Shmuel E. Willner is a Resident Scholar at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies specializing in energy security, strategy and...
Mon,Apr 21,2014 21 Nisan 5774
The Negev covers 60% of the State of Israel, yet only 8% of Israel's population lives in the Negev, thus giving the area phenomenal development opportunities.
Taking to heart the statement of David Ben Gurion – 'By the Negev, the Jewish people will be tested', KKL-JNF has invested a great amount of resources to settle and develop the Negev, enabling life to flourish on its dry desert lands. With the help of its Friends worldwide, KKL-JNF has been carrying out numerous projects in the Negev, including building water reservoirs, preparing land for agriculture and communities, establishing research and development stations, working to combat desertification, and developing forests and parks for the benefit of man and environment. KKL-JNF's work has been instrumental in attracting a new generation of young people to the Negev.
Within this framework, JNF USA has introduced a plan called Blueprint Negev to develop the Negev region of Israel. The Blueprint Negev project aims to increase the Negev’s population by 500,000 new residents, improving transportation infrastructure, adding and developing businesses and employment opportunities, preserving water resources and protecting the environment.
I met the CEO of JNF USA, Mr. Russell F. Robinson in Tel Aviv in mid-August to discuss about the Blueprint Negev plan and how it relates to the development and future of Israel. Russell works tirelessly to ensure that JNF’s vision is more relevant and meaningful today than ever before. Under his leadership, JNF has been instrumental in developing successful programs for Israel's water management, community development, environmental work, and the sustainable development of the Negev, all of which play a substantial role in the quality of life for all Israelis.
“The framework of the Blueprint Negev was a simple objective of 500,000 people to the Negev. Now that seems like an astronomical number, but it is not if you break it down to its components”, says Russell. For instance, Beer Sheva’s urban plan is for 450,000-500,000 people. Today Beer Sheva has over 200,000 residents, and is one of the fastest growing cities in Israel. Similar development plans have been prepared similarly for Yeruham, Dimona, Arad, Mitzpe Ramon, Ofaqim and other development towns in the Negev, which all sum up to the 500,000 new residents.
“You cannot move people to Tel Aviv. With these projects you can provide affordable housing and job opportunities. If you don’t do this, you don’t have a place for people to move into. If you don’t plan this well you will have overcrowded Tel Aviv,” concludes Russell. “Open spaces and public land get saved when people utilize them. When people don’t utilize them, often people tend not to care. And it is a terrible policy to protect things because you think it is just to leave them alone. First the hikers go there, then the guys with the four wheel drive, and in the end no one cares what happens to the environment. But if you live there you care about it.”
“Israel is in a different situation than ever before since the destruction of the Second Temple. There are no Jews in exile. This means that for the first time in 2000 years you have a Jewish nation, and by choice a Jew can come here. It is something unbelievable. You should also remember that a Jew can leave here by choice. If we fought 64 years to believe that Israel is real, then we have to work as partners harder than ever before.”
“Do we believe in democracy? Do we believe in values? Do we believe in a Jewish nation? I do. And if you do, first of all, keeping the millions of Jews here is very important. For instance, the immigrants came from the Soviet Union because they were free and it was better in Israel.” The meeting is almost over. Russell is relaxed and energetic despite the fact that he arrived to Israel the same morning with a group of young Americans who are making aliyah to become new immigrants. At the end he concludes, “These youngsters are not here to save Israel, but they come here because Israel is a winner. It is a whole different reason. They want to join the team. I think Israel is a very good place with all its faults. It is always trying to be better.”