David Newman
Views on the Borderline

Global Science in Beer Sheba: Ben-Gurion University celebrates its half-century

Ben-Gurion University celebrates 50 years since its founding, as an adjunct to the Hebrew University, during the coming year. Half a century is time to sit back and take stock, look around and for those of us who have been at the university for thirty years upwards, and have retired or are close to retirement, time to become nostalgic as we remember the campus (or campuses) as it was then, and to compare it to the rapidly expanding, modern, campus of today. A university which strives to compete on the global stage and a university which, as we will soon have to stop noting, is amongst the top ten world universities of those which have not yet reached their fiftieth birthday.

Originally called the University of Beer Sheva, it was renamed for State Founder David Ben-Gurion following his death in 1974, given Ben-Gurion’s strong support for the Negev. The desert campus at Sdeh Boker, where Ben-Gurion retired and is buried, holds the Ben Gurion archives, a focal point for anyone studying the history of Zionism and the early years of the State.  And Ben-Gurion, as one of the only names which remains above Israel’s internal political divides,  has proven to be a major factor in attracting the donations of those around the world who have supported the development of the University during the past five decades.

Construction has began to take place on what will, over the next decade, be known as the Northern Campus, almost doubling the areal extent of the University, providing much needed classrooms, laboratories, student dormitories and a convention center. The present campus has gradually filled up, the remaining open spaces being taken over by new buildings, many of them generously donated by supporters throughout the world. A new generation of donors is being sought as the older generation – the Kreitman’s the Deichman’s, the Zlotowski’s, the Marcuses, the Zuckerberg’s and the Goren-Goldstein’s (to name but the most prominent) pass on, and as Israeli and Jewish institutions compete with each other for the pocket book of philanthropists throughout the world.

Despite the University focus on its Neuroscience, Desert Studies and, more recently, cyber security and robotics (in which Beer Sheva as a city has taken a leading global role on a new R&D campus located adjacent to the university campus), it is in the field of Humanities where it has achieved the greatest success. All three of the University’s Israel prize recipients have come from the fields of Jewish Philosophy and Linguistics, while the only ICore project to have been  awarded to the University was that of the present rector, professor Haim Hames, in the field of Jewish history and the study of Conversion. Nor can one forget the university’s long term association with leading Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, who was a powerhouse in the flourishing Department of Hebrew Literature for almost three decades.

While the success and future growth of the University can not be in question, the University has also missed out on a  number of potential opportunities, notably in its stated aim of contributing to the development of the Negev and its immediate region. The University is the second largest employer in the city of Beer Sheva. However, despite the fact that it faces one of Israel’s poorest urban neighbourhoods, the highly fenced and gated community remains largely inaccessible to the residents who see the campus from the windows of their apartments, other than those who arrive early each morning to work as underpaid cleaners, janitors and other necessary services. The recent growth of student residences in these areas has resulted in a localized version of gentrification, including some pubs and restaurants, which remain largely segregated between students and local populations – a phenomena which is common to such developments throughout the world. Boards of Governors rarely visit the neighbouring communities at their annual fund raising festivals, although it has ben the custom of some faculty to ensure that visiting international scholars and conferences make a point of going to eat at the local falafel and shwarma stands in these neighbourhoods, rather than rely only on catered affairs (where the food is less tasty and much more expensive) within the guest dining facilities of the university itself.

It is to be regretted that as the university gradually left other buildings around town to concentrate in what has become an overcrowded campus, the idea to relocate the Humanities and the Social Sciences to the small buildings of the Old City of Beer Sheva, was never taken up in earnest. Such a move, while perhaps not being the most efficient use of resources, would have transformed the Old City from its run down state, to an area where Departments would have been located in renovated, small, old buildings, with students cafeterias and meeting spots along the streets. This would have contributed to the rejuvenation of the Old City, both economically and culturally, and would have provided a rarified academic atmosphere which would have been different to the growing campus site.

The Old City of Beer Sheva – a Unique location for a Humanities and Social Science Faculty

The recent announcement by the Beer Sheva municipality, which itself has undergone significant rejuvenation under Mayor Rubik Danilevich, himself a former student of the university, to formally relocate the hub of activities of the city centre to the University and Hospital area signals the final nail in any hope of long term rejuvenation of the Old City, while at the same time promising an exciting and, hopefully, less gated, atmosphere in and around the university itself. The construction of an entirely new student dormitory city on the expanding campus and a  future convention center – a facility sorely lacking on campus and requiring many of the larger international conferences held at BGU to be held elsewhere at The Dead Sea or in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem due to lack of adequate facilities and in a  city lacking hotel capacity – will also serve to strengthen the activity on the campus site while, at the same time, detach itself even further from the remainder of the city.

The University’s secondary campus at Sdeh Boker remains  unique in its focus on desert studies (along with the Ben Gurion archives). Much of the activity, research and teaching which takes place there is exported throughout the world, to other third world countries in Asia and Africa fighting back the ravages of desertification and global warming. In many cases, the research and development links enjoyed with other countries, some of them not necessarily having diplomatic links with Israel, are not always publicized.  Projects, focusing on the most efficient ways to exploit limited water resources, to  maximize the use of solar power for electricity, and the expansion of desert agriculture and food resources,  contribute greatly to global concern about the deteriorating environment and ecology of the world, is proving far more attractive to a new and younger generation of potential donors and interested governments, than are the old projects which tended to have an over emphasis on Israeli history and Zionism – the way in which Israel contributes to the universal challenges of global poverty and quality of life, rather than  continually looking into its own pupik of what is good or bad only for the Jews.

Another proposal, to develop a Cross Border Research Center, linking up the university’s Elat campus (where it also has a successful hotel management course with excellent cuisine, along with the study of oceanography in the Red Sea) with the universities in Aqaba, Jordan, and hopefully at a future date with the other two borders in the region of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, never came to fruition, as Israel withdrew from UNESCO, and political relations grew colder with the neighbouring countries. The potential for such joint research, along with the growth of similar Cross-Border research centres throughout the world, still holds the potential for future development which would make a unique contribution to the role of Israel in its wider Middle East region.

The University also plays an important role in the development of the local Bedouin community, which now numbers almost 200,000 residents in a  variety of townships, villages and unrecognized communities throughout the Northern Negev.. Many students from the Bedouin communities study at the University, while the University boasts a small, but growing number of Bedouin scholars, lecturers and researchers. The cultural and political problems encountered are far from simple, and political tensions  and sensitivities exist, but that does not take away from the important links that exist between the two. Many university scholars are directly involved in promoting political awareness amongst the Bedouin community and supporting their struggle for land rights and equality.

Unfortunately, the University cannot boast the same  success with regard to the role of Israel’s universities in contributing to education and academic degrees amongst the country’s growing Haredi population, having turned down the opportunity to develop such programs  for fears, expressed and exaggerated by a vocal minority, of creating a segregated campus. This is unfortunate in the light of what was the successful involvement of the university in the Haredi degree programs (especially in Psychology and in Conflict Resolution degrees)  which had previously taken place under its auspices at the Haredi Campus in Jerusalem and in what is surely one of the greatest social and educational challenges facing the country during the coming decades, as the Haredi poplation grows exponentially.

Professors at Ben Gurion University at degree ceremony for women students at the Haredi College

In recent years the University has replaced almost its entire leadership. Two long serving University Presidents, former member of Knesset professor Avishay Braverman who displayed a visionary zeal for the transformation of the university from an undeveloped, unfenced and not very attractive campus, to a leading international focus for research, and Professor Rivka Carmi who created a sense of order and efficient management for the many projects envisioned by Braverman, have been replaced with what can best be described as University technicians, people who have the technical skills to  further develop the university along existing long term strategic objectives, but who perhaps lack the historical and personal links with the first fifty years of the university – as contrasted with the people who were prepared to come south, leave lucrative jobs elsewhere in Israel and the world, and create this amazing  institution out of a vacuum.

From its early days, as an adjunct of the Hebrew University, and through its first two decades, a university community was created in and around Beer Sheva and Omer, but as time has progressed, the city and its middle class suburbs have expanded (much of it due to the huge influx of immigrants from Russia in the 1990’s), the transportation links (both road and rail) to the centre of the country have improved beyond recognition, and it is rare for new faculty to relocate  from the more attractive centre of the country to the south – unless they have young families and the cost of housing is significantly cheaper. The University continues to provide housing and rent subsidies for the new faculty who do relocate, but given the intense competition between Israels Institutes of Higher Education to attract only the top young scholars, they no longer make such moves conditional, for fear that they will opt to take up opportunities elsewhere rather than come to BGU.

And, at the end of the day, for those scientists who do not require the daily use of a laboratory, or for those who prefer to be closer to the major humanities and Judaica libraries  of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (important laboratories in their own right), it is no big deal to travel once or twice a week for an hour to Beer Sheva to teach and to attend meetings, where the train station (again thanks to Braverman) stops adjacent to the University Campus. Arrive at campus any day of the week (not vacations) after ten am, and it is almost impossible to find a parking place, despite the large areas which have been allocated for such use.

That is perhaps how it should be as the world of universities and research becomes increasingly global and international – a university which is not part of the global academic world is simply not there. BGU still has a lot to do to increase its international posture and to attract students from all round the world. Young faculty joining the university in twenty years time will find the place as unrecognizable from that of today as we, who joined thirty to forty years ago, and were privileged to found the new Departments and research centres almost single handedly in what was a brash, young, pioneering, University, as we compare it to what it was when we first arrived.  Ben Gurion University remains just outside the reach of Israel’s top four academic institutions – Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, the Technion and the Weizmann Institute – in the international rankings, as they too continue to develop, expand and compete on the world stage. But the dream of a university in this southern town of Beer Sheva, then still an outback in what was perceived as a peripheral region, which must have seemed so laughable to people back in the 1960’s, has come to fruition and will continue to expand into the coming decades.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Originally from the UK, he was awarded the OBE in 2013 for promoting scientific links between the UK and Israel. From 2010-2016, Newman was Dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at BGU.
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