To travel through the Negev Desert is to subject your senses to a sustained assault. There’s the elevation changes, the winding roads, the soaring heat. But there’s also the beauty — the wonder that is the Ramon Crater, the inexplicable colors that use the region’s sandstone as their palette.
It is here that David Ben-Gurion, founder of the modern State of Israel, saw in it his new nation’s future and it is here, in the regional capital of Beersheba, the university that bears his name is trying to realize his vision of making the desert bloom. Scientists are constantly refining technologies enabling agriculture to thrive in the Negev’s arid environment, and government planners see in the region a solution to the soaring property values and sky-high rents of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Put simply, the Negev could become a cradle of future Israeli settlement — it is already home to many kibbutzim and scattered towns — and a second breadbasket for the country’s growing population.
But as you’ll read in this week’s JT, the story of the Negev’s present and future is a complicated one. There’s the standard refrain leveled against development in any form, both the whimsical chords of those who protest any incursion of civilization upon unspoiled nature and the hypocritical ‘not in my backyard’ voices of those who have made the Negev their home but say that attempts to improve the region must go no further. And then there’s the practical views of those who want to build homes and schools and farms where none existed before.
What tends to get lost in this environment versus progress debate, however, is that an entire group of people, the Bedouin, have called the Negev their home for generations. And it is this population that new programs at Ben-Gurion University are seeking to include in future development projects. Without spoiling the ending, it’s worth noting that these projects provide a promising look at the potential of Jewish/non-Jewish collaboration in Israel as well as how agricultural development can be carried out in an environmentally conscious manner.
But beyond a natural curiosity and a case study in Israeli demographic, economic and environmental trends, the Negev Desert, or more to the point what is taking place there, provides a valuable lesson in how all of us can approach finding solutions to the vexing problems of our day. Questions of development tend to pit environmentalists against business interests, with both sides demonizing the other. Progress, no matter how it’s measured, grinds to a halt. But in the Negev — and this is probably unique for Israeli society — competing interests are looking for ways in which all sides can win something, as opposed to defining victory as outright defeat for the opposition.
Can you imagine if such logic were applied to other questions as well? The jury is still out on whether or not what is happening in the Negev will be successful, but the fact that so many different people are working together, and in one of the most contentious regions in the world, should inspire all of us to make our own deserts bloom.