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We Need to Talk About Something New

We Need to Talk About Something New

October 22, 2018

Leadership, Awards & Events, Negev Development & Community Programs

by Doug Seserman

The Jerusalem Post – When thousands of Diaspora Jews converge this week in Tel Aviv for the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA), there will be much to discuss. In fact, this year’s ominous “We Need to Talk” theme is tacit recognition that the relationship between some North American Jewish groups and Israel “needs work.”

Doug Seserman, Americans for Ben-Gurion University chief executive officer

This past year, American Jews, particularly those left of center, struggled with West Bank settlement growth, African asylum seeker deportations as well as escalating Gaza border tensions and a stagnant peace progress. Nation-State Laws, Kotel prayer restrictions and Orthodox marriage regulations stretched democratic sensibilities in a Jewish country that some may consider are at odds with Jewish values. To be sure, these issues need to be discussed and addressed.

But there’s a more positive conversation to have with those wondering what happened to the pioneering State of Israel that founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion envisioned. After all, it was Ben-Gurion who said, “The State of Israel will prove itself not by material wealth, not by military might or technical achievement, but by its moral character and human values.” Has that been diminished?

Quite the contrary. It is being reborn again – in Beer-Sheva and in the Negev – with the realization of David Ben-Gurion’s prophesy that “The future of Israel lies in the Negev.”

His vision of Zionism was that science, education and a moral compass were crucial for the Jewish state to survive and to be a light among nations. Today, our 21st-century Zionism is reflected in technology and scientific innovation in water research, medical breakthroughs, robotics, and cyber security to protect both Israel and other nations. For those who are ardent supporters and those who are straying from the tent, let’s give them something to talk about. How about the Negev?

There is general agreement that the Negev – a vast, untapped region encompassing 60 percent of Israel’s small landmass with only 10 percent of the country’s population – is uncontested land and holds the key to Israel’s future.

We can talk about how 21st-century Zionism in the Negev is also about community service and outreach. Beer-Sheva is the melting pot for Jews emigrating under the right of return who face special challenges. Students serve as their mentors, living in the same housing as these olim families as part of a community outreach program organized by the university that bears Ben-Gurion’s name and embraces his vision. Some 600 Bedouin students now attend Ben-Gurion University, many from villages that lack electricity, plumbing or paved roads – a lifestyle that few American college students can imagine.

Americans for Ben-Gurion University CEO Doug Seserman interviewing Prof. Rivka Carmi at an event celebrating her 12-year tenure as president of BGU

It is indisputable that Ben-Gurion University’s medical school was the first to train doctors to care for patients holistically, focusing on the whole patient, not just the problem. The innovative focus on helping under-served communities in Israel, in the U.S. and globally is a model that is widely emulated today.

It is in the Negev where the pivotal innovation for a thirsty world was developed. Desalination technology has created a surplus of water in Israel, quenched a parched California, and may help its neighboring Arab countries where lack of water decimates food supplies and creates civil upheaval. Innovation doesn’t always require high-tech. Israeli environment research students also work in African villages providing low-tech solutions for farming, irrigation, soil management, and safe drinking water without the need for electricity.

Too few are talking about the most critical real estate project for Israel’s future blooming in the desert. The Israel Defense Forces is relocating its elite intelligence groups, including the prestigious 8200 Intelligence Unit, to a new campus in Beer-Sheva. It is a partner in the innovation ecosystem that includes Ben-Gurion University, Soroka University Medical Center, the city of Beer-Sheva, and the Ben-Gurion Advanced Technologies Park (ATP) building complex.

The ATP will house scores of new and established companies in many high-tech fields, including cyber security, medical technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence. BGU is also building a new campus adjacent to university that will double its footprint to accommodate the unprecedented growth in the region, strengthening Israel’s security and ensuring tikkun olam through technology and research.

Now only an hour from Tel Aviv, at the mouth of the “Silicon Wadi,” thousands of researchers and newly minted engineers will develop and share innovative solutions that enrich Israel and the world. The ecosystem is already attracting global companies seeking to collaborate and acquire technology, which not only reinforces Israel’s right to exist, but reinforces how Israel adds value to the world apart from developments in the Knesset or at its borders.

In the Negev, the pioneering spirit of Ben-Gurion and Israel in its infancy is unfolding once again.

Let’s talk about re-engaging those wandering Jews by changing the conversation from the negative to the positive. Let’s turn from what the problems are to why Israel matters. The Negev is a perfect place to start. That’s a pioneering 21st-century vision of Zionism we can all support.

The writer is chief executive officer of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the former president and chief executive officer of JEWISHcolorado, the federation in Denver.

This op-ed was published in The Jerusalem Post.