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A University With the Potential to Change All of Israel

A University With the Potential to Change All of Israel

September 3, 2021

Leadership, Awards & Events, Negev Development & Community Programs, Social Sciences & Humanities

Intermountain Jewish News — Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a huge believer in the potential of the Negev Desert for the growth and stability of the Jewish state. In fact, he lived in the Negev when he wasn’t on the job in Tel Aviv or traversing the world on behalf of Israel. He wanted to set an example.

During his final year as prime minister, 1963, Ben-Gurion put forward his vision of a university in the small Negev city of Beersheba — “an Oxford in the Negev.”

In 1969, the University of the Negev opened. After Ben-Gurion’s death in 1973, it was renamed “Ben-Gurion University of the Negev” (BGU).

Ben-Gurion’s notion that the Negev would, could and should play a crucial role in Israel’s future remains a driving force that is being carried forward fervently by BGU’s current president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz.

Chamovitz, along with Americans for Ben-Gurion CEO Doug Seserman and President Gary DeBode, met with the Intermountain Jewish News during a Colorado visit this summer that included fundraising events in Aspen and Vail and a meeting with Gov. Jared Polis.

Doug Seserman, left; Prof. Daniel S. Chamovitz

Chamovitz was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1963, and grew up in the small town of Aliquippa, Pa. After starting undergraduate studies at Columbia University in New York City, he transferred to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he studied plant science. He received a PhD in genetics in 1992.

He founded the interdisciplinary Manna Center Program in Food Safety and Security at Tel Aviv University in 2013, where he became dean of the life sciences faculty.

Chamovitz was elected the seventh president of BGU in 2019.

He is proud to have a leading role in realizing Ben Gurion’s vision of a university in the Negev as the key to Israel’s future successes.

“A little-known fact is that we house the archives of David Ben-Gurion,” Chamovitz says. “Could you imagine an American university housing the archives of George Washington? So, on my second day as president, I asked to go down to the archives, which are underground, and I asked to see Ben-Gurion’s personal diary from May 14, 1948, the day he declared Israel a state.

“I started reading and I saw the conflict that this man was going through, the responsibility that he felt: ‘Do I declare independence or do I not declare?’

“The Americans were saying, ‘Don’t do it.’ Some in the Jewish community, the Zionist community, were also saying, ‘Don’t.’

“‘Am I going to cause the completion of the Holocaust by doing this, or am I going to redeem the Jewish people?’

“He felt the weight of history on his shoulders.”

Now, the university is making Ben-Gurion’s archives accessible to the general public.

Chamovitz says BGU is a crucial element in fulfilling the potential of the Negev as predicted by Ben-Gurion.

“I left Tel Aviv University to take on the job at BGU because I truly believe that Ben-Gurion University is the most important university for the future of Israel. If Ben-Gurion University of the Negev does not succeed, the future of Israel is in danger, in doubt.

“If you go back to Ben-Gurion who said the future of Israel will rise from the Negev, you realize that 70-odd years later, the Negev has only 10% of the Israeli population. But if you look at Israel today, between Hadera and Gedera, the central part of Israel where most of the population is, and the incredible success that Israel has had, it has resulted in the fact that none of my children’s generation can afford to live there.

“The only place left for Israel’s young people to build a future where they can afford to own their own apartment is the Negev.

“The only way the Negev is going to succeed is if Beersheba evolves from a backwater on the way to Eilat to a modern, cosmopolitan metropolis with culture, job opportunities, entertainment, high-tech industry.

“The engine building that transformation of Beersheba is BGU.”

BGU built and owns the only high-tech business park in Beersheba, adjacent to the university. It is also the largest employer in the region, and, along with Soroka Hospital, the major importer of educated population into the area.

“Our graduates, if they stay, become the base of this whole new ecosystem,” says Chamovitz. “So if we don’t succeed, the Zionist endeavor is in danger.

BGU’s mission to serve the Negev region includes providing opportunities to its Bedouin population, 200,000 tribal nomadic Arabs who live off the land, or as in recent years, in Israeli-built townships.

Access to and interest in higher education by the Bedouins has historically been limited, limiting economic opportunity for them.

Chamovitz names two challenges to which BGU is rising: getting the Bedouins accepted into BGU, then having them graduate.

The university has devised a program for freshman Bedouin students in which they are given the skills in chunks to succeed in school, starting with the Hebrew language.

A dozen years ago, there were only 60 Bedouin students at BGU. Today, there are more than 800, and 70-80% of them are women.

“As we see in the world all over the world in higher education, it’s the women who are the movers, who are the early adapters and integrators.”

A Bedouin professor at BGU was recently appointed as vice president of inclusion and equity.

During the first years of Bedouin students at BGU, they generally wanted to graduate and become teachers, but now they are going into social work, psychology, medicine, computer science and engineering.

BGU is even bringing Bedouin students into the world of Israel’s “start-up nation.”

“We have an incubator for high-tech graduates to start their own start-ups.”

Chamovitz says enabling the Bedouins to succeed is changing the way they live.

BGU is supported in the US by Americans for Ben-Gurion, headed by Doug Seserman, who is remembered locally as the CEO who spearheaded the rebranding of the Allied Jewish Federation to JEWISHcolorado.

Seserman applied those skills to affect a rebranding of what was called American Associates, Ben-Gurion University — AABGU — to the simpler and more direct “Americans for Ben-Gurion — A4BGU.”

“[AABGU] was a mouthful and kind of clunky, and people didn’t necessarily understand what we did and our relationship to the university,” says Seserman.

Seserman says in doing market research ahead of rebranding, people were shown a picture of David Ben-Gurion. Less than one in five Jewish millennials could recognize him by face.

“Now the good news was that when we told them who he was, more people were familiar with him as the founder and first prime minister of Israel and as the name of its airport.

“I thought it would be the other way around but his ideas on what Israel is supposed to be, why the Negev is so important in the future and what the university does — that’s all been lost. We went about trying to reconstruct that.”

A4BGU’s logo and marketing materials feature the visage of David-Ben Gurion.

“So who are we? We’re Americans first, living in the Diaspora, Jews and non-Jews who are for Ben-Gurion and the university that carries his name, which is the most vital institution, we believe, for the future of Israel.

“We are partnering in the remarkable, which is modern Israel as manifest through a university.

“We are the university in Israel that has a mandate for the region, and by having a mandate to develop the region, we’re driving the country forward.”

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