Borderline views: Universities and the defense establishment

Almost since the establishment of the State of Israel, there have been attempts to force the army to move out of its valuable real estate in the center of the country and into the empty Negev.

Ben-Gurion University's campus in Sde Boker (photo credit: BEN GURION UNIVERSITY OF THE NEGEV)
Ben-Gurion University's campus in Sde Boker
Last week’s conference at Ben-Gurion University on the challenges and opportunities facing the Negev as the defense establishment and the army transfer many of their headquarters to the south of the country, reminded me of an episode in the famous British comedy series produced by the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s called Yes Prime Minister.
In the episode entitled, “Man Overboard,” the Employment Secretary has come up with a plan to relocate 300,000 service personnel from the south to the north of England. The idea is that setting up new bases in the north, in a peripheral region, will create many employment opportunities in a depressed region and will ensure votes in the next election for the unpopular prime minister.
The Defense Ministry is thrown into turmoil.
There are few strategic arguments against the move, in fact, militarily, it does make sense. The main objection is that senior officers and their wives will be denied such pleasures as Wimbledon, Ascot, Henley and Harrods.
Under pressure, Sir Humphrey Appleby, Britain’s top civil servant, agrees that the scheme must be blocked but since there are no logical strategic or economic objections to the plan he uses other means of political subterfuge, including casting doubt on the loyalty of the Employment Secretary to the prime minister, and producing an internal memo from the Defense Ministry that casts doubt on the economic viability of the plan, to get the plan shelved, at least temporarily.
Almost since the establishment of the State of Israel, there have been attempts force the army to move out of its valuable real estate in the center of the country and move to the empty areas of the Negev.
These plans have never been implemented and have invariably been shelved in the face of opposition from the military hierarchy who, in turn, use their connections in the highest echelons of government to thwart any such relocation. The real reasons are probably not that much different than those in Yes Prime Minister and one would expect that internal family and social pressures had a role to play in preventing what to most of us seems so obvious from taking place.
But this time it is really happening. The new army city in the heart of the Negev, between Beersheba and Sde Boker, is under construction. The Cross Israel highway is snaking its way south and by this time next year will have reached Omer, Lehavim and Metar, just north of Beersheba, significantly pushing up the housing prices in these suburban communities, and will be continued further south in the next few years.
The university is in the process of creating joint teaching and research facilities in the fields of cyber-security, technology, intelligence and other areas of joint expertise.
Both the City of Beersheba and Ben-Gurion University are preparing themselves for an influx of new students, with special courses prepared for army personnel, their families and those who come to live in the region and will want study opportunities close to home.
While it is good to see resources being poured into the Negev, it raises serious questions concerning the nature of regional development in this small country and the fact that all civilian plans aimed at strengthening the peripheries have never succeeded (the factories eventually close, the younger educated population, including most of the university students, leave to seek employment and social opportunities in the center of the country), while the moment the army enters the picture, everything is suddenly possible. New roads and new communities can be constructed almost overnight, new start-ups in advanced fields of technology, cyber-security and robotics, are established in the Negev instead of in Herzliya, and there is an atmosphere of development which has not been experienced in this part of the country in the past.
The bringing of army programs to the university has its critics, even in a country where the army is an integral part of society as a whole. There are those who object, in principle, to the university using its expertise to develop military technology and even weapons, while there are those who point to the fact that some of the most prestigious universities throughout the world are engaged, some more openly than others, in using their skills and knowledge to land large military or defense related research contracts.
It is ironic that at Ben-Gurion University, one of the academic departments which has been attacked so strongly by the present government, and the former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, for being a focus for left-wing and liberal critique of the country, namely the Department of Politics and Government, is one of the four departments which teaches an undergraduate course to air force pilots as part of their studies and professional training. There are those within the department who refuse to teach within this program, while there are others who do so reluctantly, but argue that this is a way to create a more balanced soldier, one who is aware of the moral issues facing the country and its defense forces.
In the era of boycott and BDS, the close affiliation of the military with any of Israel’s universities is also problematic. For as long as the universities can argue that they are engaged only in research and teaching which benefits mankind, alleviates poverty and solves social and welfare issues, it is easier to rebut the arguments of the boycotters that the universities are themselves part of the political regime which they oppose. But the fact that all of Israel’s universities, in one way or another, have teaching and research programs which are funded by, and for the benefit of, military personnel, makes it increasingly difficult to use this argument.
And while the move of the army south will bring many benefits and an injection of new resources, in an era when the public resources for higher education are continuously declining, we must be careful not to use this to redefine the universities’ raison d’etre.
Meeting the needs of the defense establishment must not be allowed to take the place of the academic vision and objectives of the institution. At the best it can be used as a means through which new resources are injected into the teaching and research facilities of the university and help create a new generation of young researchers who might otherwise have left the country for greener pastures elsewhere due to the lack of resources and full-time positions.
Nor should it be used as another excuse for diverting even more resources from of the already starved areas of liberal arts and humanities, without which a society would not be enriched or nourished, into the exclusive fields of technology, computers and automation.
One thing is sure. In a country such as Israel, where the defense establishment is an integral part of life and where “military” and “civilian” are intertwined, no university is able to reject the mutuality of interests and to benefit from what the other has to offer – education and technology for the army, resources and infrastructure for the universities.
Like it or not, the Negev, Beersheba and its university are about to reap the windfall of the army moving south and it is important to ensure that the benefits and the spillover effects will accrue to society and the region as a whole, to make up for years of neglect and underdevelopment of the Negev.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.
The views expressed are his alone.