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 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 the rockets and attacks that blare across 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 settled in the Negev (though it was not called that then) and almost immediately 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 the site of one of BGU’s three campuses.

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 and Arava Science Center that Ahava and BGU researchers share, Dr. Eitan Wineman [title, what is connection to bgu] 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.

The Center is also in the process of patenting an anti-cancer drug developed from local plant extracts. Cancer cells grow easily out of the body so the lab uses live human skin from breast and abdomen reductions. The plant—whose name is protected because of the patent process—has been shown to protect against UV radiation and increase metabolism [how is that anti-cancer].

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 Wineman. “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 for industrial use from the Jordan River, which flows into the Dead Sea. The water level of the Dead Sea is dropping at a rate of two billion gallons, or four feet a year. Because the groundwater is also drying up, massive sinkholes—there are 4000 around the Dead Sea—radiate out of the cracked stony ground.  Further proof of an environmental crisis is hardly necessary, but it’s hard 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, bouncing around ideas for more rapid solutions like pumping in water by building a Dead Sea-Red Sea canal, and longer-term rehabilitation of the water balance system.

The mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue at Ein Gedi established by Judeans in the seventh century BCE is tiled with an intriguing Hebrew inscription: “Do not reveal the secret of the village to the gentiles.” Are Ein Gedi’s springs—its coveted water supply—the mystery? [eingedioasisexcavations]. Examples of the area’s distinctive flora are labeled for visitors: A Dead Sea or Sodom Apple tree—its soft yellow fruit explodes with a puff when pressed; the thorny, pod-bearing acacia, and Jericho balsam, also thorny with date-like fruit. And then there is the caper, 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 all but one, which hit an empty school building. The trip organizers ask if we want to proceed to Beersheva the next day.

They emphasize that nobody who has followed the safety rules has been hurt. Be calm, they say. 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 think about 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 amazing 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, [title] a specialist in dryland agriculture 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 an inch of rainwater the whole summer, 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. Even an decided un-lover of peppers like me is 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, and irrigated with drainage water. The area is disconnected from the main water supply, and desalinated water is only available by pipe when municipalities and factories have an overage. The water below the soil is saline, but farmers have learned to use it. 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 these [what are these? Lack of water?] problems 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 do backbreaking labor for low pay—but they still earn much more than what they can in Thailand. The Thais are not as trained to follow the safety measures that are ingrained in every Israeli: a worker at the moshav of Netiv Haasarah, on the border with Gaza, was killed by a rocket a few days after our trip ends. Israel’s use of foreign labor has resulted in a host of social, psychological, cultural, legal and ethical issues that demand attention.

At the official Bedouin village of Qasr-A-Sir, south of Dimona, another poor 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. The collaborative vision between culture and modernity is being spearheaded by Bustan, an Israeli NGO that promotes sustainability. 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 gets 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. 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, the poorest communities in Israel,” says Yodan Rofe, an architect and urban planner from BGU’s Sede-Boqer 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 if planners imposed 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 on the edge of cities or in semirural areas. We can use our research for the development of those 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 to live among the Bedouin. 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 they also fought for their right to open day care, kindergarten and schools., and still don’t have electricity. Many of its 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 don’t care about these things,” she says.

She discusses the psychological toll of being the new front. “We [israelis?] are all highly confident but a third of the population [where?] has some kind of Post-Traumatic Syndrome. People are scared.” A structured program at the local Soroka Hospital treats people for anxiety but does not hospitalize them, so their feelings are normalized. University students also volunteer in the community according to their expertise, in areas like psychology, medicine, education. BGU is also one of the few universities in the world to offer a Bachelors degree in emergency medical services.  “We can’t just shut down an economy and a country,” says Carmi.

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 on Tu Bishvat at the experimental Wadi Mashash Farm 20 miles south of Beersheva are 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 rainfall in the area is small—only four inches, he says, but it falls heavily at one time, causing floods that cover the area like a small lake. Instead of being absorbed immediately into the ground, the water flows to low-lying areas that can then support crops by percolating slowly into the soil throughout the summer.

The olives produce income, not to mention delicious extra-virgin, cold-pressed oil that we sample with Bedouin pita. 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.

At Kish Farm, we meet Daniel Kish, 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; Nikrot and Ardon. BGU researcher Aaron Fait is working with him to determine which grape varieties interact best with the saline water, drought and intense light. The low humidity prevents fungi and bacteria, so pesticides are unnecessary. Birds are the biggest nuisance, Kish says: “If you are the only wet and colorful thing in desert, you will be eaten!” His sculptures dot the path that winds down to the vineyards. “Wine is like good art, it’s from my belly,” he says.

The Kornmehl Cheese Farm represents yet another collaboration between farmer and scientist centering on how to manage water in the desert. Jim [last name] is the Wisconsin-born scientist who moved to Israel in 2005 to get his masters from BGU, specializing in waste water reuse. (Amazingly, 80 percent of water in Israel is reused; the percentage in the United States is tiny [exact?]) Eighth-generation Jerusalemite Anat Kornmehl and her Argentinian-born husband Danny are the farmers and cheesemakers who want to grow grass for their 100 Nubian goats, who produce 16,000 gallons of milk a year. With their long, floppy ears, smiling eyes, wide mouths and expressive, camel-like faces, the goats look like they are posing comically for the camera.

The Kornmehls’ small restaurant, opened four years ago, serves specialties like goat-cheese pizza, phyllo stuffed with cheese, camembert and potatoes 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.

A feast for the eyes awaits us at the luxurious new Beresheet Hotel, built on high cliffs that look down into the panorama of Makhtesh Ramon, often called Israel’s Grand Canyon. I learn that a makhtesh is a geological formation distinctive to the Negev and Sinai, and has no exact translation. I’ve heard it referred to as the Ramon Crater, but now I delete the picture I had formed of an asteroid crashing into the Negev and leaving behind a moon-like landscape.

Crater; Creator: The vista evokes a sense of primeval space and creation, as the hotel’s name suggests (Beresheet is the first word of the Bible). Built of rock and 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 [check this].

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. 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. Sometimes ibex, alpacas and llamas perch on the rocks, though only the ibex are indigenous to the area.

Breakfast surpasses expectations, even for Israeli buffets known for their sumptuousness. How do you choose from the assortment of local artisan cheese and yogurts (many from Kornmehl and another nearby farm); a palette of fresh salads and veggies in vibrant oranges, greens and reds; breads and crackers—my favorite are studded with black nigella seeds; fresh and dried fruit. The open kitchen turns out omelets, puddings, mini-quiches, shakshuka, sweet ricotta baked in birds’ nest pastry, croissants, and cheesecakes. I have a laugh at a crock of porridge labeled “Semolina Mess!”

Sated, we head out to Sde Boker for a day of tribute to Ben Gurion.  His 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. It’s a low-tech, modest library, a research laboratory with thousands of files from 1900-1973 organized according to document type—letters, memos, telegrams, diaries, speeches, articles, correspondence—in hand-labeled cardboard boxes stored in metal bookcases. Sometimes a box contains a day, and sometimes, 12 years. (The entire archive is also scanned in Hebrew 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 from a head of state will be disappointed. An entry for Dec. 5, 1917: “At 11:30 in the morning I married a wife.”  He did show some emotion on May 14, 1948, the date of the declaration of the state. At 1 pm, he wrote, “We author the text of the declaration.”  At 4 pm, when he knew war with the Arabs would be imminent: “I’m again a mourner.”

Ben-Gurion’s “hut,” the small house he lived in on Kibbutz Sde Boker until his death in 1973, is open to the public at his request. It showcases his personal background and his love of the Negev. He 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 (stands at 650,000, including Bedouin) but the scientific achievements he foresaw (like desalination) have come to fruition.

Ben-Gurion settled in Sde Boker (literally, Fields of Cowboys) shortly after the kibbutz was founded with 18 people; the oldest was 25 and 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.

It’s obvious what Ben-Gurion cared about. 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 music box that plays Hatikvah. He 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. The 5000 books on the shelves are in 9 languages and cover every subject except sports and cooking. (another 22,000 are in his home in Tel Aviv).

Though he was not religious he loved the Bible; a pair of glasses rests as he left them, on ??? a book of Psalms??? I think back to the one time I met Ben-Gurion in person: Spring, 1973, on stage at a Jerusalem theater for the oral round of the International Bible Contest. He, too, came on stage, this lover of Bible, with his white halo of hair, to give support to the frightened teenage participants. He died the following December.

Ben-Gurion and Paula, his wife, 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 I think about one of the quotes that line the walkway to his hut, and it seems apt: “Wisdom goes with south. It is written, whoever seeks wisdom, south he shall go.”

Midbar Zin, the wilderness of Zin, is the place the 12 biblical spies set out from to scout the land. They came back with a bunch of grapes and…[look up story] I imagine them hiding in cliffs and canyons, wondering how to live in this craggy, unforgiving yet wondrous landscape, clambering up hills that resemble pitched tents perched on sandy rocks. Three young Israeli soldiers come down the path. 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.