By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Visiting the little house in Sde Boker in the Negev where David and Paula Ben Gurion lived after he stepped down as prime minister, and travelling to other parts of the region made me speculate about what would have happened if, after the Six Day War, Israel had heeded Ben Gurion’s advice and immediately returned the conquered territories. Instead of today’s half-a-million-or-so settlers in disputed land, more Israelis might have come to live in the Negev and help make the desert bloom even more.
The region probably became arid because it was neglected through the ages. People had lived there from time immemorial with enough natural resources to live off them. With modern technology, in which Israel excels, the region has new and untold potential, as Ben Gurion envisaged it. Though some Israelis live there now, there’s room for many more: all the settlers in the West Bank plus others.
This isn’t to suggest that, had there been no settlements in the West Bank, peace would now prevail. The Palestinian narrative has problems with Jews living anywhere in the region. Also many indigenous Beduin with their distinctive way of life feel pushed aside and neglected by the Israeli authorities. Yet the situation would have been radically different – to Israel’s enormous advantage.
Nor is this to suggest that the rest of the world would now love and celebrate the Jewish state. But Israelis would have found it easier to live with themselves and with their neighbours. And Jewish nationalist extremism might have been less of a menace.
Is it too late to change course now? Couldn’t a peace settlement stipulate that amply compensated settlers move to the Negev? Though it seems possible in theory, it’s impossible to see it happen in practice. The ideology of the Greater Israel fuelled by the settler movement seems to have gone too far to be reversible.
The visit to the Negev prompts these and other reflections of that ilk. Ben Gurion’s writings and pronouncements provide the texts and the framework. A recently held conference in Sderot about the region gave participants opportunities to suggest ways in which at least some of the vision could be turned into reality.
There seems to have been general agreement that the Negev can be made very hospitable, for example, to information technology and related fields. Even if Israel won’t be able to bring the West Bank settlers here, it could entice local and foreign investors to bring their resources. Thus more people could come and more facilities could be developed adding to the tranquility and the beauty also comfort and greater prosperity.
Not everything is idyllic but much of it seems very good. Cities are growing. Beersheba has become something of a metropolis. It has a respected university and a famed medical school. Other towns are developing and bringing not only tourists but also permanent residents who see their future there. Even the terrorists in Gaza cannot thwart it despite their periodic barrages of missiles.
All of Ben Gurion’s grand vision may never be realized, but even the present government that vehemently opposes what he stood for may adopt at least parts of it.
Hence this suggestion for those who live abroad: Next time you come to Israel, please bear in mind that there’s more to the country than the antiquity of Jerusalem and the modernity of Tel Aviv. Come south and be inspired.