Johan Pilon
Founder of Nes Ammim

(extracted from a longer article published in the Internet version
of the Jerusalem Post for Tuesday, February 6 2001)

The name Nes Ammim, which means "Sign of the Nations," is taken from Isaiah 11:10. The idea originated with Johan Pilon, a Dutch physician who fought in the Dutch underground during World War II. He came to Israel to work in the 1950s, believing that after the Holocaust Christians should show solidarity with the newly founded state of Israel, and be, as it were, "post-Holocaust Christian witneses." 

"Pilon felt that Christians should adopt a new approach towards Jews," explains Grefen. "Not as it was for 2,000 years of church history, in which Christians tried to  convert Jews. Christians should accept different traditions. The idea was to bring Christians from Western countries to live here so they would encounter living Judaism. They would learn about Judaism, the Holocaust, history, and Jewish-Christian relations, and  return to Europe after some time with these experiences."

A basic foundation of Pilon's concept was that Nes Ammim would not proselytize; there would be no theoretical or practical missionary work aimed at Jews. 

Pilon and his colleagues contacted people in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and the US, looking for donors and volunteers. But the major churches were not enthusiastic, says Grefen. 

"They agreed that it was time to start a new sort of relationship with the Jewish people, but they were not ready to refrain from missionary work. Today it's different. I would say that most of the big churches support the idea of Nes Ammim in general, and only small church groups continue to follow the path of evangelizing towards the Jews. But at the time, the major churches said they wouldn't donate money if there was no mission." 

Relying on private donors, Nes Ammim purchased 2,500 dunams of unused land near Nahariya from a Druse sheikh from the village of Abu Sinan. The sheikh was eventually hounded out of the country by his Arab and Druse neighbors, who were enraged that he had sold the land to outsiders. 

The Jews were also upset. In Israel of the early 1960s, the idea of European Christians - especially Germans - founding a settlement was met with a great deal of  resistance. Many of the Jews in the Nahariya area were from Germany. Nes Ammim's immediate neighbor is Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta'ot, founded by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Nahariya rabbi Aharon Keller  mounted an angry protest campaign against the settlement, handing out leaflets written in, of all things, German. Keller later became friendly with members of the community, and his picture appears in the settlement's museum. 

Nes Ammim did have strong backers in the government, including prime minister David Ben-Gurion. The movement presented a memorandum, in which it agreed to help the state by bringing in technical know-how and refraining from missionary work. The government agreed to support the settlement on condition that its neighbors accept it. They did - on condition there were no Germans. 

That ban on Germans was eventually broken with the intervention of the late Mapam MK Chaike Grossman,   who lived on nearby Kibbutz Evron. Grossman, who had been a fighter in the Bialystok Ghetto uprising, had worked for a German painter named Otto Busse, who helped the Jewish partisans by bringing food into the forest and even smuggling weapons into the ghetto.  Grossman proposed to Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta'ot that  Busse be located and brought to Nes Ammim to live. 

"They managed to find him, and it was like a miracle," relates Gefen. "It was his dream to spend the final years of his life here, together with his wife." 

A two-story house was built for Busse, who eventually returned to Germany. After that, German volunteers were allowed to come to the settlement. 

WITH its green, landscaped grounds, communal dining hall, bungalows, and volunteer barracks, Nes Ammim resembles a kibbutz - which is how it is run. Members consider themselves volunteers. In exchange for work, they receive housing, food, and pocket money. Only the 20 or so employees from outside the settlement are paid salaries. But unlike kibbutz members, some Nes Ammim residents have private property, even cars, if they can afford it. 

Duties - guard duty at the gate, driver of the day - are determined by a weekly roster. The children attend the local school on Kibbutz Regba, and almost all residents study Jewish-Christian relations, Judaism, and Christian theology after the Holocaust. Residents work as clerks, bookkeepers, computer specialists, teachers, theologians, hotel managers, agricultural workers, gardeners, plumbers and carpenters. 

The entire community - today numbering 85 adults and children - meets every Friday evening for a Shabbat meal, and then again on Saturday afternoon for the weekly church service. Sunday is a workday. Although English is the common language of the community, it is, in fact, no one's native tongue. Most of the residents speak Dutch or German at home. 

"Our main condition for being accepted here is an opennes to learning and living with different traditions," explains Grefen, who also serves as pastor of the Rhineland Church in Germany. He says that not only do members of the community encounter Jews and Moslems, but they learn to live with Christians from other traditions. "One has to learn tolerance in a very diverse community. This is not easy. We are interdenominational, and have to try to stick together and celebrate Christian services together." 

At the beginning, all the residents of Nes Ammim worked in agriculture: cotton, avocado, lemon trees and roses. But with agriculture becoming less and less profitable, these are gradually being eliminated. Even the famous Dutch expertise in flower growing can't rescue the roses from market realities. 

Today, Nes Ammim has a guest house, with a kosher kitchen and swimming pool. There is also a youth hostel. Though it is currently suffering the fate of all tourist sites, the settlement is planning to expand its facilities and to build a home for elderly Holocaust survivors and their descendents. 

"We think this is something that will connect us to the idea of Nes Ammim," says Grefen. "We have people here who are doing their national service, and they can engage in social work at the home." 

NES AMMIM was never intended to have a permanent population; volunteers must eventually leave to earn money and keep up in their professional lives. 

Follow this link to learn more about the history of Nes Ammim.