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The Final Frontier

Ben Gurion University and its new pioneers seek to make the Negev bloom.

by Amy Klein

July 21, 2005 | 8:00 pm

The Negev: barren, forbidding -- and ready for its close-up. Photo by Dani Machlis/BGU

The Negev: barren, forbidding -- and ready for its close-up. Photo by Dani Machlis/BGU

Professor Ron Folman leads me down a few staircases of the science building of Ben Gurion University (BGU) in the southern Israeli city of Be'er Sheva to show me his million-dollar, state-of-the-art nanotech laboratory.

It feels like we're descending to some basement bomb shelter of an old Israeli building. Actually, we are. Very recently, the laboratory was a bomb shelter. And despite the double doors leading to a white, clean room with an air-pressurized system to keep the expensive equipment immaculate, there is still a feel of the makeshift here, in the wall coverings, in the tiled ceilings, in the fact that it was formerly a bomb shelter before Folman came along.

"Building a lab was the condition for me to do my high-tech here," said Folman, a scientist in his 40s who is darkly handsome in a 1970s professorial way. Sometimes it's "frustrating," added the head of the Atom Chip Laboratory, to make do with a lab that's been improvised into a basement bomb shelter, "but in the big picture we're doing more than science. We're helping the Negev and making a difference. These are not just words for me."

Those are not just words for many people, both the long-timers and newcomers who have made the Negev Desert their home, despite its temperature extremes, the scarcity of water, the limited economic opportunities and a location isolated from the nation's cultural and population hubs -- Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa -- the regions where more than 90 percent of Israelis live.

Most mainstream Israelis are tired and cynical, skeptical about politics, idealism, religion and Zionism -- the original mission of building a land of Israel. It's the inevitable curse, perhaps, of living in modern cities obsessed with consumerism and rife with traffic and crime, where the government too often seems corrupt or ineffective. It's also the curse of living in a Promised Land where so many promises have not been fulfilled, and where dreams of peace -- or of conquest -- seem interminably on hold.

From taxi drivers and store clerks to older grandmothers and early pioneers, so many lament the loss of that aboriginal Israeli culture, with its spirit, values - the very things that once made Israel so inspiring. Nowhere is it more popular than here to lament that "things were so much better long ago."

But those drawn to the Negev are much more like the old chalutzim, the pioneers of the last century who built the country with their hands and minds, who wanted to forge a connection to the land and create a democratic, peaceful society. These new pioneers are modern-day settlers, but unlike those in the West Bank and Gaza, they are not necessarily ideologically and religiously motivated, intent on laying claim to the larger boundaries of a "Greater Israel" they view as biblically ordained.

These new settlers see the Negev -- with 60 percent of Israel's landmass but only housing 7 percent of its population -- as Israel's last frontier, and also as its future. These Negev settlers have one main goal: They want to make the desert bloom.

And most of them are connected to Ben Gurion University.

The University of Be'er Sheva was founded in 1969 on the dreams of David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who retired in 1953 to Sde Boker, a kibbutz in the Negev, and urged Israelis to follow him. Although Ben Gurion came out of retirement again to eventually become prime minister, he never stopped hoping Israelis would settle the Negev. When he died, four years after the university was founded, the University of Be'er Sheva was renamed Ben Gurion University.

The Negev, Mark Twain wrote in his 1857 book, "Innocents Abroad," "is a desolation that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action." In the 1970s, it was only a bit better, the home to industrial factories, military bases and a "secret" nuclear reactor. Its inhabitants comprised mostly impoverished immigrants from Arab countries who were dumped in "Maabarot" transit camps and hastily developed cities in the 1950s and some hippies who had heeded Ben Gurion's call. For the average Israeli and for foreign tourists then, the Negev, and Be'er Sheva in particular, were little more than way stations to the sunny beaches of Eilat, two hours south.

The hope was that a dynamic university would change all that.

And in the last 15 years, it has started to -- under Avishay Braverman, the university's president. Since the charismatic former World Bank economist came on board in 1990, BGU has tripled its student roster to 17,000, and has kept the university in the black -- not an easy feat with government budget cuts of more than 20 percent. Braverman also scored an estimated $200 million bequest from Dr. Howard and Lottie Marcus, a Southern California family brought in by Philip Gomperts of the university's American fundraising arm, which sponsored my trip to Israel.

For the last three years, the university has been the top student choice for Israeli undergraduates, with 1,000 applicants competing for every 75 slots.

Many of the people I spoke to -- affiliated and unaffiliated with the university -- attribute this popularity to the warm atmosphere at BGU, the accessibility of professors, the friendliness of students. Because of the university's relative isolation, students spend more time involved in campus-related activities, unlike their counterparts in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

The region's apartness and also its ongoing transformation unfold on the journey from Tel Aviv to Be'er Sheva. It's only in the last half a decade that the train has even started to run on a frequent, regular schedule, more than 30 times a day. An upcoming, faster train is expected to cut down the commute from 70 to 40 minutes -- making Be'er Sheva practically a commuter suburb.

Other changes and visions abound. One professor showed me a survey for creating golf courses on this arid land, a la Palm Springs. Another talked about improving the health and life expectancy of the Bedouin community and other health-related projects. One student talked about Ayalim, a student organization that plans to build student "towns" miles off campus to develop students' connection to the land (see article on page 14). And other students are involved in spurring growth and improving the quality of life in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Be'er Sheva, with their drab structures and working-class, underserved residents.

But most Negev pioneers agree that the great hope for the Negev's future is high-tech. It's the industry that has transformed much of Israel and created a new class of wealth in central Israel by bringing in investment and employment.

Folman is one of the technology messiahs. As he shows me around his bomb shelter-cum-laboratory, he points out the scarily expensive microscopes, and tries to explain his James Bondian field of cameras, the size of a particle of dust, that can enter the human body; of robots that can take X-rays; of experiments to desalinate water for less than $5 a gallon.

"What would that do for deserts, not just the Negev, but Third World countries with water shortages?" he asks.

Folman doesn't spend as much time in the lab as he would like, because he often travels to Europe and America in search of joint ventures for a high-tech park planned for BGU. He recently visited the West Coast and, with Western U.S. Regional Director Philip Gomperts, met with executives of Silicon Valley and other California companies. They hope to persuade them to set up shop in the Negev. Gomperts contends that the future of fundraising, instead of focusing on collecting donations, will be all about building partnerships, hosting incubators, attracting research investment.

"Brain-oriented institutions like Stanford and Duke are the propellants for modern economic regions," Gomperts said. "We believe BGU will do the same for the Negev."

The most vocal proponent of such ideas is Braverman, BGU's president.

"We are on the edge of transformation," he said at the 35th annual board of governors meeting -- a three-day gathering of BGU supporters from around the world. Braverman laid out plans for attracting research and high-tech to the region. "We believe we can do it all, because we have no choice."

Shortly after his pitch, his friend, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, pledged that the government would give the university $30 million over the next five years.

"Israel is changing, and the Middle East is going to change. And the State of Israel will not be the same after the disengagement," Olmert told the audience of about 100. "We will change the priorities of Israel. One of those changes is the focus on the Negev. Finally, after 50 years, the dream of Ben Gurion is about to be realized."

The dreams of people like Ben Gurion and of Braverman are ostensibly about more than high-tech parks, foreign investment or white-collar employment. Nor is the goal to turn Be'er Sheva into Tel Aviv or New York, but to create a community, one that includes the more than 100,000 Bedouin, who require social and health-care improvements; and the region's Jewish poor, many of whom arrived as refugees from Arab countries in the 1950s, from the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and from Ethiopia over the last two decades.

One initiative, the Community Action Unit, focuses on connecting the university to the local neighborhoods. There's the leadership training program, which provides scholarships to 200 students from underprivileged communities, as well as the New Start program, which allows 150 adults from deprived backgrounds to complete their high school diplomas on campus. And the "Open Apartment" program houses BGU students in impoverished neighborhoods in return for 10 hours of community service a week.

BGU student Hilwan Zaron, an Ethiopian immigrant with coffee-smooth skin and big doe eyes, lives in Neighborhood D, one of the three underprivileged neighborhoods of Be'er Sheva where the open apartments are located. Zaron and her family came to Israel via Operation Moses, fleeing the Sudan, where she was born. She grew up with her seven siblings in Arad, 18 miles east of Be'er Sheva, primarily in an absorption center.

"I heard about this program and wanted to do it for economic reasons and because it is meaningful," said the 23-year-old. "Because to be only in the dorms and the city doesn't give me that."

Zaron teaches, of all things, a hip-hop class to local kids. She says they show up early for her twice-a-week class, begging her to start a half hour early. One of her classes is held at a local disco.

"It's given me so much," she said. "This is all about social and community work. I was in an immigrant absorption center, and now I feel that I am giving back."

That is how many who are at the university feel, even those who could have chosen more established universities, in bigger cities. Folman, for example, was offered a job at another top university in Israel, but Braverman convinced him to come to the Negev.

"What I can offer you that they cannot offer you is the challenge of the Negev," Braverman told him. So Folman came. "I truly believe this is the only land reserve the Jewish people have," he said, "and we have to fight for it."

 

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