiene products at malls in Colorado. They were good at it. Yet after spending seven years to get green cards, and even though she went to a Jewish preschool, they wanted their daughter Ella to grow up in Israel. 

“At some point you say stop the horses, money isn’t everything. We had been running after money until this point but now we want to seek peace of mind,” Doris says. So they started to consider what they might do in Israel.

Why the Arava desert? “We lived some months with my parents in Caesarea,” says Nir. “I grew up in the Arava, but left it at age 16 with my parents.” 

Still, his childhood memories were dear and they decided to try it, and see how Doris would make out.

It was not love at first sight, she admits. “Originally I felt it was a great place to relax, meet people, but not to live. The first year here was really rough. Terrible. It wasn’t like anything I had ever known before. There aren’t a lot of options.”

It’s isolated, she elaborates – an hour and a half from Eilat and an hour and a quarter from Be’er Sheva. There aren’t a lot of stimuli. Forget dropping by a neighborhood pub, and there aren’t any grocery stores. “We were used to going to the grocery three times a day. Here there’s one supermarket and it’s a drive away. So the gap between my satisfaction and Nir’s was enormous. Nir was happy here. Ella was happy here. What kept us here was that during our biggest fights, Nir would say, ‘Give me an alternative.’”

Regarding housing prices, there definitely is no alternative, if one wants a one-family house. That’s the main selling point for Eyal Blum, head of the Arava Regional Council, when trying to attract people to the area. 

With just 3,500 residents, the Arava has all the space in the world to build a house, he says. But there was no thought about preparing for the future: Out of 150 farmsteads, 80 belong to the generation of the nation’s founders and no land has been allocated for new residents.

So, in 2005, just over 5% of the Arava’s residents were over 60 years old; in 2013 that figure passed 12%. The number of residents under 19 years old dropped 2% in that time. 

The Arava Regional Council would like to change that situation: Blum hopes 300 lots will be ready to sell next year, in Sapir, Ein Yahav and other towns. The land should cost between 100,000 and 200,000 shekels per dunam (quarter-acre), including development (meaning infrastructure); at Sapir, a developed half-dunam with infrastructure costs 80,000.

Snag: Making a living

Veteran Arava residents smile bitterly in light of these expansion plans and the plan to attract new residents – because it’s happening at a terrible time for the region, in economic terms. We climb the abandoned watchtower on the border of the Moshav Hatzeva and can see the problem with our very eyes: The fields lie fallow and the greenhouses are empty. 

“These fields belong to a resident who fled north. He left the area as it is because of debts. Agriculture has been dying here for four years. It’s at its worst point,” says one of the residents.

Agriculture is the main industry of the Arava and residents can’t recall a time it’s been this bad, because of the financial crisis in Russia – a key export market for Arava crops; competition from agriculture in Spain; and over-reliance on growing peppers, which were hit very hard. 

Not only farmers were hit. Workers in tangential areas – sellers and maintainers of farm equipment, plant nurseries, fertilizer sellers, manufacturers of cardboard packing boxes, pest inspectors, transportation companies for the agricultural produce – all are crying. The haulage company Transit recently collapsed under a pile of debt. 

“Even if your job is installing air conditioners, you feel it because people are spending less,” observes a resident. 

Eyal Toueg

Meanwhile, there are few people to man what jobs there are, and no land for homes available for any who come – and Blum has no solutions. 

“A region can’t rely on agriculture for employment, which is a chicken or egg situation,” he says. “An entrepreneur who comes here to set up a factory can’t even hire 10 people. Thirty people come in from Dimona to work at the municipal council building in Sapir. Just 800 families live in the Arava and even if you double that number, that’s still nothing. 

“A food additives factory, Amorphical, is in the process of being set up in the Sapir industrial zone and it needs 100 workers. It’s not simple to find them. We need to double the number of lots for homes we sell here. Right now, even if you want to live here, you won’t find a lot to buy.”

The government does have a 100-million shekel plan to support pepper farmers, Blum adds.

It bears noting that the low land costs aside, living in the Arava costs about the same as anywhere else in Israel – a lot. People expecting to economize by moving there are in for a surprise. Just fuel costs need to be considered, since even going to the grocery involves a drive, and visiting the center of Israel is a three-hour journey. Some families run gasoline bills of 5,000 to 6,000 shekels a month, especially if one member works, say, in Be’er Sheva; and there’s the air-conditioning bill, especially in the burning-hot summer. Electricity can run a family 2,000 shekels a month. 

And on top of the usual municipal tax (arnona), where applicable, moshav residents have to pay a moshav tax; the municipal and moshav taxes can run 1,600 shekels a month per family.

At better times, a farming family in the Arava could net hundreds of thousands of shekels a year, so spending 20,000 a month was affordable. When the agricultural model collapsed, supporting that lifestyle became a problem. 

“What salaried jobs are there around here that pay that much?” one resident asks rhetorically. “What jobs are there for women? All you can do is sign up for unemployment in Dimona. You could say people here could work in telemarketing, but I’m not sure these are the right people for that. A lot of sons who were expected to come back to live here [after army and studies] didn’t. The state doesn’t understand that it’s hopeless.”

While the veterans may have difficulty changing their mindset from an agricultural lifestyle, newcomers should consider that moving to the Arava will require creativity in employment solutions. Filmmaker Eyal Shiray, who among other things directed the movie Birds in Neutral (1996) and produced the film Campfire (2004), has lived in the Arava town Tzukim for the last eight years with his partner, former actress Ravit Rozen and their children. 

“I’m originally from Hod Hasharon and spent my whole life in Tel Aviv,” he says. 

What does he do in the Arava? “I produce movies. When you’re in the center and produce movies, you have to set up a whole system around you: office, secretary, accountant. To sustain that system and the family, you have to bring in projects constantly, and when you read a script you don’t ask yourself if you like it or not, but whether it would make money. I found myself at premiers looking at the result, asking myself what I had to do with it, and chasing my tail just to survive. It was a far cry from the idea for which I got into this field. Raising the kids in the center is the same routine of ‘Dad, drive me, pick me up,’ and we didn’t like the constant racing,” says Shiray. 

“We wanted a sane place to live, a place we could move to and change things, and we felt something powerful here, the freedom of real life without excessive consumption. We bought a house here and for a whole year, only came every second weekend. After a year we decided to move here and since then we’ve flourished – economically too.”

Right after moving in he began producing a movie festival in Haifa. “With talent and a phone you can do everything,” Shiray says. “I hired an office with a production coordinator for the two months of the festival. Then I was offered the production of the Open Day here – the biggest agricultural exhibition of the Arava.”

You say you fled the compromises, but today you’re producing a commercial event.

“The Open Day is a carnival of agricultural from all over the country,” Shiray answers. “It’s a cultural event, the party of the region, and it’s become part of my livelihood. I also produced the movies Doctor Pomerantz and Sharqiya. Three years ago we produced the Arava movie festival, at Tzukim.” 

The whole area is run by three guys, he adds. “When you bring an idea, it can be moved fast.

Yes, people who move to the Arava are giving up career goals, the race to be rich and famous. I took winning the Oscar off my list of goals. I want to live life pleasantly and raise the children. If you shake off the mindset of the center and are willing to work hard, there’s plenty of work here. It’s a perfect place for entrepreneurs.” 

A lot of people want to move to the area for the peace of mind, he says: If a new town went up, it would fill up in 10 minutes.

He doesn’t agree that life can’t be cheaper. “I built a house here on a dunam lot for 700,000-800,000 shekels. With a million shekels you could build a castle. It’s true that travel costs are high, but I switched to a car that drives on natural gas, and the cost was halved. Even if things are expensive here, it doesn’t come with the consumer culture of the center. I don’t walk around with my wallet in my pocket, I don’t have to suddenly pay for parking or something. There’s no concept of dropping by the toy store with the children.”

Shiray has touched on a point: Moving to the Arava involves more than economic choices. It has spiritual and ideological elements.

Netanel Ellinson, 31, came to Sapir a year ago from Kadima, a moshav in the Sharon. We talk while his three small children try to catch fish. Ellinson, who wears a kippa, heads a pre-army preparatory program at Hatzeva; his wife runs the Sapir kindergartens. 

“We came as seven families and all found a living. We have a great community here,” he says.

They all wear kippot, he confirms. What do they work in? “Teaching, educational project coordination. An agricultural boarding school is being set up in Hatzeva,” he says and lists other projects in the region. “I believe the big challenge for the Arava is to create as many non-agricultural jobs as possible.”

Some think the best hope of the Arava for new blood will come from the religious community. 

“They come here because of Zionism,” says a local resident. “Ultimately what you’re getting when you buy here is stony ground and a caravan.”