Climate change: Meet the professor leading a silently booming revolution at BGU

"We’re no longer this little college in the Negev on the way to Eilat:" In March, BGU announced the creation of Israel’s first School of Sustainability and Climate Change.

 BGU President Prof. Daniel Chamovitz  (photo credit: DANI MACHLIS)
BGU President Prof. Daniel Chamovitz
(photo credit: DANI MACHLIS)

EVERYONE CALLS him Danny. There’s something a bit mischievous about Israel’s only American-born president of an Israeli university, Prof. Daniel Chamovitz (pronounced Sham-ovitz), who became Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s seventh president in 2019, recruited from Tel Aviv University where he was dean of the Wise Faculty of Life Sciences.

The 58-year-old Chamovitz has a sort of “You ain’t seen nothing yet” wink, regarding the revolutionary developments he’s nudged through in the university.

Originally from a small mill town near Pittsburgh, he was the only Jew in his high school. He studied at Columbia University in New York City before making aliyah in 1984, and then at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned a PhD. in genetics. He did a post-doc at Yale University before accepting a faculty position at TAU. Chamovitz is married to Prof. Shira Yalon-Chamovitz, dean of students at Ono Academic College and an occupational therapist. They have three adult children.

It was during his 1981 gap-year stay at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava that his dual passion for Israel and plant sciences was born. While driving a tractor in one of the kibbutz fields, he had what he calls his “eureka moment” – a decision to study agriculture and to improve plant growth. 

“Back then I thought my future was in the desert,” he says in an interview with The Jerusalem Report. “Little did I know it would take me 38 years to fulfill that destiny.”

 Prof. Chamovitz at his inauguration as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. (credit: DANI MACHLIS) Prof. Chamovitz at his inauguration as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. (credit: DANI MACHLIS)

Today he is one of the most prominent researchers in the field of plant science, and an internationally recognized activist in promoting plant sciences and their contribution to feeding the exploding world population. He founded the TAU Manna Center Program in Food Safety and Security, and still runs his research lab in plant molecular biology.

Chamovitz points out that he never applied for the position. “Being president of BGU was probably the farthest thing from my mind, but I was approached because of my active research and scientific credentials. I can’t lose track of that.”

He points to two photos on the wall of his office of the results of research work he’d carried out as a PhD student. “It’s what I’ve been studying for 25 years – how plants respond to the environment. I keep them there to remind myself that even though I do a lot of PR and politics and administration here in this office, it’s all to sanctify science and research. If I ever lose track of that, I’ll have to question my reasons for being president.”

What does a plant know? Ask Prof. Chamovitz. Until his appointment as BGU president, he was best known worldwide as the author of the groundbreaking book, What a Plant Knows. It’s a fascinating inside look at how plants experience the world – what they see, feel, smell, and even remember. Written for laymen (and in this writer’s opinion, a fun book) it’s been published in 18 languages.

How do you run a university during a pandemic? In early March 2020, BGU, with around 20,000 graduate and undergraduate students, had only five online courses, unlike other Israeli universities. But once it was clear the country was faced with a full-fledged corona pandemic, the university was able to mount 2,500 online classes almost overnight.

“I don’t want to say that Covid was good for the university,” Chamovitz says today, “but in retrospect it was an incredible opportunity. It enabled us to go through a rapid evolution and change the way that we work, which we probably would never have gone through without the pandemic.”

He managed to launch the BGU Coronavirus Task Force that critical month “to harness the university’s brainpower and ingenuity” to help cope with the pandemic. Chamovitz sent out an email message to the entire university asking anyone with an idea of how to handle the impending crisis to come to his office to discuss what could be done.

“We had no idea how many people would show up, but 60 people from all the faculties came. I told them to work together and send me one-page proposals and I would find funding for whatever I thought was promising.”

Incredibly, 24 research projects were funded within two weeks, some that would eventually yield patents and new companies. One practical outcome is a technique to improve screening of wastewater for variants of corona that can give health authorities advance warning of a potential outbreak. This has already been adopted by the Health Ministry.

In Chamovitz’s online pandemic diary, “My Covid Year,” he includes some very personal experiences and reflections in addition to describing BGU’s many initiatives to help cope with the pandemic.

In September 2020 he became a statistic himself, hospitalized with an extremely serious case of COVID. As he slowly recovered, he wrote an open letter to the BGU community stating his confidence that the university would continue to find novel solutions to overcome the crisis.

In March, BGU announced the creation of Israel’s first School of Sustainability and Climate Change. For more than 50 years BGU has been carrying out environmental and arid lands research, for which it has earned a global reputation. 

 Chamovitz dedicates the Gabriel and Angel Tamman Gate on Ben-Gurion Day, November 10. (credit: DANI MACHLIS) Chamovitz dedicates the Gabriel and Angel Tamman Gate on Ben-Gurion Day, November 10. (credit: DANI MACHLIS)

In a revolutionary move for any university, faculty from over 100 different BGU labs dealing with various issues in sustainability, climate change and desertification are coordinating and working together for the new school, which begins this semester and will offer dual-department degrees.

“I’m a big believer in developing from your strengths, if we want to take our place on the national scene and the global map,” Chamovitz declares. “Climate change is this generation’s great challenge. What was once a local problem has become a global crisis. We need experts to collaborate and think outside the box to turn local approaches into global solutions.

“The world is looking to us for answers. We have the country’s largest water institute, solar energy institute, departments of desert agriculture, environmental engineering, public policy, geography, economics, geology and public health. The only thing for me to do as president was to push the right buttons at the right place to get all these people to agree to work together in one overarching academic structure.”

Prof. Yaron Ziv, head of BGU’s Spatial Ecology Lab and head of the new school, explains “It’s a concept shared by many institutions all over the world,” he says. “First of all, we have to understand what a critical emergency we’re facing, and how we can preserve the world for our grandchildren. 

“To achieve sustainability we must look at it from an interdisciplinary aspect. Not just water, soil, air, ecology – it’s much more. It’s the integration between different aspects – economic, social, environmental. 

“The interaction between them allows us to understand how the world is changing, and what kind of solutions we need to stop the degradation.

“BGU’s special contribution worldwide is beyond just desert; we are quite strong in the fields of semi-arid, dry and Mediterranean zones.”

 Chamovitz leads a delegation of students cleaning up the beaches after a massive oil spill off the coast in February. (credit: DANI MACHLIS) Chamovitz leads a delegation of students cleaning up the beaches after a massive oil spill off the coast in February. (credit: DANI MACHLIS)

University faculties and departments are often narrowly focused and territorial. How do you persuade 100 different labs to agree to coordinate and work together?

“It’s an idea that’s been percolating for more than 20 years,” says Ziv. “But back then the university wasn’t ready for it. It’s like a seed that you plant in the soil, but without the right nutrients or substrate, it won’t germinate. The president understood the importance of interdisciplinary schools.”

Chamovitz says that he was simply able to “push the right buttons,” and that he sees his job as president “to encourage people to envision a new or different reality. And if I can get rid of the roadblocks in the way of that reality – psychological, budgetary, procedural – then all academics will want to run forward. It comes from the understanding that if we don’t do it the world will not forgive us.”

If running a university during a pandemic wasn’t challenging enough, there was a renewed outbreak of war with Hamas in May, Operation Guardian of the Walls, which included rocket fire on the area of Beersheba. It was Chamovitz’s second experience at the university during wartime. 

Shortly after becoming president, there were rocket attacks by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad during the outbreak of violence in April 2019.

 Chamovitz takes a selfie with a student at a Purim festival on campus. (credit: DANI MACHLIS) Chamovitz takes a selfie with a student at a Purim festival on campus. (credit: DANI MACHLIS)

“They promised me parties and events, hobnobbing with the rich and famous, and what did I get? Covid and war,” Chamovitz jokes, showing a visitor a piece of shrapnel that fell on the campus from one of the rocket attacks.

CHAMOVITZ’S EARLY gap year at Ketura came through his involvement with Young Judaea, the veteran American Zionist youth movement, many of whose graduates have achieved prominent roles in Israel today.

Among the ranks of that “Young Judaea crowd” are Alon Tal, founder of Adam Teva V’din, Israel’s first environmental watchdog, and today a member of Knesset; Gershon Baskin, founder and former CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, who played an instrumental role in negotiating the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit; Yossi Abramowitz, one of the founding fathers of Israel’s solar power industry; Eilon Schwartz, another prominent environmentalist who founded the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership; historian Daniel Gordis, senior vice president and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College; Debbie Weissman, an orthodox feminist who presides over the International Council of Christians and Jews; Jessica Montell, executive director of the human rights organization HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual.; Miriam Schler, longtime director of the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center, author Gil Troy; David Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute (which Alon Tal founded); Arava rabbi Sarah Cohen; and Dr. Tamar Berman, an environmental toxicologist from Hebrew University and chief toxicologist in the Health Ministry.

 Chamovitz with former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch. (credit: DANI MACHLIS) Chamovitz with former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch. (credit: DANI MACHLIS)

What does Chamovitz think is his particular contribution as an American Israeli?

At the beginning of his tenure, he suggests, he may have been at a disadvantage not coming up through the ranks of the inner circle – the “branja” in Israeli slang – but this, he believes, has changed. “All of a sudden it’s cool to be an Anglo-Saxon,” he smiles. “Perhaps it’s the ability to get groups to work together, a democratic discourse, which I’ve tried to bring to the leadership style in the university.”

Part of what Chamovitz sees as BGU’s mission is a kind of affirmative action to develop the Negev by developing the population.

 Chamovitz in his office at Ben-Gurion University. (credit: DANI MACHLIS) Chamovitz in his office at Ben-Gurion University. (credit: DANI MACHLIS)

“If students are accepted based solely on their matriculation scores, we’ll have a student body filled with students from the richer parts of the country, but we’ll be missing out on amazing excellence and potential, which can be done while still maintaining the university’s standards.”

Chamovitz calls the university’s latest venture “BGU on the Hudson,” referring to the recently signed collaboration with the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Jersey City campus. 

The agreement offers dual degrees and research in the fields of cyber technologies and environmental engineering, something that’s never been done before.

It began with an approach by the New Jersey university asking BGU to help build their computer science and cyber capabilities and joint research. BGU is known globally for its computer science and cyber security.

“The way that we at the university interact with industry is unique in the world,” says Chamovitz. “They saw that by partnering with BGU they could increase their own visibility and the ability to attract excellent students.”

An editorial in the New Jersey Tech Weekly called the agreement “a big deal for New Jersey” – “Israel’s companies, students and researchers have created a body of tech research that is remarkable and competitive with the best of the best the world has to offer.”

“This is not the way you thought of BGU 30 years ago,” declares Chamovitz. “We’re no longer this little college in the Negev on the way to Eilat. We’re 50 years old, and somewhere along the line some of us neglected to notice that we’d become a university with an international reputation.”

Chamovitz and his colleagues are shooting high: to make Ben-Gurion University of the Negev the best university in Israel and among the best in the world. 

A “modest goal”, he says affably, and then concedes: “I’ve made myself some massive goals in the past too. In the end, I have to be held accountable.”