(photo credit: DR)
Conference season has come to the South.
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This week and next, major
conferences will take place in Sderot, Sde Boker and Eilat – the sort of places
normally missed in favor of Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem.
conferences will be taking place this week. One, focusing on Drylands, Deserts
and Desertification, is being held at the Sde Boker campus of Ben-Gurion
University, and will be hosting hundreds of leading international scholars who
will be coming to a leading center of research in this important
The other will be the annual Sderot conference, hosting hundreds
of Israelis from the public and governmental sectors who will come for only a
few hours to focus on social issues. Unlike the Drylands conference, the Sderot
gathering is an internal affair – one of a host of so-called policy-making
conferences which have sprung up in recent years as the poorer sister of the
Herzliya conference on national security, and which includes public addresses by
both the prime minister and president, held every January. To this can now be
added the Caesarea annual economic conference and the Jerusalem conference on
defining national agendas. But these are largely public-relations stunts; the
same public figures will be attending all of them in what is fast becoming an
annual circuit of short, superficial presentations and long cocktails – places
to be seen, but which will have no lasting impact.
Given the political
and social situation in Sderot, the funding being poured into the Sderot
festival by a large group of NGOs and other public institutions (each of which
sponsors a particular session or event) could have been put to better use
bolstering social services there, or in other development towns, eradicating
some of the poverty and inequality to which this conference is supposed to be
And next week will see a three-day meeting of the annual Media
and Journalism conference in Eilat, at which most of the country’s journalists
and broadcasters will again mingle with public figures who will fly or drive
down to discuss the status of the world’s media. Organized by the Tel Aviv
Journalists Association in cooperation with Ben-Gurion University, some 1,500
participants will discuss the uncertain future of the news industry in a rapidly
changing technological environment.
Of the three, the most significant in
scientific terms is the deserts and drylands conference. It is to the credit of
the organizers that, despite the poor international image of Israel at the
moment and the continued attempts to implement an academic boycott, more than
500 people from 50 countries are expected to participate.
is jointly organized by the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at
Ben-Gurion University, in cooperation with UNESCO. The event will be held in the
presence of Luc Gnacadja, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat
ISRAEL IS recognized worldwide as a leader in protecting
drylands from further deterioration.
The diverse range of topics to be
covered has huge relevance to other arid zones in the world’s poorest and most
remote regions, and will include sustainable building in desert environments,
remote sensing, grazing among desert tribal communities such as the Beduin,
restoration of the Dead Sea, environmental education, dryland agriculture and
the interface between ecological and health sciences.
is of major worldwide concern. In an era of global warming, increasing numbers
of people are having to struggle for basic subsistence in large parts of Africa
and Asia. These issues have been raised at major conventions in recent years,
such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN Convention to
Protect Biodiversity and the UN Convention to Combat
This is an area in which Israeli expertise pushes
political conflict aside, as experts from all over travel to the Negev to learn
and to bring ideas back to their own countries.
It is, however, strange
that despite the country’s skill in exporting its ecological expertise,
internally we do not always put our knowledge into practice. We continue to
overuse our depleting water resources, destroy the remaining sand dunes, plant
the wrong kind of trees in desert conditions, and generally treat our fickle
environment in such a way that the ecological balance is getting worse rather
than better. It is true that Israel has one of the most efficient water usage
systems in the world (drip irrigation was invented here), but a lot remains to
be done before we put into practice the lessons we will be showing our
international visitors this week.
Sde Boker is mostly associated with
David Ben-Gurion. Tourists and visitors are usually brought here for a quick
visit to the Ben-Gurion grave site overlooking the impressive Ramon Crater, and
the museum which has been created in the hut where he lived. Many are unaware
that a few meters away is one of the world’s leading centers for desert
research, and that it hosts people from countries and foreign governments
seeking to learn from the rich work going on here.
It seems somehow
appropriate that the conference is taking place just a few days before
Ben-Gurion Day on November 14, as though the specter of the nation’s father
figure can conjure up the image of a country which, at least in some areas,
continues to be a beacon to poorer and less fortunate regions.The writer
is professor of political geography at Ben- Gurion University and editor of the
International Journal of Geopolitics.