“Settlement” versus “Ariel”


There is a range of strong opinions when it comes to Jewish community development east of the Green Line. Many around the world refer to these Israeli communities as “settlements.” But, to Avi Zimmerman of the Ariel Foundation and many Israelis, Ariel is something else.

Zimmerman was born and raised in West Orange, N.J. He made aliyah in 1995 and served in the Israel Defence Forces. After earning a degree in occupational therapy at the Hebrew University and then working in the field for four years, he and his wife decided to move to Ariel. There, Zimmerman started up an aliyah program.

“I was then asked to run the Ariel Foundation, which is what I’ve been doing for the last eight years or so,” Zimmerman told the Independent. “The foundation is not only for raising funds for city projects, it also provides accurate information about the city of Ariel to an international public.”

Ariel will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2018. Established on Aug. 17, 1978, with 40 families, it is now a city of close to 20,000 residents, plus an additional 15,000 students studying at Ariel University.

Geographically, Ariel is east of Tel Aviv, past the Green Line. Given what he – and others – see as misinformation being spread about Jewish communities east of the Green Line, Zimmerman decided to share stories from the people actually living in the area and how local people feel about various issues.

To do this, Zimmerman copied a format that has worked very well for TED Talks on YouTube, and created Talk17.

“Our lives are not lived through a conflict lens, fortunately, nor are those of our Palestinian neighbours,” he explained. “Those elements possibly do exist. It’s not that they don’t exist. But, they are not the primary theme of the way life is lived here.

“If people are interested in what goes on here, I think it’s only fair to the international community to provide more accurate information – not in terms of stats or facts, although that’s part of it … [but] beyond that, in terms of the voices from the region.

“The concept is, instead of talking about us in a well-intentioned yet disenfranchising way, just listen to us and hear what we have to say.”

Zimmerman chose the TED Talk format because it is not confrontational, as are debates and as can be panel discussions. The format allows a presenter to tell their whole story without interruption.

“We want to give authentic voices an opportunity and a fair platform, so there’s no debate, no winners and losers, no questions and answers,” he explained. “There’s no objective right or wrong to that. It’s authentic…. I think, ultimately, people are interested in the breadth and depth of the story.

“There are a lot of people who like to live in what they are calling echo chambers … in a world where everybody says what they like to hear, and they de-friend you if you say something else. A lot of the world is just moving in that direction. But they are not our target audience. If you already know everything, we can’t convince you otherwise. You’re going to turn off the video when you hear something you don’t like and that will be the end of it. My target audience is authentic people. They actually care and are willing to listen to new ideas they’re not familiar with.”

While an 18-minute video is hard for some people to get through, Zimmerman has been finding that, organically, Talk17 has been successful by having speakers who are on the frontlines of change-making. He gave as an example an exchange he’d had just before his interview with the Jewish Independent – an artist had happened upon Talk17’s Facebook page and was very excited about the concept. The artist runs an organization that uses the arts as a form of intercultural dialogue and they and Zimmerman are now working on plans for an arts-themed program, including an exhibition, at the end of April.

“It was just a preliminary conversation today,” said Zimmerman. “But, the thing is, these are the kinds of people who can help us open new doors.”

Since starting Talk17, 90% of the views, as it happens, have been from Arab-speaking, self-identified Palestinians, said Zimmerman. “We’re reaching across the aisle,” he said. “There’s something very real to this.”

While Palestinians, Israelis and Canadians are open to listening to talks in languages other than English, Zimmerman has found that Americans are less willing to do so. Because of this, he has decided to stick with English for Talk17.

“We automatically limit ourselves to English-speakers,” he said. “They don’t have to be native English-speakers. We try to get a fair balance of Arab and Palestinian voices among the Jewish and Israeli voices. We try to get a fair balance of women and men.

“We try to find people that have a unique story … so, it’s not just a personal story, but there’s a new concept to it. If you follow the first videos we’ve been launching, you’ll see each story is very different. We’re also trying to work on themes, events with themes.”

He said an upcoming theme will be diplomatic options for the future. “For 50 years,” he said, “we’ve heard about the two-state solution, we’ve heard about it since the 1947 Partition Plan. But, the point is, it’s not going anywhere. So, people are saying that, if not that, then what? So, we want to examine that.”

Zimmerman hopes that, by the end of the process, he will have been able to create a video archive that people can access to deepen and broaden the conversation about the region, so they can realize there is more to the story than they thought from just reading a short article or hearing a news clip.

Zimmerman also hopes that, in the future, visitors to Israel will be more willing to venture out of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and will come visit Ariel to experience firsthand the beauty of the region and its people.

“We all need to remember that, regardless of the terms of the deal that one day will hopefully be reached between Israel and the Palestinians, and regardless of where the lines will be drawn, Jews and Arabs will be neighbours forever,” said Zimmerman. “With that in mind, we need to figure out how to work with them directly, and we’d appreciate it if the world would allow us to do so, by appreciating the dynamics between us … by having this window into our interactions.

“However, the objective of Talk17 is not for me to have a better relationship with my Palestinian neighbour. That’s an added value … something we do anyway. We don’t need Talk17 for me to meet with my friend on Wednesday. We need Talk17 for the relationship between the Israelis and the international community, and the Palestinians and the international community.”


Originally printed in the Canadian newspaper the Jewish Independent. View the online article here.