New Zionists show love for Israel by living on the edge

Like the celebrities who flee Hollywood for saner living elsewhere, Israeli actor Ohad Knoller left “the Tel Aviv culture bubble” and headed to the Negev Desert — but he was acting on his interest in the future of the Jewish state.

Knoller, who stars in the hit TV series “Srugim,” spoke at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills last month about the “new Zionism” — a movement made up of young Israelis like himself who are embracing the role of pioneers and choosing to settle in less developed regions, such as the Negev and the northern Galilee.

Knoller appeared in the Bay Area with Karmit Arbel, a graduate student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who like Knoller is forgoing the conveniences of urban living, recognizing how economic and social contributions to these outlying regions can help to sustain Israel.

“Our grandparents built a house,” said Arbel. “Now we need to make it a home, because otherwise we won’t have it.”

The Bay Area event was sponsored by the American Zionist Movement, the Israel Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Knoller and Arbel met in Dimona. The Negev development town of about 40,000 is where the Israeli government historically settled poor, North African immigrants. Other than being the alleged home to a nuclear reactor, “it’s generally only known for being a toilet stop on the way to Eilat,” joked Arbel.

Different paths led Knoller and Arbel to Dimona. She came as a student to help build a community on the edge of town, near a Bedouin village. Knoller, who starred in the acclaimed Israeli films “Beaufort,” “Yossi & Jagger” and “The Bubble,” arrived there a year ago with his wife, Noa, and their toddler son.

Ohad Knoller (top) and Karmit Arbel came to the Bay Area to talk about their passion for building Israel. photo/renee ghert-zand

When Noa was offered a position as artistic director of the Dimona Culture Lab, a new, experimental theater project, Knoller insisted they move from Tel Aviv. He sees himself and his wife as artistic pioneers. “If no one were to take the first step of moving to Dimona, building something there and showing that it is a great place to live, then no one would ever follow,” he said.

Arbel, who recently got her master’s degree in biology, works in resource development for the Ayalim Association, a grassroots nonprofit that helps to set up student villages in remote towns, blighted inner-city neighborhoods and run-down kibbutzes. The program helps revitalize these neglected communities by renovating buildings and parks and organizing and delivering social and education programming. Although Arbel recently moved from Dimona, she still commutes to her job in the Negev several days a week.

The Israeli government is encouraging contemporary Zionist pioneers

like the Knollers and

Arbel. The Ministry of Education’s support of Ayalim has helped it to grow from 500 to 1,000 students, all of whom undergo a rigorous screening process. Once accepted to the program, participants get their tuition paid in exchange for their building, living and working in the student villages.

The Dimona Culture Lab receives public funding from the Ministry of Culture, the city of Dimona and Mifal HaPayis, a public foundation that distributes lottery revenues to advance culture and sport.

“Zionism means saying, I care about this country, and about making it a better place to live,” said Arbel.

When she arrived in town and discovered there was no movie theater (the nearest was 40 minutes away in Beersheva), she established the Dimona Cinematheque in the local community center.

Knoller has been a mentor to Arbel and also has volunteered at his wife’s theater. He scored a big coup earlier this year when he persuaded the “Srugim” cast and crew to hold the official premiere of the series’ second season at the Dimona Cinematheque.

Knoller is also establishing a Negev film foundation to attract producers and directors to the area to scout possible filming locations and consider Negev-centric scripts.

“There are amazing stories from here, and there is a lot of talent in the area that can be called on,” he said. “Israeli culture should be Israel-oriented, not Tel Aviv–oriented.”

In the audience at Beth Am was Estee Solomon Gray of Los Altos Hills. “One of the things that needs to be changed is the lack of conversation between social entrepreneurs in Israel and those in the Jewish community here,” she said. “There is so much innovation going on, and we need to share and connect more.”

Also attending was Maya BenBarak, who was surprised she’d never heard of Ayalim because she is active in the local young Jewish and Zionist scene. “It’s nice to hear that people are building, and that being a Zionist doesn’t mean you have to be pro- or anti- anything in particular,” she said about the speakers referring to Zionism as a “big tent.”

“It’s inspiring to see young people like me who want to make a change and are not focused on their next trip abroad or dreams for leaving Israel,” added BenBarak, who is 28 and a doctoral student in immunology at Stanford. She said was intrigued to see Arbel, who also studied biology, more interested in the Zionist effort than in furthering her own career.

Knoller, meanwhile, is trying to lead by example. “I’m trying to show my colleagues that to be an artist and a Zionist is a win-win situation,” he said.