Center Field: The opera house of the Negev

BGU will celebrate 40 years since the first classes were held in the then-remote and isolated town of Beersheba, far from TA and J'lem.

In his book Imagining Zion, Prof. Ilan Troen discusses some of the pre-state dreams of the early pioneers which never materialized. One of these was the construction of an opera house in Afula. Today, almost 80 years later, the idea of a major opera house in Afula probably seems even more far-fetched than it did then.
But many opera houses in Afula have been built during the past 50 years –  although they are not called opera houses, nor are they in Afula. One of them, as unimaginable at the time it was created as was the idea of the opera house, celebrates its 40th anniversary tomorrow. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev will commemorate 40 years since the first classes were held in the then-remote and isolated town of Beersheba, far from the centers of culture and literacy in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
It started under the auspices of senior professors at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but during the relatively short period of 40 years has established its own international status, partly drawing on its location as the university of the desert. BGU has developed an international reputation for its research into arid regions, the efficient use of water, exporting its expertise from the desert campus of Sde Boker to other desert regions from China to Africa.
For 16 of those 40 years, the university became associated with one man – professor (now minister) Avishay Braverman. Arriving at a university which was still surrounded by a broken wire fence and a campus which had more open and desolate spaces than buildings, Braverman succeeded, in his brash and independent way, in creating a campus which has become second to none in its environment, its diverse academic programs and its international status. Like or dislike the man, his boots have proven to be almost impossible to fill since his departure. Vision and academic leadership have largely been replaced by managers for whom the slogans “efficiency” and “balance sheets” have become more important.
The fact that Braverman’s replacement as president, Prof. Rivka Carmi, is the country’s first female university leader, is an important social statement which needs to be copied by many other public institutions – gender equality in practice and not just as a politically correct slogan.
THE NATURE of tomorrow’s festivity is not a conference or a gathering of scholars. It is a festive parade through the streets of Beersheba, aimed at highlighting the links between the university and the community. BGU prides itself as the most socially aware university in the country, with a wide range of programs which reach out to the local population – the poor neighborhoods of Beersheba and the surrounding development towns, as well as the local Beduin communities. This is particularly noticeable in such departments as social work and education, or through the Center for Beduin Studies – training and empowering social workers and teachers from the local communities who, it is hoped, will then return to their communities to pass on their knowledge.

BGU also has a high percentage of its students engaged in the Perachprogram, where students work with children from disadvantagedbackgrounds, in return for which part of their tuition is covered. Manyof the students, a large percentage of whom come from other areas,reside in apartment blocks close to the university while some of themore enterprising have opened small restaurants and bars in these areas.
Butwhat you see from here is not always the same as what you see fromthere. For most residents of these neighborhoods, the campus remains agated and fenced-in community which, with the exception of the manymenial laborers who work there, is only seen from their apartmentwindows or from the bus.
The plan to construct a library ofthe Negev, which would have served the local community as much as thestudents and faculty, was – along with the intention to create thecountry’s fifth law school – scrapped some years ago due to thechanging financial climate.
BGU has also become a major centerfor social and political debate. The Ben-Gurion Research Institute atthe Sde Boker campus is a focus for research into the changingpolitical values and institutions of the state since thepre-independence period. By contrast, the Faculty of Social Sciencesand Humanities in the sociology, politics and Middle Easterndepartments, has become a place where many of the traditional stateideologies and myths are questioned, engaging a more critical andglobal generation of students.
The Humanities Faculty also hoststhe country’s leading department of Hebrew and Israeli literature,including such authors as Amos Oz, Haim Beer and Nissim Calderon amongits staff, while the university’s only Israel Prize recipient, Prof.Gerald Blidstein, a world expert on Maimonides, reflects the immensecontribution of BGU in shaping the cultural and philosophical agenda ofthe country.
The generation of university founders, the freshyoung doctoral students of the late 1960s and early 1970s, are nowretiring. The leadership of the university is gradually being takenover by younger and more globally orientated scholars, while theretirees (budget cuts allowing) are being replaced by fresh youngfaculty who will shape the next 40 years. If, during the next fourdecades, the university has half as much impact on the region and thecountry’s public and social agenda as it has in the past four, theopera house of the Negev will have emerged as much more than just adream.
The writer was electedas the next Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences atBen-Gurion University on Monday. He is professor of political geographyat the university and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.