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Making the Negev Bloom

Making the Negev Bloom

August 3, 2008

Desert & Water Research, Negev Development & Community Programs

Israel’s only desert university tries to improve living conditions in a disadvantaged region.


Mazan Zoabi heads out of class and meanders over to a sandy lot behind a row of small greenhouses. The two blue-plastic vats sitting there look unimpressive. Upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that they stink. But a little sign pitched nearby clears up any confusion: “This is not trash!!! Please do not throw away. This is my master’s project. Thank you, Mazan.”


A graduate student at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Mr. Zoabi is studying the possibility of turning waste from sheep and goats into gas and heat. Working with local Bedouin communities here in Israel’s sparsely populated desert region, Mr. Zoabi, an Israeli Arab from a village near Nazareth, collects the animals’ manure from behind the Bedouin settlements and tests the amount of gas it emits.


His hope, he says, is both to find a viable alternative energy solution for the settlements and to protect the desert itself, which — because many of the communities there do not receive sewage services — is increasingly being contaminated by waste.


Mr. Zoabi’s project, although smellier than most, is far from unique. Across the relatively young university’s campus, including here at its southern outpost, hundreds of students and professors are working on ways to help improve this vast, impoverished region.


Ben Gurion University was established in 1969 in Beersheba, the south’s largest city, with a self-proclaimed double mission: to educate students and to help solve the many problems that have plagued the communities that surround it. And while it is clear that one university cannot solve the region’s economic and social problems, Ben Gurion is making an impact.


The Negev, which means “south” in biblical Hebrew, makes up some 60 percent of Israel but is home to less than 10 percent of its population. Many of those living here are poor, new immigrants, or traditionally nomadic, pastoral Bedouins. The Negev has the highest unemployment rate in the country, reaching 15 percent in some areas. Roads and other infrastructure are relatively sparse, tourism is low, and services are often lacking or weak.


Over the past five years, a handful of technical colleges have opened their doors here, but Ben Gurion remains the region’s first institution of higher education — its only university, its biggest employer, and one of the Negev’s main engines of change.


“If it were not for the university, this city would look like a development town,” says Nachum Finger, a professor of industrial engineering and management and a former dean, referring to the sort of underdeveloped community that is home to many of the country’s new, usually poor, immigrants. “We realized early on that anything we wanted here we needed to create ourselves.”


The ways in which the university has changed the landscape of the region, figuratively and literally, are evident at every turn. Training programs for local students and teachers have improved the quality of primary and secondary schools. Local industries — the few there are — have hired engineering and business graduates. And more than half of the faculty members and students do volunteer work in the region.


Perhaps most significant has been the work done by the university’s medical school and scientific institutes, such as the Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies, in Sde Boker, where Mr. Zoabi conducts his research. When the medical school opened, in 1973, there were 11 paramedics in the Negev and no clinics, says Shaul Sofer, the school’s dean. Today there are 50 paramedics and dozens of clinics, many run by Ben Gurion graduates.


“The reason I want to be a doctor is in order to be part of the community,” says Doreen Galkin, a first-year medical student, who recently spent one afternoon recently playing flute in the children’s ward of the university hospital as part of a volunteer program. “I wanted to be somewhere where that spirit was celebrated.”


Now, in part through lobbying by university officials, Ben Gurion is hoping to have an even greater impact on the region. The government recently began a $3.6-billion “Negev Initiative,” within which the university is to receive $30-million toward a $90-million research fund at its National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev. The multidisciplinary institute’s focus is on bridging the gap between basic and applied research. The aid package will also finance the establishment of an advanced-technology park, which is to house technology companies that will work closely with researchers at the institute and other parts of the university. The project will also help create a national advanced-technology center for water, which will focus on water conservation and use.


Beyond the Desert


One of the major forces behind Ben Gurion’s push to do bigger and better things is the university’s president, Rivka Carmi, a geneticist and a former dean of the medical school. Before she became president, last May, she worked on identifying genetic diseases common to the Negev’s Bedouin population.


Ms. Carmi notes that in coordinating campuswide development efforts, she is simply building on the work of her predecessor, Avishai Braverman, who ran the university for 15 years before stepping down to run for political office. (He is now a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.)


“In other universities usually you have an office for community work,” she says. “Students from the students’ association go on Purim and paint houses; on Pesach [Passover] they get together and do this and that. Sporadic, populistic activities, you know, for the elderly, the hungry, the needy. Here we have a whole unit that deals with community action in terms of designing programs and looking actively at the needs of the community.”


In the future, she hopes Ben Gurion will be able to reach out not only to the neediest but also to the middle classes of the region. “I feel we are very successful in many regards,” she says. “But I think we have to now go one step further and deal with the masses and make an impact on a larger scale.”


Some of the university’s research has implications beyond the region. At the International School for Desert Studies, located an hour’s drive south of the main campus, 65 scientists and 60 technical- and administrative-staff members not only study the Negev but live there as well, many in desert-friendly homes they built themselves.


The school enrolls 110 master’s students and 30 doctoral students, of whom nearly half are foreign.


“It is one of the programs we all know about at home,” says Dulle Hamadi, a second-year student from Tanzania, who is studying plants that can serve as refuges for insects, rodents, and other species that are preyed upon by birds in the desert.


In his research, Mr. Hamadi, who worked as a wildlife ranger in the Tanzanian National Parks before coming to Ben Gurion, uses beetles, scorpions, and snakes of the wadis, streambeds that remain dry most of the year. But the theories and lessons he is learning about the relationship between plant cover and desert species will serve him well when he returns to Tanzania’s parks next year as an ecologist, he says.


Environmental changes like global warming and further desertification of dry lands threaten 1.3 billion people in more than 100 countries, says Yair Zarmi, director of the desert-studies school in Sde Boker. “Our goal is to promote sustainable uses of the Negev desert and other dry lands the world over.”


Limits of Involvement


Adam Habari’s ambitions are more local. He is one of 120 students at Ben Gurion who get free housing in exchange for living in one of Beersheba’s poorer neighborhoods and running after-school activities for underprivileged children there.


This evening he has organized a neighborhood Hanukkah party.


“Let the festivities begin,” Mr. Habari announces, lighting the menorah with one hand and cuing a group of preteen dancers with the other.


The girls prance out onto a dilapidated playground, colorful shawls wrapped tight against the cold of the desert night, and start their routine. The tape deck playing the music gets stuck, the girls get confused and stop, and the youngsters in the audience become rowdy and yell out curse words they have picked up in school. “Shall we settle down, team?” suggests Mr. Habari brightly.


As he wraps up the party an hour later, he hands out jelly doughnuts and reminds the kids to show up for his orienteering class the next day, and to “be good to one another.”


“It’s not like I don’t have other things to do,” says Mr. Habari, a first-year student in software engineering. “But somehow, at Ben Gurion, you find yourself swept up into these kinds of things.”


Despite the university’s good works, President Carmi and others here readily acknowledge that the community spirit has its limits. As the university has grown in size — its enrollment has tripled, to 17,000, since it was established 38 years ago — some on the campus say the pursuit of academic excellence has become more important to students and professors than being a part of the community is.


“I believe that if you were to take a straw poll of 800 members of the faculty here, the vast majority today would say the whole Negev story line does not make any difference to them,” says David Newman, a senior research fellow at the university’s Center for the Study of European Politics and Society. “They came to Beersheba either because they were offered a position here and not somewhere else, or because Ben Gurion has the best chemistry department or whatever.”


That has not gone unnoticed by some local residents. Uri Liberti, a community leader in Yerucham, a Negev development town, says there is something disingenuous about the image Ben Gurion propagates. “It plays the Negev card to distinguish itself and bring in donations,” he says, “but, in fact, it does far from enough to promote and develop the region.”


Mr. Liberti, who works for a charity seeking to raise standards of high-school education in southern development towns like Yerucham, says most of the youngsters he works with feel that Ben Gurion is irrelevant to them. He wishes the university would conduct recruiting efforts to increase the numbers of students from the Negev who enroll. (The university does not keep statistics on the proportion of students who come from nearby towns.)


Perhaps the most visible evidence of the limits of community involvement comes at the end of the workday, when about half of the professors and junior staff members head home — not to nearby towns, but to Tel Aviv and its suburbs, or to Jerusalem, two hours away. What’s more, about half of the students themselves leave the region after graduation, most of them citing a lack of economic opportunity.


But if the government’s multibillion-dollar Negev Initiative takes off — the money is soon to be released after a change of government and the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon delayed the project for more than a year — those opportunities may grow, and more graduates could end up staying in the region.


Varda Shoshan Barmatz, director of the university’s National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev, says that building a technology park adjacent to the university holds promise.


“So often, when I convince someone to join the institute, they say, ‘But my spouse has nothing to do here,'” she says, dropping in on a lab where scientists are looking at the genetic composition of freshwater prawns. “So I take it upon myself, as an extra job, to encourage investment and employment outside of the classrooms.”


Ms. Barmatz, who grew up in the Negev, hopes that the ideas and technologies developed at the institute will lure companies and incubator programs to the prospective park, just as the desert studies at Sde Boker will attract companies to a water-technology park, and the government’s larger development plans will raise the appeal of the region itself. “It’s a snowball effect,” she says. “And we have started something to be proud of.”