At the General Assembly, ‘We Need to Talk’ about something new

American Jews, particularly those left-center, struggle with West Bank settlement growth, African asylum seeker deportations as well as escalating Gaza border tensions and a stagnant peace progress.

PRESIDENT OF the Jewish Federation of North America 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
PRESIDENT OF the Jewish Federation of North America 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
When thousands of Diaspora Jews converge this week in Tel Aviv for the Jewish Federation of North America’s 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.”
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 Beersheba and in the Negev – with the realization of David Ben-Gurion’s prophecy 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 cybersecurity 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% of Israel’s small landmass with only 10% 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. Beersheba 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.
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 US 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 Beersheba. It is a partner in the innovation ecosystem, including Ben-Gurion University, Soroka University Medical Center, the city of Beersheba and the Advanced Technologies Park (ATP) building complex. The ATP will house scores of new and established companies in many high-tech fields, including cybersecurity, medical technology, robotics and artificial intelligence. The new campus, adjacent to university, will double its footprint to accommodate unprecedented growth in the region that will strengthen Israel’s security and ensure 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 Israel 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 CEO of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the former president and CEO of JEWISHcolorado, the federation in Denver.