‘Nobody has written the next chapter in the State of Israel,” Roni Flamer, co-founder and CEO of the OR Movement, recently told The Jerusalem Post.
He made these remarks ahead of Israel’s 70th Independence Day, looking to the past for inspiration and outlining his vision for the future – Israel in 2048.
“The State of Israel is a very rich country, one of the strongest economies in the world, has a great GDP, but on the other hand, the majority of the population is not in good shape – the country is succeeding, but its people are not,” Flamer said.
“Two years ago we decided to look 30 years into the future of the State of Israel,” Flamer explained. “We were sure that someone had a plan for the next 30 years, and when we asked people in the government, we understood that there is no plan for the future.”
As such, the OR Movement decided to develop an ambitious plan for the next three decades which would see Israel’s periphery expand and grow to match the Center.
“In 30 years there are going to be 17 million people living in Israel,” Flamer said. “They will not be able to all live in the Center; it is simply unsustainable.”
“How can nobody look ahead and not take advantage and realize that if we don’t do something now, Israel will become a third-world country?” he added.
As such, Israel 2048 aims to see a reality in which Israel’s population is spread out with some nine million people living in the Center and in Jerusalem, 3.5 million people living in the Negev, and 4.5 million people living in the Galilee.
The idea behind the vision is that Israel would become a country with three major centers – like Boston, New York City and Washington, DC, in the United States – three distinct major cities with different characteristics, all centers in their own right.
“We feel that we are writing the new Zionism, one that needs to care for the poor and the ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis and that is inclusive to lots of different people,” he said.
THE OR Movement has been a longtime dream for Flamer and a group of his childhood friends, three of whom studied together in the same school.
“The idea came when we flew to Poland in high school to see the concentration camps, Flamer said. “When we came back, the thought was that we need light in the face of all the darkness that we saw.”
After graduating from high school and serving in the army, all the while harboring this idea, the group of friends decided to do half a year of trekking around in Israel to talk with and interact with people all around the country.
“After the army we found a text that [David] Ben-Gurion wrote to Amos Oz in 1954 in which he said that if 1,000 youth will stand up and do good and take on extra responsibility above what the state requires of them, ‘the light will banish the darkness,’” Flamer said, adding that this has become the organization’s guiding principle and the origin of its name.
“We realized that the Negev and the Galilee comprise 75% of the country, and if we can develop a new narrative about these areas, then this can be a new opportunity for the youth,” he said.
Flamer and his co-founder, Ofir Fisher, executive vice president of the organization, decided to put their all into their idea and set the example for other people to follow.
As such, in 1999, when he was just 22 years old, Flamer left the Center and moved to the Negev, in an effort to found a new settlement – Sansana.
“Somehow, we built this settlement as a model, and today there are around 950 people living there,” Flamer said.
After the success of Sansana, the two decided to establish another settlement – Merhav Am – in 2000.
“We never really thought about it, we just jumped into the water, without really knowing anything,” he said. “Every year we built another settlement – we were living in a dream; we didn’t understand the reality.”
In their early years, Flamer and Fisher encountered numerous difficulties along the way.
“This is not a simple task. What does it mean to build a new settlement? You have to build streets, to bring people,” Flamer said.
“The difficulties are that you are taking on the responsibility of bringing people to come and live in a new place.”
As such, the two also decided to try another approach – namely, to expand the existing development towns – but were met with resistance.
“We tried to go into existing moshavim and development towns, but nobody would let us in,” Flamer said. “Nobody understood why, when everybody just wants to leave the development towns, two young guys want to come in.”
After three years of living in the Negev trying to pave a path for others, Flamer and Fisher understood that their youthful idea had become a lifelong mission, and they officially established the OR Movement in 2002.
Since that time, the organization has established eight settlements in the periphery, strengthened existing kibbutzim, and helped some 60 towns to expand and grow.
“There were kibbutzim that in the past 30 years no new families had come, no new children were born – and we have helped them to grow,” Flamer said.
While these are incredible accomplishments, Flamer recognizes the fact that there is still a long way to go to realize the vision.
In 2005, the OR Movement was involved in the Tochnit Darom, Plan for the South, a NIS 50 billion government plan to bring 600,000 people to the Negev and the Galilee.
“We said: ‘Wow, our dream has come true,’” Flamer said. “But after two years we realized that the fact that the state made this decision is nice, but the implementation is extremely difficult.”
TODAY, FLAMER is much more seasoned and realistic when it comes to expanding the Negev, though he still maintains his youthful optimism.
“Today we are working very closely with government ministries to expand the Negev,” Flamer said. “We have helped the state invest NIS 4b. so far.”
In fact, one of the projects the organization is involved with is the establishment of a Disneyland-like theme park on the outskirts of Dimona.
In 2010, Flamer said, the organization understood that establishing settlements would not be enough to develop the Negev.
“We left Sansana and went to live in Yeroham [a development town]. You can’t ask people to move here without living here yourself,” he said.
“The future of the South is through the existing development towns,” he said.
Flamer explained that the first wave of “pioneers” needs to resettle in the development towns in order to bring new ideas to the periphery.
“If we can bring 110,000 new people, they will bring new ideas, and there will be a snowball effect, so that in 30 years there may be three million people living in the South,” he said.
Flamer said that while his organization is pursuing this vision, ultimately it needs the support and backing of the government in order to succeed.
“We have learned that the government really wants this to succeed,” he said. “The government can have a historic role – it has the opportunity to think in advance, to build and develop and expand the country in advance.”
Flamer added that he also believes the Israeli public understands the need to expand and strengthen the periphery, and as such he hopes the OR Movement will become a nationwide movement.
“We are doing what nobody has done before us,” he said. “We feel that the last 15 years have just been training for the next 15 years, and we will not rest until we see this vision fulfilled.”