Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Artists, Architects and Plumbers - Part 1

16 March 2009

I, and everyone else who is either being paid to do it or, like me, has too much time on their hands, have been speculating about what the new governing coalition will look like and whether it will be good or bad for the Jews. Once Bibi II takes office, we will immediately begin to speculate about when the new governing coalition will fall and the outcome of the new elections. I've been drafting a blog on the subject and just getting depressed. So let me spare you. Long-term readers of my blogs (both of you can trust me to keep your dirty little secret) know that I think that handing education, welfare allocations, housing and immigrant absorption over to the religious and settlers' parties is a far greater existential threat to Israel than anything the Arabs or the Persians can conjure up. So let's move on to what's good about this country: art, architecture and plumbers. To say nothing of religious pluralism and electricians.

Last Monday, Liz and I finally took the train down to Beersheva to get a tour of Ben Gurion University of the Negev (“BGU”). About two years ago Meir, my cousin-by-marriage, offered to give us a tour of the campus, the engineering labs and the city itself. One faculty strike, a war and a winter cold later, Meir met us at the north Beersheva train station. We walked over the Mexican Friends of BGU Bridge and onto one of the more beautiful college campuses we have been on, both in Israel and the US. (Having to get 3 daughters through college, I've walked my fair share of college campuses.) BGU has grown substantially over the past 10 years (tripling enrollment to over 18,000 students). Its newer buildings are concrete or stone reflecting the colors of the surrounding desert. Inside are atrium lobbies with wooden railings on spiraling staircases. The lobby of the administration building featured an art exhibition by area high school students. The exhibition theme was desert art with some really inspired pieces by both Jewish and Bedouin students showing slices of life in the south.

Meir then took us to meet Asher, his former teacher and now colleague, in the life science laboratories. Asher, an engineer, leads a team of engineers and biochemists doing research on organic methods for cleaning water. He is, according to his wife, a Mahandas Caca (crap engineer). Which, he concedes, is a fair description as his researchers are looking for ways to use bacteria to eat crap on a massive scale. Finding practical ways to transform waste and polluted water into water that can be consumed by humans, animals and plants is, obviously, a real big deal in a country roughly the size of New Jersey, half of which is desert. The research is done in “reactors” which looked to me like a bunch of test tubes and beakers with bubbling liquids that I'm really sure I would not care to drink, hooked up to a variety of devices and computers producing the researchers data. Individual projects can take two to three years to complete and may result in someone receiving a PhD or turn out to be, well, a beaker of crap.

Israel's survival and growth is very dependent upon Israelis' intellectual capacity. On a per capita basis, Israelis publish more research papers and obtain more patents than most other developed countries. This drives the key military and civilian high tech industries which keep the country in business in any way you want to take that phrase. The key, of course, is to maintain a steady flow of high quality students into Israel's universities and colleges. BGU has been working hard on this and has improved its standing in international rankings by attracting students and faculty not just from within the country (Meir and others were recruited from leading research institutions like the Technion) but also from around the world. The role of universities is not just to produce graduates who will go on to get good jobs but to help form new enterprises which create jobs. This will not be enough, however, if its graduates do not remain in the country and give it the benefit of their brilliance. The cutting edge high tech so vital to Israel is, as noted by Bernard Avishai in The Hebrew Republic, is carried in people's heads and those heads can as easily rest on pillows in Silicon Valley, Europe or Mumbai as in Beersheva, Haifa or Rehovot.

You might think that any government, left or right, would have the quality of education and the environment (quality of life) at or near the top of its agenda. These are, after all, the key underpinnings of the two top priorities for the incoming government – security and the economy. What we have instead are a bunch of whining Likud Mks who are angry that Bibi is giving away the “good” ministries to coalition partners, leaving Likudniks positions in Education and Environment that they do not want to fill. Why not? Because these ministries are usually the last in line for budget and job allocations. In Education Bibi is going to allow Shas to control the budget and curriculum for Haredi schools. This will strip more resources from public schools and assure that 20 to 30% of Israel's school children will receive little or no math or science education Since they're being raised to not do national service or go out and get jobs, this doesn't trouble Shas and the Haredi Rabbis. But Israel can't go on indefinitely living off the Soviet school system's emphasis on math and science while trying to support a theocratic, welfare state-within-a-state. Yes, I know I promised no political rant but its hard to remain silent when I'm standing looking at what ought to be the real triumph of Zionism and know that people claiming to be the only authentic Jews may make it into a mere facade.

We left Asher and went off to lunch in the faculty dining room. I used to wonder if faculty ate better than us students. They do. Try the shwarma and broccoli with pasta if you get the chance. On our way there we walked through the central campus which features a garden with a stream flowing between concrete banks that expand and contract along the way, creating nice, Zen water sounds. We also stopped in at the main campus library. The building features terraced archways with windows, all facing north. Inside, the library floors are open with lots of natural light but no heat from direct sun. Each floor is terraced back from the one below, creating balconies that look down to the main floor.

After lunch we took a city bus from the new campus to the old campus, where Meir's department is housed. First thing you notice at the bus stop is the large number of Arabs (probably Bedouin given where we were) at the bus stop. About 20% of Israel's population is Arab but it is not evenly distributed around the country. In Tel Aviv and the “center” surrounding Tel Aviv you rarely see Arab faces. Go up north or down south and they can be half the people you meet. My unscientific survey of BGU, based on who was sitting in the library and student union, is a fair-sized representation of Arab students. Israel is struggling with integration but, at least in some places, there seems to be some progress.

We also got a look at, but unfortunately did not have time to go into, Siroka Medical Center, a leading trauma facility and the main hospital for southern Israel. BGU has an outstanding medical school (I know because they produced my Israeli cardiologist) affiliated with Siroka.

BGU's construction engineers are housed in a former hotel complex which looks to have been built in the 1950s. Meir introduced us to Eddie, a Russian who really was an engineer in the old country. Eddie walked us through labs where students study the effects of wind sheer, torque, earthquakes and the like on support beams. In one lab students design their own concrete beams and building blocks, complete with rebar. The students actually make the beams and then get to try to destroy them by applying excessive amounts of weight or tension. Eddie says destroying things is the fun part.

We walked out of the old campus and stepped central Beersheva. Twenty or thirty years ago, Beersheva was still largely an oasis with a Bedouin market bordering a dowdy settlement town. Forget it. This is a modern city with all the accoutrements. We walked by the city courthouse and administration building, built to look like a opened, Sephardic-style Torah scroll. As we strolled along Liz spotted dresses on sale which looked like suitable gifts for the daughters. (We can't go away for 4 months and come home empty-handed, no matter how old they get.) So, as Liz searched the racks, Meir and I took in the street scene. Parading out from the courthouse were a number of lawyers (anyone in a black suit and tie carrying a court robe on a spectacular sunny day has to be a lawyer as there was no nearby psychiatric facility). They reminded me how much I love being retired.

The downside of Beersheva is its reputation for being a place that people prefer not to live in. Despite the tremendous growth of the university and hospital, the town has had a decrease in population. Many of the students and faculty are commuters. (Meir and his family live in Tivon, near Haifa. He works from home 1 or 2 days a week.) Young people leave for lack of jobs. A high tech industrial park might help but who knows if one will ever be set up.

After a stroll through the shuk Meir left us at the central train station for the ride back to Tel Aviv. Actually, the train ride alone is worth the trip. You can watch the ground change color as everything becomes greener as you head north (or more yellow and white as you head south).

No comments: