Focus on Issues a University Conquers the Desert
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Focus on Issues a University Conquers the Desert

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A recent agreement by a New York Jewish businessman and philanthropist to head a support group in the United States for an Israeli university can legitimately be considered a commitment to a goal of global significance.

Such support groups — in this case, the American Associates for Ben-Gurion University in the Negev — are standard components of the educational scene for many universities in many countries. Ben-Gurion University, the newest of Israel’s universities, has similar support groups in Australia, Switzerland, South Africa and Britain, Robert Arnow, the new president of the American Associates, reported in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion had a vision which spurred him to a key role in the battle to include the apparently barren and use less Negev in the United Nations partition plan for a Jewish State in Palestine. He believed firmly that Isaiah’s prophecy that “the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose” applied to the Negev.

But it was not until 1969 that the Israeli government acted to create an instrument to realize Ben-Gurion’s dream. In that year, Ben-Gurion University was established with 500 students and a master plan for 30 buildings on 93 acres. Twelve buildings are in place. There are now more than 5,500 students and some 700 full-time faculty members.

Arnow took office last January as president of the American Associates, a decision reflecting his life-long commitment to Jewish education. He has been president of the American Association for Jewish Education (now the Jewish Education Service for North America). He has also served as president of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and is currently chairman of the JTA Executive Committee, among many Jewish service leadership activities.


Arnow said, in the JTA interview, that he had had no intention of agreeing to a suggestion from Aron Chilewich of New York, the retiring Associates’ president, that he consider the presidency. But, after learning more about the university, he decided to visit the university during a trip with his wife to Israel. The more he learned about the unique experiments and achievements of the university, he said, the more impressed he became.

The university provides an extraordinary range of services to both its students and to the residents of the Negev. It has, for example, a medical school which last November graduated its first class of doctors — 30 young men and women.

The university itself needs doctors partly because it has accepted the responsibility, in cooperation with the Histadrut-operated Kupat Holim (sick-fund) and the Health Ministry, to coordinate through its Health Sciences Center the administration of preventive, curative and rehabilitative medical services for the 300,000 residents of the Negev, including 40,000 to 60,000 Bedouins. Twenty members of the first graduating class of doctors elected to remain in the Negev for their first year of practice.

The university’s other projects include preparing students for matriculation examinations; pre-academic courses for soldiers who have completed military duty; community leadership development; a summer camp for children for poor families — and there are many such families in the Negev; a one-to-one tutoring program in which some 2,000 students work on a continuous basis with school children; and a unique open-apartments project in which students live in poor neighborhoods, serving as role models for children and as catalysts toward community improvement among the adults.


But Arnow stressed, it is the university’s accomplishments in desert reclamation, settlement and development which have worldwide significance.

For instance the university’s Jacob Blaustein’s Desert Research Institute is the only one in the world where scientists study all aspects of human settlement in a desert environment. Research includes ecology, flora and fauna, water, climatology, energy agriculture and economics.

Underneath the Negev’s desert surface are massive layers — technically aquifers — of brackish water. Conventional wisdom has it that nothing will grow in brackish water. But scientists in the university’s Research and Development Authority have developed new techniques for the desalination of salt water, the recycling of waste water and the direct use of brackish water and sea-water for irrigation.

The university has produced drought-resistant plants for industrial use that thrive in the desert — such as the jojoba, which has a valuable oil, and the guayule, a natural rubber-yielding plant that flourishes in desert climates. Its scientists have provided the know-how to raise food and fodder crops as well as plants for the export market.

Cost-efficient methods of using natural energy sources to produce electricity, heat and cooling systems, invented at the university — including notable advances in application of solar energy — have attracted international attention.


The Blaustein Institute has created a “closed system agriculture,” using greenhouse conditions in which plants are raised in glass or plastic structures, heated and cooled by solar energy. Plants are being grown this way at a fraction of the cost for water and labor in open field farming.

Arnow visited the Sde Boker campus, out in the desert near Beersheba, where he observed research on the ruins of a Nabatean settlement. The goal is to learn how farmers of that period were able to survive In the desert. Now, Sde Boker campus scientists are growing protein-rich algae for local use and for export. Arnow mentioned the development of a vine-ripened tomato, grown with brackish water, which has a shelf-life of up to four months. Arnow said he had eaten such tomatoes and that their taste is excellent.


The peace between Israel and Egypt means that Israel can offer to work directly with Egyptian scientists to apply and extend Ben-Gurion University expertise in pushing back the desert. For Egypt, whose teeming millions depend on thin strips of fertile land on each side of the Nile River, the future may well depend on precisely those techniques for reclamation of the desert and using high technology to make brackish water food-productive.

Egypt has 50 million acres of desert wasteland west of the Suez Canal, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of acres of returned Sinai desert. Egypt’s western desert also lies on a sea of brackish water of no current use or value.

And beyond that, huge sections of Asia and the rest of Africa are fighting a losing battle against the desert. Shortage of water and loss of arable topsoil is beginning to plague the American west. American scientists estimate that by 1990, water shortages may be America’s number one problem.

Arnow takes a modest view of his role in this globe girdling panorama. The American Associates’ structure needs a great deal of work to make it the instrument the university urgently needs.

Though he is a member of the university board, Arnow told the JTA, university policy is made by the university. He feels his organizational experience can and will be applied to strengthen the American. Associates where the organization needs strengthening and to establish new chapters where none now exist.

He suggested as the goal of such a reorganization the capacity to raise several million dollars annually for the university and a corresponding expansion in telling American Jews what-Ben-Gurion University is accomplishing and hopes to further accomplish not only for the Negev and for Israel but also about the implications of its desert reclamation skills for a world gravely threatened by shrinking resources of water and arable land.

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