Students on the Ben-Gurion University campus in Be'er Sheva
Students on the Ben-Gurion University campus in Be’er Sheva

Israel is well-known and admired worldwide as a center for high technology and the creation of new companies in numbers far beyond what would be expected of a small nation. And Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU) is a leading catalyst for this economic progress in the Be’er Sheva desert region.

University scientists are developing new technology for medicine, bioengineering and robotics, using innovative software and data analytics that are being patented and marketed in Israel and beyond. From tissue regrowth using algae to the creation of user-friendly robots to aid stroke rehabilitation, BGU scientists are creating new knowledge to reshape health care, transportation and manufacturing.

The university also fosters research and economic development as a partner with the city of Be’er Sheva in its Advanced Technologies Park (ATP), located near BGU’s main campus. Begun three years ago, the ATP already has five office buildings with 1,500 employees of both new Israeli companies as well as such international corporations as Oracle and Deutsche Telecom. The Israeli army plans to bring cyber and intelligence units to Be’er Sheva, which will intensify the area’s technology focus.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and defense minister, is pictured overlooking the Zin Canyon near BGU’s southern Sde Boker Campus, where he was buried

Established as the University of the Desert in 1969, BGU was renamed in 1973 after the death of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and defense minister. Ben-Gurion believed Israel’s future would be in the desert, and the university has developed expertise in desert-related water and solar research. But desert ecology was only the beginning.

“We see ourselves as a force of change in the region, not just making it green but in welfare, culture, biomedicine and high technology,” says Professor Rifka Carmi, BGU’s president, a prominent pediatric geneticist. She is proud of the university’s innovative medical school where, she says, “medical students interact with patients from day one. Our graduates are very compassionate.”

The Soroka Medical Center, affiliated with the university, was a new, small institution when she joined BGU and now is considered one of Israel’s leading hospitals.

Tied To Community

Community involvement is also a BGU focus. Be’er Sheva has a very diverse population comprised of many immigrants from North Africa, Russia and Ethiopia, as well as a large Bedouin population.

“We have an outreach program that brings high school students to the campus to encourage them to attend. We try to promote an interest in science,” Carmi explains.

BGU encourages student engagement by providing 100 students with rent-free apartments in low-income Be’er Sheva communities. These students help with after-school activities and community service programs in their neighborhoods.

Unlike Israel’s other universities, Ben-Gurion University has a large residential student population that enjoys an American-style campus with dormitories, a busy student center and many extra-curricular organizations and activities. One-third of its 20,000 students are pursuing advanced degrees and many of these programs are taught in English.

BGU faculty members engaged in scientific research typically have advanced degrees from American universities and have taught or conducted research here before returning to BGU. Besides the appeal of returning home to Israel, they want to be part of the university’s continuing growth and success.

 Shari S. Cohen Contributing Writer

Shari S. Cohen attended the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Murray Fromson Journalism Fellowship. Look for stories about BGU’s research successes in future issues.

 Quick Facts

  • Israel’s desert (Negev) region comprises 60 percent of its land mass but only 10 percent of its population.
  • Partly because of BGU, Be’er Sheva’s population has doubled in 15 years to more than 200,000, making it Israel’s fourth-largest city.
  • Visit for more about BGU.

Michigan Connections

  • Three Americans will graduate from BGU’s Medical School this year and begin residencies in Michigan, including Judah Weiss at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
  • Elizabeth Warburton, Ph.D., of Kalamazoo is a Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholar at BGU’s Institute for Desert Studies. She is a parasite ecologist, studying interactions between desert-dwelling animals and parasites.
  • BGU and the University of Michigan School of Public Health have been research collaborators for more than 30 years and will announce a major expansion of their partnership this summer.
  • Jewish Detroiters are active in BGU’s American Associates, a philanthropic group providing the largest share of private donations, which help with capital projects, scholarships, laboratory equipment and research.

Transforming Be’er Sheva

Be’er Sheva was part of the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, and its architecture reflects that history with many single-story white stone structures adjacent to sidewalks and streets. Young Israelis are beginning to recognize their potential for retail development. A popular bookstore/cafe/performance space, a high-end gift boutique and a community-run concert venue opened recently near each other in Be’er Sheva’s Old Ottoman City. That the mayor reportedly supports revitalization of the old city and its low-cost real estate (compared to other Israeli cities) may be an incentive for development.

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