Borderline views: The changing world of Beersheba

The rail line leading to Beersheba was closed at the end of the week while the new bridge linking the university station with the recently developed hightech campus was put in place.

Ben-Gurion University graduation ceremony (photo credit: DAVID NEWMAN)
Ben-Gurion University graduation ceremony
(photo credit: DAVID NEWMAN)
The rail line leading to Beersheba was closed at the end of the week while the new bridge linking the university station with the recently developed hightech campus was put in place. The increasing number of highly skilled workers who now choose commute from Tel Aviv to Beersheba rather than relocate to the Negev will find it easier to come to work on a daily basis.
When former university president Avishay Braverman announced his plan to create a high-tech campus next to the university some 10-12 years ago, it was seen as yet another bombastic statement which would never come to fruition. It did indeed take some years before implementation commenced, but in the past few years has taken off with a vengeance. The development of the city and the university as a new world center of cyber research, the impending move south of the army and its many specialized units requiring education and training, the improvement of the transportation infrastructure linking Beersheba with the center of the country and a dynamic young mayor, free of the past constraints of workers unions and family mafias, have all combined to radically change the nature of the city and its workforce.
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Beersheba is today a dynamic city, with an internationally acclaimed university with almost 20,000 students and an expanding campus, a growing center for high-tech employment and research opportunities, and an area where property prices remain significantly lower than the overpriced metropolis of Gush Dan. The fact that Tel Aviv can be reached in less than an hour has slowly and imperceptibly changed the image of the city.
While in physical terms the university campus remains a fenced-in, gated community in the north of the city – mainly due to security concerns, as is the case with all other public institutions in Israel – its impact upon the wider city cannot be underestimated. Students reside throughout the surrounding neighborhoods and have contributed to social and economic change in some of the poorer areas.
Many of the university’s academic departments, especially in the social sciences and health faculties, directly impact the local populations through their hands-on projects in the fields of social work, education, local clinics and political activism. The university is the second largest employer, after the municipality, of the local population and even if much of this involves menial jobs such as cleaning, upkeep and maintenance, it nevertheless provides an important economic boost.
The relationship between town and gown is complex, as is often the case where a university finds itself surrounded by a city within which educational and economic achievements are significantly lower. Not all of the city’s residents see the university as a contributing element, especially those who feel themselves excluded from the fenced campus or those who are negatively impacted by the changing social environment of the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the campus. But it is hard to imagine what Beersheba would be like today if the university, which was established as one of those dreams less than 50 years ago, did not exist. It has brought international recognition and prestige to many of its academic departments and has put Beersheba on the map as a place of science and education on par with universities throughout the world.
The university could have integrated even more into the community had it chosen not to concentrate within a single campus in the north of the city. (Future development plans show a doubling of the campus during the next 20 years on an adjacent site, which along with the growing high-tech complex will only serve to strengthen its international reputation even further.) But in doing so, it distanced itself from the heart of the city and there are many, this writer included, who believe it would have served the interests of both the academic community and the city residents had it decided to relocate some of its activities, especially those within the humanities and the social sciences, to the very heart of the Old City (prior to its gentrification) giving life to the many small, old buildings and potential coffee houses in this area. One could envisage the streets of the Old City full of students, inefficiently moving from one building to another, stopping for lunch or coffee along the city streets, and creating a character and an atmosphere which is only to be found in those cities throughout the world where the university campus lies in the very heart of the urban complex.
Last week’s graduation ceremonies at the university awarded degrees to upward of 5,000 students among the various faculties. This week there will be further such ceremonies at the Sde Boker campus in the desert and at the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) college in Jerusalem, where the university is responsible for some of the degree programs.
To see the dias full of academic faculty in academic gowns and hoods, awarding degrees to students representing a true cross-section of Israeli society, is an annual dream come true.
In a world where universities have, unfortunately, gone down the paths of technocracy and privatization, where the humanities have been ruthlessly pushed aside for not being profitable or efficient enough in a competitive world, it is important to occasionally take a step back and remember that the cup of success is three-quarters full and, if compared to the situation in Beersheba just 40 years ago, overflowing.
Beersheba, the city of Abraham the nomad, the university renamed after David Ben-Gurion, who believed in the development of the Negev as a center of science and particularly the humanities (he was a lover of philosophy and of Bible studies, the latter of which has become a threatened species throughout Israeli universities), has come a long way to becoming transformed into a city of information technology, a frontier of medical research, a pioneer in water and desert research and a leader in critical political and sociological discourse. A new, young generation of global and international scholars will be joining the university in the coming years as the founding cohort of senior professors and faculty gradually retire, and there is no limit to what can be achieved 40 years further down the road.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.