Five years ago, Oren and Zohar Epstein fled the Tel Aviv crowds for a barren, windswept plot of land in the desert.
They couldn’t be happier today.
“The idea of having a big piece of land always attracted us,” Oren Epstein says, sitting on his back porch overlooking the couple’s 100-acre ranch, which teems with horses and vineyards. “You can’t beat it.”
The move also was an opportunity, the couple says, to help tip the demographic scales in the Negev Desert in southern Israel.
The couple is one of about a dozen families receiving government land and funds from the Jewish Agency for Israel to maintain large ranches across Israel’s desert.
The program is part of Israel’s mission to settle Jews in the Negev and the Galilee, the latter in northern Israel, to offset the regions’ growing Arab populations.
“Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” says Michael Jankelowitz, liaison to foreign media for the Jewish Agency for Israel, the chief overseas beneficiary of the North American federation system that is helping Israel finance the plan.
The goal is “a Jewish majority in all parts of Israel,” he says.
The government plan, devised by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is to construct about 30 new settlements over the next several years in the Negev and Galilee, both parts of Israel proper.
The plan is not without its critics, who cite both environmental and political concerns, particularly about how the plan will affect the area’s growing Bedouin population.
The Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that handles immigration and absorption in Israel, has helped finance development in these regions, improving educational and resort facilities and building residential communities.
The Jewish Agency hopes to take it a step further with a special campaign, expanding its funding for development projects.
But the Israeli government will bear the bulk of responsibility for the new communities’ infrastructure, Jankelowitz says.
In leaving his catering business for the agricultural life, Epstein received land from the government and $42,000 from the Jewish Agency — 25 percent in a grant and 75 percent in a loan for things such as sheds and horses.
He must begin repaying the loan after 10 years — but all the money must be returned if the ranch doesn’t survive for a decade.
The gamble appears to be paying off.
Epstein already has a contract to sell his Merlot, Cabernet and Shiraz harvests for the next 10 years to one of Israel’s largest wineries.
Jews who have left Israel’s main population centers for the desert give varying reasons for their move, but most cite the Zionist spirit of pioneering.
“It’s my dream to do something like this,” says Ronni Ben-Chaim, 34, who moved last year to Merhav Am, a new religious community in the Negev.
In addition to giving the “romantic feeling of being settlers,” the move is a “suitable solution to the matsav,” Ben- Chaim says, using the Hebrew word for “situation” that is commonly used to describe the impact of the Palestinian intifada on Israel.
The community of 16 families and some singles is a cluster of mobile homes with a chapel and two kindergartens. The closest grocery is in Beersheba, 30 minutes away.
But the open space is “like heaven” for his children, Ben-Chaim says. He says it was refreshing to be in a place without so much police and security personnel.
Finding work in this remote location is difficult. But Ben-Chaim, who used to work in Tel Aviv and is now unemployed, has faith.
“If you do something good that goes together with the Torah, you will find your way to survive,” he says.
Eli Kar, director of community settlement at Merhav Am, was looking for a remote region in which to live. Fear of terrorist attacks prompted him to settle within the “Green Line” — the boundary that divides Israel proper from the West Bank, captured from Jordan in 1967 — instead of beyond it.
A renewed spirit of pioneering also brought others to Merhav Am, Kar believes.
Each family pays about $225 per month to live in the development, which is subsidized in part by the Jewish Agency.
Beyond housing, the Jewish Agency has helped support many facilities in the Negev to make the region more appealing.
For example, it has helped finance Neve Midbar, a health spa boasting three mineral pools, massage treatments and a backyard-cum-disco that youth take to at night.
Another major agency beneficiary is the Sapir educational complex, which features an academic college, community courses — about 3 percent of the 7,000 students are Bedouin — elderly day care and a sophisticated hydrotherapy center with high-tech water treatments for ailments like lower-back pain.
But the plan to bring more Jews to the region has sparked some controversy.
Establishing new Jewish communities in the Negev will anger the Bedouin Arabs, says Devorah Brous, founder and director of Bustan L’Shalom, an Israeli Arab-Jewish environmental justice group.
“A new form of an intifada will erupt from inside the country at having vast land tracts confiscated against the will of the population,” Brous says.
She also is concerned that such developments further the “social disparity” between the region’s Jews, who live in comfortable communities, and the Bedouin, many of whom live in villages that are not recognized and are poorly serviced by the government, she says.
“It’s not a matter of Bedouin or Jew,” the Jewish Agency spokesman, Yarden Vatikay, says of the development project.
“If you bring more people there and you try to bring the infrastructure and hopefully work,” then “everyone will benefit from it,” he says.
According to the Jewish Agency, all the land is owned by the state, so none of it is being confiscated from private owners.
“What is happening now is that the terms of reference of who has the right to develop what piece of land is being brought to the table,” Jankelowitz says.
Ra’anan Gissin, Sharon’s spokesman, says one of the government’s main projects for the Negev over the next 10 years includes resettling the nomadic Bedouin in authorized settlements, where they “can have decent living conditions.”
But Amer Abuhani, project manager of the Bedouin regional council of unrecognized villages, says they don’t want to move.
The plan was decided without consulting the local Bedouin population, says Abuhani, coordinator of Forum B’yachad, a coalition of more than 30 Jewish and Arab groups that oppose the Negev development plan.
Townships are “not suitable for our tradition. We are more open people who try to live in traditional ways” and in small communities.
Epstein, the new rancher, says that relations with the neighboring Bedouin are fragile.
Tensions rose three years ago with the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada.
“This house of cards can fall at any minute,” he says.