Last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whisked 60 Minutes reporter Lesley Stahl on a helicopter and flew over not the holy city of Jerusalem, nor the bustling city of Tel Aviv, but the Negev’s Beersheba.
That was not an accident. What was once considered a remote, arid city only worthy of a quick bathroom break on the way to the resort city of Eilat has now become what Jewish National Fund (JNF)-USA proudly calls ‘the Crown Jewel’ of the Negev. It’s a transformation 15 years in the making. JNF’s groundbreaking Blueprint Negev initiative aims to improve the quality of life in the Negev and ultimately bring 500,000 new residents to the region in the next 10 years.
“People laughed at us,” JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson recalled, as he explained when he and JNF Chairman Ronald S. Lauder decided to launch the initiative to “save” the Negev. The cards were stacked against them. With morale among the city’s residents low, many felt abandoned by a government who placed new immigrants there during the country’s infancy as an easy solution to populate the vast and open areas of the newly formed state.
When Blueprint Negev was launched in 2003, 193,000 people lived in the region, with a 3% population loss a year, despite the Negev making up some 60% of Israel’s landmass. Now, the city of Beersheba alone is home to 200,000 people. But, back then, the team at JNF decided an image makeover was in need to reverse the statistics.
“If all you think of a place is that it’s far and dusty, you’ll never be able to change someone’s mind. So we decided that the image surrounding Beersheba needed to change,” Robinson explained. JNF got to work by cultivating a network of partners who shared the same vision and also wanted to realize David Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the Negev bloom.
A key partner in facilitating that vision is Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich – a rising star in Israeli politics. “He’s a great mayor and was elected by 93% of the voters because he did not see the projects just as ribbon-cutting ceremonies that would work well for his re-election. He looked for change-making projects for his city. He views these projects benefiting the future of Beersheba,” Robinson said.
To that end, Danilovich has several high-profile projects under his belt, with more on the horizon. Beersheba’s success as the fastest growing city in the country is attributed to its achievements in not just one field, but many. “I think there’s something about the people in Beersheba and the Negev who are able to take a big, seemingly impossible dream, and with their hope and ingenuity, make it happen. Beersheba is not only spoken about in Israel now, but around the world,” Mayor Danilovich told The Jerusalem Post.
Specifically, its presence in the field of cyber security has earned the city worldwide acclaim.
Driving through the city, one sees a who’s who of companies that have set up shop here, with Lockheed Martin, Oracle, Cisco, and IBM being just a few examples. But the biggest change is yet to come.
In 2021, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will transfer its technology and intelligence units to the South and bring roughly 20,000 soldiers along with it.
“This national cyber program is of utmost importance to the security of the State of Israel. It was decided that this center, this hub, will not be located in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv, but right here in Beersheba – that carries a lot of significance,” Danilovich asserted.
“There is no doubt that this is a game-changer for the city. [The elite IDF intelligence unit] 8200 will be three minutes away from Beersheba,” he said proudly.
To incentivize IDF personnel to lay roots in Beersheba, JNF is working closely with its partners at the Lauder Employment Center to find jobs for spouses of soldiers so they will stay as a family. In the last year alone, the center placed nearly 1,000 individuals in new high paying jobs in the area. But that ingredient of cyber security added to what is already in place – a thriving cultural scene, a wide array of subjects to study at Ben-Gurion University, and a massive parks and recreation project already under way, all of which are collectively helping place the city on the map as the thriving one-stop shop of the Negev. However, JNF is heavily invested in not only making Beersheba thrive, but in ensuring its successes spread to the surrounding cities and towns.
“We look at everything through the prism of continuity and what can be a catalyst for growth in the region. The overarching goal is sustaining the current population and bringing them to the Negev,” JNF’s Chief Israel Officer Eric Michaelson said. “By making Beersheba that hub of activity, excitement and traffic, it will eventually branch out to the rest of the Negev.” Which is why JNF is investing across a variety of sectors. It’s biggest – and most expensive – initiative is the massive River Park complex in the heart of the city.
Twice the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, the complex will have an eight-kilometer (five-mile) promenade, restaurants, kiosks, and 20,000 housing units surrounding it. JNF-USA’s presence is evident across every city block of this thriving metropolis. “They saw the value in investing in the Negev and turning a desert city into an oasis. This wouldn’t be possible without them. They have breathed life into this city,” Danilovich said.
This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund (JNF)-USA.