In the Beginning
Before a Negev university was even a gleam in anyone's eye, when Beer-Sheva was a dusty frontier town, David Tuviyahu, the city's first mayor, had a philosophy that reached across borders of space and time: There would be peace and people will travel between Cairo, Jerusalem, Amman and Damascus. Their paths would converge in Beer-Sheva, and the city's transportation network had to be ready. He built a bus station that was far bigger than Jerusalem's because he deeply and passionately believed in the regional importance and centrality of Beer-Sheva.
Some 13 years later, in 1962, Tuviyahu joined Prof. David Bergmann and an enthusiastic group of visionaries whose itinerary lay in a different direction; they wished to expand the intellectual boundaries of the Negev by creating a university in Beer-Sheva. They first met at a luncheon featuring a prosaic menu of pickled herring. Their dreams, hopes and ideas, made it sublime. Their conviction, dedication - and support from friends in high places - helped to make it a reality.
The pregnancy was a long one - seven years, as a matter of fact. Meeting by meeting they shaped the questions: What will we teach, where will we teach, where will the students come from and where will we get faculty members? How will they do research? How do we pay for it?
Little by little they found answers to some questions - when they couldn't, they improvised. They cajoled Israel's academic community and political leadership into supporting their enterprise. While Prof. Zeev Hadari paraphrased David Ben-Gurion's philosophy by proclaiming "If there is no university in the Negev's future, then there is no future for the Negev." David Tuviyahu set up a "Board of Governors" - a support system for the university that was not yet born. It worked. The government approved establishing the Negev Institute for Higher Education.
Academic sponsorship, teachers and administrators came from the Technion, the Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute. The faculty was reinforced by scientists from local industries and the Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research (today BGU's Applied Research Institutes). Classes were held at the Negev Institute, shops, hotel rooms, local schools - wherever lecturers found some space.
A former immigrant hostel - Beit HIAS – became a campus.
The relationship with local industry was symbiotic - professionals came in the afternoons to teach students who worked in industrial labs, and helped with research and development. Lecturers from the Technion were flown down, so sometimes classes were canceled on account of weather. Biology lecturers from the Hebrew University would bring microscopes with them for their classes. Nearly everyone came from somewhere else.
Government support and growing enrollment quickened the Institute's development into "The Negev Institute for Higher Education - University of the Negev." It was not yet independent of its sponsors, but no one doubted that one day it would be a full-fledged university. As the anticipated birth-date drew near the town buzzed with excitement.
It was time to entice, entrance and inspire bright, young academics. The focus was on Israelis living abroad and potential immigrants who might want to come to the Negev to create a new University in the desert.
"In 1968 David Tuviyahu came to see me at Northrop Industries, where I was the only geologist on their lunar landing program," says Prof. Immanuel Atzmon "I wanted to return to Israel, and creating the geology department in a new University was an exciting opportunity. I got to Beer-Sheva on a Thursday afternoon and looked for the University but couldn't find it. Beit HIAS was empty because everyone went home for the weekend. Then I discovered that no provisions had been made at all - no offices, labs, no plans. I was terribly discouraged, and went to see Tuviyahu."
Tuviyahu was a great friend of Pinchas Sapir, the Minister of Finance, who "put aside funds to help us by writing memos," says Israel Ben-Amitai, the University's first Director General. "Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Sapir were solid supporters of the idea of a Negev University."
Atzmon continues: "Tuviyahu said: 'I need you because I am not an academic, so people don't listen to me. But Sapir put me in charge of the money. How much do you need to start the department and furnish a lab?' I figured it out and told him: 'Twenty-two thousand pounds.' He opened a drawer, signed a paper, and wrote a number on it: This is your budget number, and you have 22,000 pounds. Go to work."
"On November 9, 1969 we were at the Keren Hall, to hear the final report of the Gilis Committee," says Ben Amitai. Because some members felt that an independent Negev university was not feasible, the vote was tied. Yigal Alon, the Minister of Education and acting Prime Minister after Eshkol's death, was the only one who could break the tie. I told the audience that Mr. Alon had an important announcement to make: 'You rascal', he said to me, 'you forced my hand.' Alon went to the podium and announced that the government would establish and support a university in the Negev."
A hall full of surrogate parents congratulated each other, laughed and wept. The University of the Negev was born. They may have been visionaries, but they did not dream that one day it would extend its reach to the edges of the earth and into the realm of the stars.
Nor did they have time for such thoughts, for now it was time to build this child a real home, to clothe it, feed it and to provide for its future.