For seven years now, American Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has run an annual media mission, showing off the university’s research projects and academic facilities to journalists from the United States. The week-long tour is named for Murray Fromson, a former CBS journalist; his daughter, Aliza Ben-Tal, told me her father had been frustrated that the only Israel stories his fellow journalists seemed to be interested in were those dealing with the conflict.
And reporting “beyond the conflict” was the plan when I joined the mission earlier this week. The itinerary included stops at the Dead Sea, where a BGU researcher is studying the rapidly sinking sea level; the Arava Desert, where Dr. Naftali Lazarovitch is helping farmers grow peppers and tomatoes in the arid soil; and BGU’s Ilan Ramon Center’s observatory, where the plan was to watch the stars.
And then the missiles started raining down, and sky-watching became a local obsession. We found ourselves in a tense Be’er Sheva, where an entire city seemed to be channeling Al Pacino: “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”
Believe me, it’s not that I expected this week in Israel to be all good news. If avoiding conflict is your goal, Israel is not your place. The country is one long argument, and even the “beyond the conflict” stories are barely beyond the conflict. Innocuous phrases seem loaded with political import. Describing his human skin research at the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, Eitan Wineman referred to the bacteria and algae that manage to live in the super-salinated water as “extremophiles.” That seemed as good a name as any for those who have what it takes to live and thrive in Israel.
After three days of retaliatory missile attacks from Gaza, our feel-better mission to Israel changed color. On Monday we debated whether to head to Be’er Sheva at all; that day a missile had slammed into one of its evacuated kindergartens. It wasn’t much of a debate: Our guides ran down the list of extensive safety measures, and almost all of us preferred to be where the action was.
And truth be told, this is a place where people have learned — from experience — what to do when the Grads start falling. At the sound of the siren, you have a minute or more to proceed to a building’s reinforced “safe room” or take cover in a windowless room or stairwell. If you happen to be in a car, you’re told to pull over, leave the vehicle, and scramble for shelter.
And thank God and the Iron Dome missile defense system, the odds of death or injury are pretty low. There have been grave attacks: Last August, a BGU student and another man were seriously injured by a missile. But the local municipality and the Home Front Command had a thorough education from the nearly four-week barrage that came with Operation Cast Lead three years ago. There are clear protocols for mobilizing volunteers and deciding whether to close schools and offices. BGU president Rivka Karmi told us that you can predict the severity of a potential attack by the seniority of the Hamas or Islamic Jihad operative targeted by the IDF. The more important the target, the wider the range of retaliatory missiles.
Karmi had intended to boast about the 20,000-student university’s impact on the region, and she did, even as we heard and felt the sonic booms of jets coursing overhead. She, the IDF, and a number of multinationals have big plans to turn a once sleepy frontier into a high-tech research and development hub. “The Negev is the future of this country,” she said. “The center is overpopulated and polluted. The only place to expand is the Negev.”
The school is also investing in the region’s human capital, with research and outreach aimed at the South’s underprivileged populations, from its 200,000 Bedouins to the children of immigrants who are being taught that a college education is a real possibility. Their stories are every bit a part of Israel as are the jets and missiles.
Still, she couldn’t ignore the “situation.” She recalled how, first as a geneticist and then as the first female president of an Israeli university, she would boast that Be’er Sheva was the safest place in Israel. “All of a sudden, we have become a front,” she said.
This week’s attacks forced her to postpone the start of a new semester and make-up exams for students in some 70 courses — a sort of snow day from hell. The campus, usually bustling with activity, was as quiet as a monastery.
All this takes a toll on students, faculty, and residents. For Gabi Schreiber, dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, who studies post traumatic stress, Be’er Sheva is a living laboratory.
Before we arrived in the city, the Israelis we met along the way were treating the attacks like a distant weather pattern. Sure, there was concern, but after delivering the sober news reports, local stations returned to the usual mix of soaps, variety shows, and foreign imports. As we got closer, the rising anxiety felt like a steady drop in air pressure.
But folks don’t run scared. Monday night we met a bunch of BGU students in a lively bistro (which we picked because there was a safe room nearby). I had lamb kabob, braised sweet potatoes, and chocolate mousse.
War is hell.