Negev Diary

The dune-colored map of Israel provided by the Negev Tourism Forum resembles the bottom of a diamond, a V as in NegeV.  Usually, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv–the country’s gems–highlight any map of Israel, but here, the bustling, fertile regions have been left off. Instead, the topaz expanse of the vast southern desert captures my attention. This is a new perspective for me.

I am a guest of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the youngest of Israel’s seven research universities (established in 1969). The tour of the south organized for a group of journalists promises to encompass primeval canyons and Bedouin villages as well as the hi-tech research and innovation that have emerged against the enormous odds and stresses of life in the desert. It is to be a mission that takes us beyond urgent headlines, focusing on the ingenuity of Israeli researchers who under unforgiving conditions grow gourmet peppers, produce wine and cheese, develop anti-cancer drugs and maximize water efficiency. Evident everywhere is the imprimatur of former prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who envisioned that the Negev would blossom and serve as the future of Israel.

Traveling south from Jerusalem, the populated Judean hills turn beige and barren, inhabited mostly by scrub. I anticipate mile after endless mile of arid landscape, reflecting the etymological “dryness” the word “Negev” implies—and I am not disappointed. But I am unprepared for the richness of the area’s natural diversity that unfolds as the trip progresses: cliffs and craters, warm spa waters, valleys, nature preserves, forests and fortresses, archaeological parks and caves, farms and wineries. At various times in the space of a few short days, I wear sandals, short-sleeved dresses, boots and a winter coat.

The history embedded in the Negev’s grandeur begins with Abraham, who journeyed south (“negbah”), ultimately settled there and dug a well to draw water for his family and flock. That well gave the city of Beersheva its name (literally, the well where an oath was taken). Today, Beersheva is Israel’s seventh-largest city and houses three of BGU’s five campuses; the other two are in Sde Boker and Eilat.

Water–or the lack of it–remains a daunting issue. Our mini-bus hugs the turquoise shores of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth (almost 1400 feet below sea level). For the length of its 42 miles, the Dead Sea serves as the border between Israel and Jordan, and even at its widest point, the Jordanian mountains are only 11 miles away. Though animal life cannot survive in its salty waters, the Dead Sea thrives with regenerative and hydrating minerals that have given birth to a multi-million-dollar skin-care industry. A sign for Ahava declares, “My Skin Reborn.”

At the Dead Sea Skin Laboratory of the Arava Science Center, BGU and Ahava researchers are collaborating in trying to find new compounds for skin care and drug development. They experiment with plants that have adapted to the harsh desert conditions as well as with live skin obtained from breast and abdomen reductions. The lab is even in the process of patenting an anti-cancer drug developed from a local plant extract; other plant extracts have been shown to protect against ultraviolet radiation and to increase cellular metabolism.

Dr. Eitan Wine is among the scientists trying to unravel why Dead Sea treatments for skin diseases like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis are so successful. Hardy bacteria and algae called “extremophiles,” lovers of extreme environments that have adapted to living in the Dead Sea’s high salinity, might provide one answer. Many extremophiles wouldn’t be able to survive in more “normal” environments. In the context of Middle East politics, it’s hard not to grin at the name.

As devoted as the scientists are to their research, they seem equally committed to the larger project of building the Negev. “We come here with our families,” says Wine. “We are all part of the enterprise.”

Back on the road, a sign points toward S’dom, the biblical site of fire and brimstone, and a glance backward that turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt. There is modern-day destruction here, too, not at God’s hand, but because of man’s intervention in diverting water from the Jordan River and pumping Dead Sea water to evaporation ponds so the residue of salt, potash and minerals can be used by industry. The water level of the Dead Sea is dropping at a rate of four feet a year, and 4000 massive sinkholes have opened along the western coastal plain.

Further proof of an environmental crisis is hardly necessary, but it’s difficult to ignore a dying date palm grove in the Ein Gedi oasis. Again, BGU researchers are at work confronting the international problem shared by Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The countries don’t agree on a solution: some argue for more rapid intervention, like building a Dead Sea-Red Sea canal to pump in water; others support a longer-term rehabilitation of the water balance system.

The mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue at Ein Gedi that dates back to the Roman-Byzantine period (third century CE) is tiled with an intriguing Hebrew inscription: “Warnings to those who commit sins causing dissension in the community, passing malicious information to the gentiles, or revealing the secrets of the town.” I imagine that the heavily guarded secret is Ein Gedi’s coveted water supply (it used to be fed by 11 springs), but historians and archaeologists say the secret refers to the oil of persimmon, a valuable commodity produced only by Ein Gedi’s Jews.

An example of Jericho balsam—thorny, with date-like fruit—is labeled for visitors, along with other varieties of the area’s flora: The Apple of Sodom tree whose soft yellow fruit explodes with a puff when pressed, and the thorny, pod-bearing acacia. And then there is the caper bush, in Hebrew, tzlaf, meaning sharpshooter, since it shoots out its seeds when it ripens. I think back to extremophiles, especially when our plans for the next day come under question.

Beersheva, our destination for Day 2, is under attack in retaliation for the killing of a terrorist leader. Once considered Israel’s safest city, it is now within the 40 km (25 miles) range of rockets fired from Gaza. Schools—including the BGU campus—have been closed for two days as over a hundred rockets have rained down. A holiday celebration was postponed and 70 exams cancelled. The Iron Dome, Israel’s mobile air defense system designed to intercept and destroy short-range rockets and shells—has demolished most of the rockets. One fell on an empty school building. The trip organizers ask if we want to proceed to Beersheva the next day.

They emphasize that while one person was seriously hurt and two were slightly wounded, nobody who has followed the safety rules has been hurt. The shelter is seconds away from the guest rooms where we will be staying. This is reality for Israelis, I think, so why not try to understand it? I picture my kids so I am more hesitant than a fellow journalist who is excited to ride into the eye of the storm. But I trust that we will be safe. We decide to show solidarity with Israel and with the university.

Day 2

We have much to do before we reach Beersheva. The sun bursts white and hot as its rises in a pewter sky over the Dead Sea. Its reflection silvers the water between two palm trees, fringed sentinels of the morning. Though tourism has suffered because of the ecological problems, it’s still fun to float in the water. In fact, it requires effort not to. The salt slicks my skin and leaves a layer of salt on my face when it finally dries. It’s a stark example of what happens in the soil.

One of the extraordinary aspects of the Arava, Israel’s long, eastern valley between the Dead Sea and Eilat, is that although it is mainly desert, 90 percent of its residents are successful farmers, many of whom are also scientists or who collaborate closely with scientists. Greenhouses that resemble white plastic caterpillars serve as indoor fields as well as laboratories. “The main idea,” says Naftali Lazarovitch, a specialist in irrigation at BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, “is how to make crops with less drops.” Before he even explains the technology that allows crops to grow with saline irrigation water, he offers us the tangible results of his research: a gorgeous array of orange, purple, yellow and red bell peppers packed with crispness, crunch and flavor. A decided un-lover of peppers, even I am won over.

The peppers grow in small containers of perlite, a soil-less culture made of a mixture of stones, coconut powder, and crushed building material. The area is disconnected from the main water supply, and desalinated water is only available by pipe when municipalities and factories have an overage, so farmers have learned to use the saline water below the soil. Sometimes the harsh conditions that Negev scientists tend to call “stress” creates good things in plants: more antioxidants, better color. But the yield is reduced.

The Israeli-pioneered method of subsurface drip irrigation—which allows water to trickle  slowly to the roots of plants—nourishes fat red tomatoes planted in soil, agricultural guinea pigs of sorts for experiments on water use, evaporation, irrigation and salinity levels. Melons and sweet basil grow in other nethouses. “If we figure out how to solve the combined stresses of drought and salinity we can feed the world,” says Lazarovitch.

The need for farm hands to replace Palestinian workers since the intifada has resulted in an influx of thousands of Thai migrants willing to labor for low pay—though they still earn much more than in Thailand. The Thais are not as trained to follow the safety measures that are ingrained in every Israeli: a worker playing basketball is wounded by a rocket, and a few days after our trip ends, a worker at Moshav Netiv Haasarah on the border with Gaza is killed. Israel’s use of foreign labor has resulted in a host of social, psychological, cultural, legal and ethical issues that demand attention.

At the Bedouin village of Qasr a-Sir, south of Dimona, the poorest segment of Israeli society is trying to improve its lot through tourism. The village has an ambitious plan to transform itself into an eco-tourism site, reclaiming the tradition of Bedouin hospitality and combining it with economic and social empowerment as well as environmental sensitivity. Spearheaded by Bustan, an Israeli NGO that promotes sustainability and social development in the Bedouin community, the eco-site will feature dorms powered by solar panels that will use gray water (recycled waste water from domestic activities like laundry and bathing), outdoor compost toilets, and small gardens. Once or twice a month, BGU students and Bedouin residents work together on the project. We journalists pretend to be a council of village elders as we recline on pillows and sip sweet tea in the shig, the tent of meeting where all important issues are discussed and gossip also has its day.

The 200,000 Bedouin in the Negev now live a sedentary rather than nomadic lifestyle. About half live in official towns built for the Bedouin by the state; the rest in unrecognized villages where they are not entitled to the infrastructure of water and electricity and where they are considered illegal trespassers on what they affirm is their own land. Solar panels are installed on most roofs in the village. Complex political disputes over land and relocation issues remain unresolved. “We want to improve the way the state works with the Bedouin,” says Yodan Rofe, an architect and urban planner from BGU’s Sde Boker campus.

I listen to Rofe discussing how urban planners can learn from the settlement patterns of the Bedouin, that their seemingly disorganized settlements, created from their day-to-day needs, are better suited to their way of life than what might be imposed by planners based on an outside vision. “We might learn things we can apply in our own communities,” he says, “because in many places planning doesn’t work. Forty percent of humanity lives in informal settlements on the edge of cities or in semi-rural areas. We can use our research for the development of such areas.”

As I turn Rofe’s business card over in my hand, his name suddenly sounds familiar. When I was a 12-year-old at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, there were two Israeli kids in my class. One was named Ehud and one was named Yodan. How many Yodans could there be? I tried to see the adolescent face I vaguely recalled in Rofe’s adult one. When he finished speaking we played a short game of Jewish geography, concluding with my announcement: “You were in my class!” He was completely shocked. It happens on the streets of Jerusalem, but in a remote Bedouin village in the Negev?

Qasr a-Sir can probably learn a lesson or two from the Falakhim who operate “Drejat: Hospitality in a Cave.” The tribe of Arab farmers originally from Saudi Arabia moved to Hebron and then relocated south to the foothills of the Yatir mountains in the mid-19th century. They offer charming tours of their ancient residential caves, with mouthwatering feasts, humorous stories, and bitter coffee spiced with cardamom.

Though they are not obligated to serve in the army, they do so. Anahnu hayyim bim’dinat yisrael v’zeh hamedinah shelanu” says our guide, Nasser. “We live in the state of Israel and this is our country.” But the Falakhim also fought for their right to open day care centers, kindergarten and schools. Many of Drejat’s 900 residents are now pursuing degrees in higher education.  Nasser reels off statistics that sound like a version of the Passover song Ehad Mi Yodea: 40 medical students, 35 teachers, 10 doctors (including 2 women), 10 tour guides, 8 lawyers, and 950,000 visitors to the cave, owned by his brother-in-law. The moral, he says, is that if you set a goal, you can achieve it. Sounds a lot like Herzl.

When we finally arrive at BGU’s Beersheva campus, it is eerily quiet; not a student in sight. We stop for a hurried group photo before meeting with Rivka Carmi, the first woman president of an Israeli university and an acclaimed geneticist. She tells us proudly that the university was voted the number one choice in undergraduate education by its 20,000 students, that it serves as a regional catalyst for physical, economic and educational development, participates in many consortiums with government agencies and private corporations, and provides outreach to underprivileged Bedouin, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants. “Other universities are not as involved in these areas,” she says.

As the new front, Beersheva must deal with the psychological toll, she notes. “We can’t just shut down an economy and a country.” The university is tapping its own student body to develop and train a cadre of crisis volunteers in collaboration with the city of Beersheva. A recent questionnaire elicited 400 volunteers in one day for 19 types of positions that included staffing day care centers for children of first responders; providing support for the elderly; opening shelters; working as engineers and security personnel. They will also be trained to reinforce “resilience centers,” separate clinics that help “stress patients” normalize their feelings and map out support systems. Developed by IDF social workers and psychiatrists, this alternative to hospitalization has also helped minimize post-traumatic stress disorders in the general population. Resilience, hope, optimism—the Israeli trademark.

We enjoy dinner at a restaurant with a safe room, and on our return to our dorms, identify the shelter we might have to run to within 40 seconds of any siren sounding. I sleep with my room key in my coat pocket, my shoes facing the bed so I can slip them on quickly. I am nervous, but the night passes quietly. In the morning a cease-fire is announced. But some rockets continue to be fired.

Day 3

Today is a day for wine, olives and cheese. The ancient spice route traversed by the nomadic Nabatean tribes who traded in myrrh and frankincense has been revitalized, offering visitors the chance to stop at 35 ranches that specialize in olives, goat cheese and fish, and a dozen different vineyards that produce anywhere from 1000 to 150,000 bottles a year as well as organic teas and spices.

A grove of 250 olive trees newly planted at the experimental Wadi Mashash Farm 20 miles south of Beersheva is growing miraculously in seemingly parched sand. Pedro Berliner, director of the Blaustein Institute, explains that modern agroforestry is reclaiming Nabatean methods of water harvesting, a cheap, robust and efficient system. The amount of rainfall in the area is low—only four inches, he says, but there are a few “high intensity events.” Instead of being absorbed immediately into the ground, the heavy rains flow to low-lying areas and pool in previously prepared plots surrounded by dikes. The soil slowly absorbs and stores the water so crops can grow throughout the summer.

Using the same technology, an adjacent acacia forest provides fodder for animals as well as firewood; maize will be planted in between the trees. The techniques developed at Wadi Mashash are helping third-world countries combat desertification, the further degradation of arid lands.

From a purely gastronomic point of view, I’m bowled over. I can’t get enough of the extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil from a nearby grove that we sample with Bedouin pita. I must say that I like this combination of tourism and technology. And it’s far from over.

We meet Daniel Kish next, a tanned and bearded sculptor in denim overalls and a wide white kippah who has turned his artistry to the creation of boutique organic wines. Kish grows and blends Cabernet, Petit Verdot, Shiraz, Zinfandel and Merlot grapes. He has named his wines for the four local riverbeds: Paran, Rimon; Neqorot and Ardon. BGU researcher Aaron Fait is working with Kish to test the impact of intense light, temperature and mild drought conditions on the grapes, and to determine how those variables affect the quality of the wine and the presence of anti-inflammatory compounds like Resveratrol. The low humidity prevents fungi and bacteria, so pesticides are unnecessary. Birds are the biggest nuisance. “If you are the only wet and colorful thing in desert, you will be eaten!” says Fait. Kish’s sculptures dot the path that winds down to the vineyards. “Wine is like good art, it’s from my belly,” he says.

On to the Kornmehl Cheese Farm, yet another collaboration between farmer and scientist centering on how to manage water in the desert. Micheal Travis is the Wisconsin-born scientist who moved to Israel in 2005 to get his PhD from BGU, specializing in wastewater reuse. Amazingly, 80 percent of water in Israel is reused; the percentage in the United States is tiny Eighth-generation Jerusalemite Anat Kornmehl and her Argentinian-born husband Danny are the farmers and cheesemakers who moved to the Negev highlands in 1997 and want to grow grass for their 100 Nubian goats. They believe that the health of the goats is of utmost importance, and the quality of the milk – 4,000 gallons a year, antibiotic and hormone-free—comes from the goats’ living conditions and good food.  With their long, floppy ears, smiling eyes, wide mouths and expressive, camel-like faces, the goats do look awfully cheerful—in fact, many pose comically for the camera.

The Kornmehls’ land faces remnants of terraces belonging to an ancient farm from the Middle Bronze period (1000-2000 BCE). Their small restaurant, opened four years ago, serves specialties like goat-cheese pizza, phyllo stuffed with cheese, camembert on potato slices in a garlic yogurt sauce and Edna cheese sticks served in sweet wine apple sauce. “We are farmers but we cannot disconnect from tourism,” says Anat. When tourists who arrive after us cannot be accommodated in the restaurant, she sends them to a nearby farm. “We are all colleagues. There’s no competition,” she explains.

Next: A feast for the eyes at Makhtesh Ramon, often called Israel’s Grand Canyon. I learn that a makhtesh is a geological formation distinctive to the Negev and Sinai; the word has no exact translation. I’ve heard the 1000-foot-deep makhtesh referred to as the Ramon Crater, but now I delete my vision of an asteroid crashing into the Negev and leaving behind a lunar landscape.

Crater; Creator: The awe-inspiring vista evokes a sense of primeval space and creation echoed in the name of the luxurious new Beresheet Hotel, built on high cliffs that look down into the panorama (Beresheet is the first word of the Bible). Built of indigenous rock and Brazilian wood, the 111 individual chalets were designed to blend organically into the environment. Visitors can explore the makhtesh by Jeep, razor (a small car), biking, hiking, rappelling and horseback (bar mitzvah and wedding packages are available). At the spa, I pamper myself with a salt and lavender body scrub. It’s a tough assignment, but someone has to do it.

Day 4

I wake up before sunrise to take a photography walk in the sculpture park on the hotel grounds. A Stonehenge-type sculpture lends a prehistoric aura, a monument to the footsteps of primitive man. Another sculpture mimics the contours of the flat-topped cliff, now silhouetted against the lightening sky. A few hardy shrubs sprout from rocky crevices, and sometimes an ibex emerges. As the sun rises, an ethereal sight unfolds: a sole gray cloud spreads like a pair of angel wings, creating a canopy above the sun’s perfect orb. At the edge of the manmade reflection pool, a single tire floats precipitously.

Breakfast surpasses expectations, even for Israeli buffets known for their sumptuousness. The pan-Mediterranean restaurant purchases ingredients from local kibbutzim and farms like Kornmehl. How do you choose from the assortment of local artisan cheeses and yogurts? From the palette of fresh salads and veggies in vibrant oranges, greens and reds? From warm breads, crisp crackers (my favorite are studded with black nigella seeds), fresh and dried fruit? (Answer: You sample a little of everything!) The open kitchen turns out omelets, puddings, mini-quiches, shakshuka, sweet ricotta baked in birds’ nest pastry, croissants, and cheesecakes. I have to laugh at a crock of porridge labeled “Semolina Mess!”  Yes, good art does come from—and for—the belly.

Today is a day of tribute to Ben-GurionHis signature bald pate and fluff of hair, intimidating brow and slight smile are molded into a huge stone bust at the entrance to the Ben-Gurion Archives in Sde Boker. The low-tech, modest archive—a research laboratory—holds thousands of files from 1900-1973 organized according to document type. Letters, memos, telegrams, diaries, speeches, articles, and correspondence are stored in metal bookcases in hand-labeled cardboard boxes. Sometimes a box contains a day, and sometimes, 12 years. (Most of the files in the archive are scanned and available on the Internet.)  The archives are helping researchers examine deep philosophical inquiries about Israeliness, Jewishness, Zionism and the multi-faceted contexts in which Israel exists.

As for Ben-Gurion the man, he knew his place in history. He made hand-written copies of letters before they were mailed, so both the letter and reply are preserved. He indexed the small pocket diaries that he filled with facts and data and had them typed while he was alive. But readers who might expect juicy entries will be disappointed. Dec. 5, 1917: “At 11:30 in the morning I married a wife.”  Ben-Gurion did show some emotion in his entry for May 14, 1948, the date of the declaration of the state. “1 pm. We author the text of the declaration.”  “4 pm. And again I am a mourner among the joyful, as I was on November 29 [the day the UN accepted the partition plan].” Ben-Gurion knew the consequences of both historic decisions would entail bloodshed.

Ben-Gurion uttered his famous vision for the Negev in 1935, when he visited the area as president of the Jewish Agency: “What’s missing,” he said, “are Jews and water.” His dream of populating the Negev with five million people is still far from reality (population in 2010: 627,000) but many of the scientific achievements he foresaw (like desalination) have come to fruition. He himself settled in Sde Boker (literally, Fields of Cowboys) shortly after the kibbutz was founded in 1952. Of the 18 founders, the oldest was 25. Ben-Gurion was already a 67-year-old grandfather. The kibbutz did not want him for political, practical and security reasons. But he persisted until they accepted his membership. None of his three children and seven grandchildren ever lived in the Negev.

At his request, Ben-Gurion’s “hut”—the small house he lived in for 20 years until his death in 1973—is open to the public. It showcases his personal background and his love of the Negev. The living room is decorated with a large map of Israel; a copy of the Declaration of Independence; a fruit plate with a picture of the Israeli flag; a hanukkiah that plays Hatikvah, and other souvenirs and gifts. Ben-Gurion had three heroes, all of whom fought for freedom: Lincoln holds court in the living room; Gandhi looks out at a spartan bedroom (almost empty except for a cot and 50 books on a nightstand); a miniature of Michelangelo’s Moses stands on one of the bookcases in the study, crammed with 5000 books in 9 languages on every subject except sports and cooking. Ben-Gurion’s glasses rest on his desk as he left them.

Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula are buried side by side in a simple plot overlooking the breathtaking Zin Canyon, south of Sde Boker.  The graves are inscribed only with their names in Hebrew and three dates: birth, death, and aliyah (1906). Ben-Gurion did not want elaborate eulogies or inscriptions. But one of the quotes that line the walkway to his hut seems apt: “Wisdom goes with south. It is written, whoever seeks wisdom, south he shall go.”

Thousands of years ago, the 12 biblical spies set out to scout the land from this very spot: Midbar Zin, the wilderness of Zin. I imagine them hiding in the cliffs and canyons, wondering how to live in this craggy yet wondrous landscape, clambering up hills that resemble tents pitched on sandy rocks. Though they returned with a cluster of grapes—tangible bounty of a land flowing with milk and honey—ten of the spies also articulated a lack of faith that deterred their brethren from going forth. Ben-Gurion did not harbor that sense of powerlessness. The horizon, he believed, was the limit for human and national achievement.

Three young Israeli soldiers who head down the cement path toward the graves interrupt my reverie. Two carry guitars. They are on leave, these contemporary Israelites in the desert of their ancestors. I take picture after picture, captivated by the ancient lens and the modern one.