It comes down to basic math and logic.
Of the 8.7 million people living in Israel, according to the latest numbers, the vast majority — as much as 90 percent — live in the north, spread among cities like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, and their environs. The remainder inhabit the rest of the country, primarily the southern area known as the Negev.
How can Israelis — as well as their many American sympathizers — get that to change? How can they convince people the Negev, a region that stretches from just outside Gaza across to the Dead Sea that many still view as desert despite myriad technological and cultural advances, is the right place to live and even raise a family?
That’s what was on the docket Sept. 10 to 12 when the Third International Negev Summit took place. Hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, N.J., participants were bused to Drexel University Sept. 11, where they watched how something called placemaking — in which the local community works in conjunction with government and outside agencies — implements strategies that will better the community.
“Placemaking is about enabling the citizens who live in the south to create a positive connection to the place where they live so they can become a more resilient community,” explained Rina Edelstein, associate vice president for global programs with the Jewish Federations of North America. “Because they’re constantly under fire with war after war in the region, they tend to not necessarily be proud of where they live. We’re trying to make them proud and more connected.”
The summit first took place in Miami, followed by Wilmington, Del., in 2014. It brings together representatives from seven Jewish federations across the U.S. and Canada — the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, as well as those in New York, MetroWest, Miami, St. Louis, Montreal and Canada — who’ve allocated a $2.5 million grant to JFNA in 2014 through the Negev Funding Coalition (NFC). That grant will be used to make the Negev more desirable.
In the process, they’re trying to fulfill the prophecy of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
“Ben-Gurion’s vision was there would be 100 towns of 30,000 in the Negev,” said Boaz Israeli, CEO of Praxis, an Israeli placemaking organization. “It never happened.
“Right now, the Negev is 60 percent of the land but only 10 percent of the population. Jerusalem is packed. Tel Aviv is packed. Haifa is packed. The only way to grow is in the Negev.”
One of the keys to that growth is making the area attractive enough to military personnel to move down there and bring their families along. Therefore, JFNA is working in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MOD) to make that happen.
“The MOD wants to allocate units south to the Negev. That’s part of the Israeli government’s plan,” said Yonat Marton Razon, MOD head of civil infrastructure for the Southern Transfer Administration. “We’re building an infrastructure for the future and want to use this project to strengthen the Negev. It’s kind of a win-win situation.”
Anticipating a boom, Razon said a number of companies have jumped on board.
“First of all, there are companies who saw the opportunity and started working with MOD,” she said. “Next, we’re getting the funds and building a lot of bases. This project is going to relocate approximately 35,000 IDF soldiers to the Negev. It’s doubling the amount serving there today. That’s why we cooperate with organizations that work within the community to make the Negev much more attractive.”
With the initial grant due to run out in 2018 — subsidized by annual $175,000 grants — Edelstein said this is a crucial time.
“This summit is right in the crossroads, because this concept of placemaking is starting to take root,” Edelstein said. “With the idea of the Israeli army moving thousands to the south, you have to have a relocation plan. You can’t be moving bases to the Negev if you don’t create an environment that is strong and vibrant. These career army people won’t want to live there.”
Most JFNA members within the NFC are in partnership with specific Negev communities. Philadelphia’s Jewish Federation, working with the area known as Netivot-Sedot Negev, considers it an honor.
“We’ve been working in the Negev for over 20 years,” said Naomi Adler, CEO of the Jewish Federation. “There are people who just think it’s the middle of the desert. We see what it used to be and now what it is today: an incredibly creative and interesting place for both economic and social prosperity. But there are still many things we need as a community to help the Negev bloom.
“That’s why we’re here.”
At Drexel, participants — including Talia Lidar, Jewish Federation’s Israel representative who does a lot of the work on the ground in Netivot-Sedot Negev — witnessed how science and art can play a role in broadening horizons within the local community, then took a tour of the city and visited a Mural Arts Philadelphia site in West Philadelphia. Hearing how placemaking between Drexel and a part of the city generally not considered desirable is changing attitudes, gave participants reason for optimism.
“We saw a way to use the world of art and science and bring all those concepts together,” said Michele Levin, vice chair of the Negev Now Coalition, which works in conjunction with the NFC. “That will open us up to bigger and better things. Seeing it in action like this verifies what we’re trying to do.”
It also never hurts to put faces to the voices JFNA members have been communicating with from a distance, giving them a rare opportunity to discuss their ideas in detail.
“Today, we see and learn from people who know how to do it much better than we do,” Razon said. “We meet. We talk. We dream.”
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