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Zionism’s Pioneer Spirit Lost in the Vast Negev

Times Staff Writer

There is a touch of bitterness in Chaim Elata’s voice as he talks about the land he came to 38 years ago as a young Zionist immigrant from Holland.

“You can’t imagine how different it was,” Elata told a visitor the other day.

He was talking about the early days, when Israel was just emerging as an independent country and he was working as a kibbutz truck driver. He talked about “idealism,” which, he maintains, is almost a dirty word these days.

“The whole country was idealistic, not materialistic,” he said. “Somehow, that atmosphere still lives here.”

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By “here,” Elata meant both the Negev, the vast desert that covers the southern half of Israel but holds only about 6% of its population, and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

A Zionist Challenge

Elata, now the university’s president, is one of those Israelis who have taken up an early Zionist challenge that others have long since forgotten: to conquer the Negev before the Negev conquers Israel. Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, warned that “with1869968416Negev, there can be no security for the state, and we will not achieve economic independence.”

Ben-Gurion said this with an eye on the region’s strategic position as a land wedge from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and he backed his words with a personal commitment. He built his home at Sede Boqer, a desert outpost 25 miles south of Beersheba. He is buried there. The university that bears his name was founded in 1969, not so much as an educational institution as a spearhead to turn Ben-Gurion’s dream into reality. And to a remarkable extent, in an Israel that has outgrown much of its pioneering innocence, it strives to keep alive the spirit of ingenuity and voluntarism and other qualities that were so bound up in the popular image of the early Zionists.

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Community Service

For example, about half the students at the university “repay” with community service the help they get through scholarships. They tutor schoolchildren and run recreation centers for them in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Professors go into the local prison to teach inmates; they help discharged soldiers finish their high school education, and they work with Bedouins to prepare them for college entrance examinations.

The university’s world famous Desert Research Institute in Sede Boqer tackles problems ranging from the design of comfortable desert housing and the breeding of plants that can flourish on brackish, subterranean water to rainmaking and the sociology of successful desert living.

For all the effort, the years have been hard on Ben-Gurion’s dream of populating the Negev, and on the institution that was to be the nucleus of his vision.

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No Longer a Priority

“The Negev has been abandoned as a national priority,” Eliahu Navi, the outgoing mayor of Beersheba, said in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post.

And the president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, lamented not long ago that the Jordanians have done a far better job of settling their southern desert than the Israelis have done on their side of the Jordan River.

A few weeks earlier, Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the Negev is “in a state of abandonment . . . while all attention is being devoted to scattering small farms in Judea and Samaria (the Biblical names for the Israeli-occupied West Bank), whose ability to survive from the economic aspect is doubtful.”

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Peres’ remark touched on one of the reasons for the Negev’s troubles--a shift in emphasis under the rightist Likud governments of 1977-1984 to settlement of the West Bank. Now, with Peres in office as head of a national unity coalition, the country’s economic problems are so severe that there is not enough money for either the West Bank settlements or the Negev.

Faded Dreams

Negev development towns like Dimona and Yeroham have become symbols of faded dreams. Established in 1951, during the huge influx of Jewish immigrants from North African and other Arab countries, Yeroham is now a town of empty apartment buildings. Its unemployment rate is 30%, and its young people leave faster than new residents can be persuaded to move in.

All this complicates what was already a tough challenge, one that goes far beyond the harsh natural environment of the Negev.

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“Unfortunately, a physical desert goes together with a human desert,” Schlomo Gazit, a former president of Ben-Gurion University and former head of Israeli military intelligence, said in a recent interview. In Israel as elsewhere, he said, “the people who live in the desert are always the weakest elements in your society.”

Of all the new immigrants the government sent to the Negev, the only ones who stayed were those “who didn’t have the contacts, the education, the strength to move out,” Gazit said.

The university was to change all that, acting first as a magnet to draw highly qualified specialists to the area and then as a resource to support new industry and upgrade the education of the future generations growing up here.

Faces Financial Woes

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In addition to the shift in political priority away from the Negev, the university is hampered by financial problems. Two years ago, it was $15 million in debt, with a projected deficit of $7 million for the 12 months ahead. Staffs were cut and most of those who were kept on took a voluntary pay cut of up to 7%. University cars were sold off and telephone service reduced. The travel budget was slashed by two-thirds, and one winter the heat was cut off.

“It really hurt us academically,” Elata said. “I can’t deny this.”

Some of the university’s “outreach” programs of community service also suffered. However, Elata said, the university’s mission as an engine of regional development is unchanged, and he is still convinced that it is not a hopeless mission.

The university can point to a number of achievements. When it was founded, 90% of the area’s schoolteachers were unqualified. Most of them were young women fresh out of high school who took teaching jobs as an alternative to military service.

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But the university needed scientists and professors, and along with them came spouses, many of whom were professional teachers looking for work. The region still needs teachers, but about 70% of those it has now are qualified, Elata said.

Health Service Helped

The state of the region’s health services was another problem; doctors preferred to stay in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. So the university established a Center for Health Sciences, which from the beginning served both as a medical school and the core of the region’s health care system. The dean of the medical school is automatically chief of medical services for the Negev. In Israel as in many other developed countries, the trend in medicine was toward specialization, but what the south needed was general practitioners who would stay in the region. So the universit2032169573"lowered the academic threshold” for admission, Elata said, “because the difference is not relative to what we need, which is dedication and empathy.”

Pre-med academic studies were combined with clinical work in an experiment that has since become widely studied in many other countries.

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“You want to study medicine at Beersheba, you do clinical work from Day 1,” Elata said.

Beginning students may do little more than clean bedpans, but they work in the hospital. Symbolically, they take the Hippocratic oath when they start their medical education, not when they graduate.

Conditions on Aid

More than a third of the university’s students, twice the average of other Israeli universities, are Sephardic Jews, whose families came from North Africa or other Arab countries. This is a group that accounts for more than half the country’s population but traditionally has been so disadvantaged that it is sometimes called “the second Israel.” A large percentage of these students need financial help, and the university offers it--with a condition.

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“Students come here--they’re poor,” Elata said. “We say, ‘OK, we’ll help. What do you pay? Nothing, except that every afternoon you open your apartment and let young people in. You help them with their homework and be with them.’ ”

The “open apartment” program, which was started in 1978, has become the cornerstone of a community action program that now includes a wide variety of specially tailored social action projects. About 400 students work in these programs, according to Batsheva Levy, the program’s director, and more than 2,000 other students serve as tutors for area youngsters as part of a separate effort.

“This is the worst neighborhood in Beersheba,” senior geology student Itzhak Itzhak said as he showed visitors around the area where he has his university-paid flat. “Last week they stole my bike! People who come to me and speak and eat with me stole my bike for no reason. It’s very depressing. But you can’t stop the work. I think it’s very important, what I do here. I believe in this project.”

Inmates Enrolled

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Under the university’s newest community action program, “Project Return to Society,” inmates at Beersheba Prison are offered a nine-month course leading to the equivalent of a high school diploma.

“The university pays everything,” Levy said. “The prison doesn’t give one cent for this project.”

Jonathon, 24, a burglar, told a reporter that “most of us learn English, because we want to leave the country.”

But Aza, a three-time loser serving two years for assault, said he is concentrating on mathematics, hoping to make a career in computers. “If I study and I open my head, I hope this is the last time,” he said.

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His remark backed up what Huguett El Haddad, the first director of the community action office, described as perhaps the most encouraging achievement for an institution pursuing Ben-Gurion’s dream.

“The university has changed the whole approach of the citizens of the Negev to education,” she said.


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