The life of Michael Biton, Mayor of Yeruham and a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow, took a dramatic turn because of his studies here. "It was a profound experience for me listening to Amos Oz read Agnon’s 'Simple Story’ and analyzing it in class," he says. "At Ben-Gurion University I experienced, for the first time, academic success at the highest level; there I also met students who became my soul mates and professors who left their mark."
Michael Biton, the Mayor of Yeruham, embodies the common vision of Ben-Gurion University and the Mandel Social Leadership MBA Program, which operates under the auspices of the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management. Biton was born in 1970 in Yeruham to a Moroccan immigrant family, the youngest of nine siblings. He is married to Ilana and is father to five children. In the IDF he served as an officer in the Golani Brigade and currently holds the rank of captain in the Reserves. He has a BA in Behavioral Sciences from Ben-Gurion University, and an MBA in non-profit management from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He describes himself as the "scion of a family of cleaners." When he became the Mayor of Yeruham, he had a purpose – to bring about a social revolution, to curb the trend of people leaving Yeruham, which was pronounced among his contemporaries, and to establish a community of young people who will stay in Yeruham and build their homes there. Under his tenure, Yeruham has undergone a rapid process of development in welfare, education and culture.
Working with strong community bodies, Biton strives to change Yeruham’s image. This change can be seen in the significant increase in demand for housing, the improvement in the education system, the strengthening of young local leadership and in initiatives encouraging the young to come live in the town (including via the "Young Yeruham" group and the Ayalim Student Village, which houses students not only from Yeruham, but also from other places) and in infrastructure development.
In 2014 Biton was behind the signing of a historic agreement to transfer the training complex in Camp Ariel Sharon from the jurisdiction of the Ramat Negev Local Council to that of Yeruham. On his way to becoming Mayor of Yeruham, Biton overcame countless obstacles and drawbacks. Good Samaritans helped him gain acceptance into an infantry officers’ course in the IDF, and his extraordinary determination paved the way to academic success. He says, "I didn’t finish high school, but I was a combat officer in the Golani Brigade. Between 1991 and 1993 I completed my matriculation exams and was accepted into the general studies program at Ben-Gurion University, with a focus on literature and archaeology.
“But deep down, I dreamed of becoming a psychologist. When Amos Oz gave me a score of 100 on a paper about Agnon’s 'Simple Story,’ I realized that I had a chance of being accepted into Behavioral Sciences, but my English was not good enough at that point. So I went to Connecticut, where my wife taught in a Jewish school and I studied English at Yale University. A girl I knew there introduced me to psychologist Dr. Samuel Ben-Dor, who was then the head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at BGU. He agreed to grant me provisional acceptance and if I would attain an average grade of at least 85 during that year, I would be able to enrol officially. Thanks to Prof. Ben-Dor, I completed my first year with honors, and later received a bachelor's degree in Behavioral Sciences with a minor in literature. I was then appointed manager of the Yeruham local community center.
“Amos Oz read Agnon’s 'Simple Story’ in class and analyzed it. It was a profound experience. He is a great writer. My first poems were written while studying with Prof. Yitzhak Ben-Mordechai, another amazing lecturer.”
Which lecturers and courses left their mark on you?
Amos Oz read Agnon’s 'Simple Story’ in class and analyzed it. It was a profound experience. He is a great writer. My first poems were written while studying with Prof. Yitzhak Ben-Mordechai, another amazing lecturer.
Which experiences do you especially remember?
I was married even before starting my studies at the University. During my first year, my oldest daughter Avia was born, and during my third year my second daughter, Roni, was born. When my wife was pregnant, she was studying geography and fainted in the student union. I was in a course "Introduction to Psychology" taught by Prof. Avishai Henik. My cell phone rang and Avishai frowned. I told him, “My wife has fainted, she’s pregnant." Then he said: "It's okay, for a baby I don't mind hearing a ringing phone during a lecture."
What did your university studies give you?
There I experienced, for the first time, academic success at the highest level. There I also met students who became my soul mates and lifelong friends, and professors who left their mark. I’ve already mentioned Amos Oz and Ben-Mordechai, and I would like to add Prof. Iris Parush. While studying with her I wrote a paper on the poet Erez Biton, I recorded him during a four-hour interview in Tel Aviv. I analyzed all of his poems. Prof. Parush gave me a mark of 90 for the paper.
What do you think about the contribution of Ben-Gurion University to the development of the Negev?
A large city that aspires to become a metropolis and has no academic strength cannot reach its potential. The infrastructure created at the University beginning in the 1970s enables Beer-Sheva to become a global cyber superpower. The biggest challenge is keeping the human capital – BGU graduates – in the Negev.
What toolbox did the University equip you with?
Although I did not become a psychologist, a mayor is a bit of a psychologist. When I was active in the Community Action Unit I mentored an Ethiopian student. I helped him prepare for his matriculation examinations, which he successfully passed. When I worked with the Jewish Federations of Canada (UIA), I managed a project with “Start Beer-Sheva” and the University. We set ourselves a goal to double and triple the number of students at the University, and thankfully we succeeded."
What can you tell us about the cooperation between the University and Yeruham?
The University recognized “Hoopoe” – the Yeruham Center of Ecology and Ornithology and became an academic sponsor. Over the last decade, more than 1,000 BGU students have worked in the city. Ten doctors from the Soroka University Medical Center continue to live in Yeruham. Some of our school principals, engineers and social workers are BGU alumni.
What has the Mandel Social Leadership MBA Program contributed to Yeruham?
Yeruham and I have a special connection with Mort Mandel. I am the third Yeruham resident to graduate from the Jerusalem Mandel Program. As part of the Mandel Center for Social Leadership, we established a community leadership program for around twenty people born in Yeruham and some others from communities in the Ramat Negev Regional Council. I am an active lecturer in the program at BGU directed by Prof. Pierre Kletz, who was my mentor. Yeruham is often visited by Mandel Fellows. The crowning glory is that Mort Mandel bought the Phoenicia Glass Works factory and even decided to set up a center here to promote new and innovative educational technology with a $5 million investment.
“The psychologist Dr. Samuel Ben-Dor, former head of the Department of Behavioral Sciences, agreed to grant me provisional acceptance and if I would attain an average grade of 85 during that year, I would be able to enrol officially. Thanks to Prof. Ben-Dor, I completed my first year with honors, and later received a bachelor's degree in Behavioral Sciences.”
A Few Words on Leadership
Your role model?
"I wasn’t around during the era of Ben-Gurion, Begin, Rabin and Peres. They were brave leaders who knew how to make difficult decisions for the good of the state. I think a leader should not only be nice and agreeable, but must also know how to lead in difficult times and to make decisions that aren’t popular, but later turn out to benefit the national interest."
What is your biggest dream?
"I would like for Yeruham to continue to prosper and be an interesting settlement in the Negev, which will allow me to reduce social gaps, to benefit from the growth and strength of the State of Israel, to create good relations between communities, and in between not to forget the family."
What are your ambitions on a personal level?
"I see myself in the coming years joining the national leadership of the State of Israel."
What would you take with you to a desert island?
"My wife and children, the Bible and some other books. When there are good ideas and there is a vision, you can manage in any situation."