HomeMay 2014Out of the Desert

Out of the Desert

In some ways it is a tabula rasa, a clean slate waiting for people to leave their imprint on it. In other ways it is simply there for the taking, an area waiting for development with no political repercussions. In yet other ways it is Israel’s best-kept secret.
The Negev, according to Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, is where “Israel’s potential comes into proportion.” As he said, “Huge areas can be discovered there, which can be used for science and settlement. Tens of thousands more Jews could easily live in the Negev, easing the crowding in central Israel.”
Yehoshua and others have noted that while many flourishing U.S. cities are located in deserts, there has been little effort to settle the Negev until recently. That fact is changing with the prominence and promise of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, founded 44 years ago in the spirit of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who said, “In the Negev the Jewish people’s fate will be decided.”
When Ben-Gurion immigrated to what was called Palestine in 1906, he envisioned starting anew. Bringing life to the dry, salty soil of the desert symbolized that for him. Later, he and his wife moved from their comfortable home in Tel Aviv to a modest house in the Negev, enabling him to take a hands-on approach to making the desert bloom.
While “Negev” means “dry” in Hebrew, the area – which accounts for 60 percent of the land mass of Israel but a relatively small part of its population – is awash in bright-colored flowers in the spring. Because Israel has had to develop solutions for growing crops in arid, adverse conditions, it is in the world’s forefront of agricultural innovation, especially in the areas of irrigation and water recycling, and it is sharing this technical know-how with the world.
Today, the university bearing Ben-Gurion’s name is a leader not only in water reclamation and desalinization but also in brain research, biotechnology research, drug discovery and robotics. The youngest university in Israel was founded with a mandate from the government of Israel to spearhead the development of the Negev and to help the local population. A research institute was created five or six years before the university was established, with support from the Technion and Hebrew University.
Now Ben-Gurion University has 20,000 students on three campuses in Beersheva, Sde Boker and Eilat. It trains one third of the Israeli engineers and has two medical schools in which the academic and clinical staffs work together. The university, the hospital on campus and the industrial park close by are making Beersheva a high-technology hub.
“If the university had been 50 miles north, the impact would not have been as great in terms of health, social services, education and science,” said Prof. Rivka Carmi, the university president. “Students who get a scholarship have to spend time doing specific things in the community for the challenged and disadvantaged.”
Dr. Carmi is renowned for her genetic research on the Bedouin community. Her research on Carmi syndrome, in which children are born without skin, has influenced matchmaking attempts that prevent marriages between two carriers. Now Bedouins attend the university as well, and Bedouin women are enrolled in the medical school.
The Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience takes a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach that includes health sciences, engineering sciences, natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. “We teach everyone the universal language of science and then let them go deeper into their own field,” said Alon Friedman, Ph.D., associate professor.
Dr. Friedman related that a “huge problem” of the 21st century is that many people will die of brain disorders. As people live longer, there is a greater likelihood of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
“People have been studying the brain for 50 years in the areas of Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and other diseases, but the outcomes have not changed much, although scientists know much more,” Dr. Friedman said.
He added that more than 30 percent of the global population suffers from some type of brain disorder: stroke, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and others. There is also post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is studied extensively in the southern part of Israel where there are rocket attacks with alarming frequency. The neuroscience center moves from the bedside to the bench and back again, doing basic research to understand disease and understand the brain, caring for patients with diagnosis and treatment of neurological and psychiatric patients, involveing the community and then doing translational research to obtain new diagnostic approaches, new imaging tools and new treatments.
How does the political climate play into this scenario?  According to Dr. Carmi, 200,000 of the 500,000 people living in the Negev are Bedouin, and they are benefiting from the presence of Ben-Gurion University and Soroka Hospital.  There are projects and collaborations with Palestinians and other Arab countries.
“Sometimes, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement makes it harder to get research published or get keynote speeches at scientific conferences in some countries,” Dr. Carmi said. “There is something silent and underlying.”
She concluded, “The Palestinians would be the most hurt by boycotts. Science and education are the path to peace.”

The President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Chancellor of the University of California, Irvine signed a general Memorandum of Understanding in 2012, noting the similarities between the two universities. UC Irvine and BGU were founded within five years of each other in the late 1960s and now boast world-class researchers, laboratories and student bodies of more than 20,000.
UC Irvine Chancellor Dr. Michael Drake and BGU President Prof. Rivka Carmi discussed the fields in which they hoped to encourage collaboration and faculty exchanges, including hydrology, earth sciences, nanotechnology and more. The two compared the consistent rise of each university despite the global financial crisis and noted the role their universities play in developing the region where they are located.
According to Carmi, “The things we are achieving are very similar. Maybe as smaller, younger universities, we don’t take ourselves for granted and work harder to achieve.”

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