On the second day of Easter in 1963, after a long period of preparation, a family from Switzerland set foot on Israeli soil. Their aim was to help cultivate the land and to contribute to the development of the country. But that was not the only reason for the Europeans to come to Israel: together with Christians from The Netherlands, and later also from Germany, they wanted to explore ways to heal the relationship between Jews and Christians after the dark years of the Second World War. And so Israel was given a new name on its chart: Nes Ammim, which means ‘a sign to the nations’ – taken from Isaiah 11:10.
The Nes Ammim bus
The founders of Nes Ammim started with a bus, a gift from Israelis in Nazareth. In that time there was no running water, no electricity, and no outgoing telephone lines – instead, there was a lot of mud that made it nearly impossible to reach Nes Ammim during the rainy season. However, the pioneers managed. The bus was changed into the first room in the village. It was positioned on a small hill, with all around untilled land.
A long road
The road was long and difficult until the pioneers finally gained permission from the State of Israel to build Nes Ammim in 1963. A delegation of Europeans had already come to Israel in November 1960 and joined their Israeli compatriots only to find that their contact person in the Israeli government had been called up for military reserve service and was accordingly unable to help them. Neither David Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister, nor any other government ministers, received them. The members of the delegation thought that the government was not interested in Nes Ammim.
The change in fortunes came at the end of November 1960: Dr. Johan Pilon and Jacob Bernath, two of the founding fathers of Nes Ammim, were sitting in the Jerusalem office of the Ben Dor brothers, who were renowned architects, and they spoke about Nes Ammim. Both of the Ben Dors were thrilled with the idea of Nes Ammim. One of them – a close friend of Minister of Finance Levi Eshkol (who later became Prime Minister) – picked up the phone and organized a meeting with him for Nes Ammim.
A day later, Pilon and Bernath met with Eshkol. Eshkol had already spoken with Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir (who would become the fifth Prime Minister of Israel) about Nes Ammim. They all adopted a positive approach regarding the project. Three Israeli (future) Prime Ministers were now on the side of Nes Ammim.
Acceptance of Nes Ammim
Only one hurdle had been cleared. Fears that ‘the missionaries want to build one of their centers in this village’ were aired by many. Missionizing Jews had never been an aim of Nes Ammim and yet rabbis from all round the country visited the Israeli President Ben-Zvi and demanded the end of Nes Ammim. Missionizing was then, and still is for many, a red rag to Israelis.
Nes Ammim, exemplifying the idea of a Christian village in Israel, caused a wave of outrage. Thousands of people in Nahariya, a town near Nes Ammim, took to the streets in protest against the village. Rabbi Aharon Keller, the Chief Rabbi of the Western Galilee, led the protest. Rabbi Keller proclaimed that Nes Ammim was a concealed mission.
Then, in 1963, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) accepted the Memorandum, in which Nes Ammim once again set down in writing that missionizing would never be its aim. This was the green light for Nes Ammim. Now the challenge could begin!
Seven years after the founding of the village of Nes Ammim, Rabbi Keller visited it for the first time. Since then, he has been observing the village´s activities very closely. A very moving moment occurred on an evening in July 1970. Rabbi Keller made a speech and then discussed with young volunteers. He became reconciled with Nes Ammim and turned into a friend of the village. From that time until his death he gave classes about Judaism for the Nes Ammim study program.
His daughter Zahava Neuberger-Keller followed in her father’s footsteps. She conducted dialogue classes with Jewish Israeli and Arab women in the village and formed part of the dialogue work in Nes Ammim.
Symbol of solidarity
Since 1963, thousands of volunteers have come to Nes Ammim and lived here for periods ranging from a few months to several years. They have worked in cultivating roses, the carpentry, agricultural lands and nowadays the Nes Ammim Hotel is the main source of income. During several wars, the volunteers did not fly home to their families, but remained in the village. This impressed the Israelis in the surroundings. The volunteers also remained in the village during the second Lebanon war in 2006 despite the danger because the village is located 15 kilometers south of the border with Lebanon. They spent the nights in the bomb shelters for four long weeks. Nobody was injured, no Katyusha rocket hit Nes Ammim. Many Israelis thanked the Nes Ammim villagers and volunteers for not leaving them alone during this difficult time, but instead going through the hard days together with them.
To interfaith and intercultural dialogue
Although in the first place, the focus was on Jewish-Christian relations, Nes Ammim became aware of the fact that it wanted to show solidarity with all inhabitants in the area: Jews, Arabs (whether Christian or Muslim) and others. Without taking a political stand, Nes Ammim wants to be a platform for learning and dialogue. Therefore, after the year 2006, the Center of Learning and Dialogue (CLD) was established. With donors – mainly protestant churches – in Europe, the CLD set up a study program for its volunteers, which gives them a balanced image of the country and its complexities. Moreover, the CLD supports local dialogue organizations by offering them the use of the hotel and its facilities through subsidy. Since 2017 two local dialogue coordinators organize dialogue activities for the CLD.