By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) was inspired by the vision of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, who believed that the future of the country lay in the Negev region, a desert area comprising more than 60 percent of the country. Established by Israeli government mandate in 1969 as a vehicle for the social, economic, and scientific transformation of the Negev, the university is instilled with the pioneering spirit of Israel’s earliest founders and is driven by the mandate to secure the future of Israel, develop the Negev, and provide opportunity to the region’s residents.
Israel is the only arid country where the desert is actually receding, due in part to research and innovative technology from BGU. Among those scholars and scientists is Avigad Vonshak. A native of Germany, Vonshak received his PhD from BGU in 1980 and completed his postdoctoral training at Michigan State University.
The former director of the internationally acclaimed Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research (BIDR), Vonshak is known in the global scientific community for his approach to sustainable development of drylands through innovative biotechnologies that increase water-use efficiency. He has been on the faculty of the Landau Family Microalgal Biotechnology Lab since its establishment in the mid-‘70s. The group is one of the leading world centers in algal biotechnology research.
Vonshak is the dean of international academic affairs at BGU. He is also the director of the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism. In this role, Vonshak recently launched the institute’s new Israel Studies International Program. A graduate program taught in English, the initiative is intended to prepare students from throughout the world for key political, diplomatic, and academic positions related to Israel and the Middle East, and to serve as “ambassadors” for Israel.
The Ben-Gurion Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, also houses the David Ben-Gurion Archives. Vonshak will speak at the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford on Wednesday,
Sept. 5. Vonshak will take an unusual look at BGU’s founder and what the Ben-Gurion archives reveal about the man, the thinker, and the pioneer behind the university. American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU), Greater New York Region, will host the event.
Jay Leipzig, executive director of the JCC of Greater Hartford from 1977 to 1999, is senior philanthropic advisor with AABGU. A Hartford-area family he knows from his time at the JCC made a substantial gift to the organization to create a satellite program.
“They told me that not enough folks in the Hartford area knew about Ben-Gurion University, what it does for Israel, for academia, for homeland security of Israel, for its work with the community of Beer Sheva, its work with Bedouins, and its desert research – to list just some of BGU’s impact,” Leipzig says. “So we decided to host a program in greater Hartford to let more folks learn about the wonders of Ben-Gurion University.”
Leipzig spread the word to others he knows in greater Hartford, singing the praises of the university. “I also highlighted the fact that BGU holds the David-Ben-Gurion Archives, the equivalent of housing the library of the first president of the United States,” he says. Several people agreed to host the event and invite personal contacts, and to open the event to the community.
“Prof. Vonshak has a broad range of knowledge about the university, and about David Ben-Gurion, himself,” Leipzig says. “We could not think of anyone who would be more interesting or who could better present our wonderful university.”
What do the archives contain? “All the writings – including protocols, diaries, and correspondence – related to Ben-Gurion’s activities,” Vonshak says. While most documents are written in Hebrew, there are also many in English. The archives are used by researchers, both in person and online.
To Vonshak, the most interesting items in the archives are Ben-Gurion’s diaries and his correspondences with other political leaders. The items paint “a leader who was very much ‘mission-oriented’ and who did not have much of a personal life,” Vonshak says. “They reflect the slogan used many times, ‘I know better than the people what is good for them and the future of the state of Israel.’”
In his Sept. 5 talk, Vonshak will explore what makes Israel studies so special. “Why does it attract the interest and attention of scholars – and not necessarily Jewish or Israeli?” he says.
“I will try to ‘decode’ the secrets of the process that led to the establishment of Israel and discover the lessons that other nations can learn.”
“Unlocking the Secrets of David Ben-Gurion’s Archives” with Prof. Avigad Vonshak: Wednesday, Sept. 5, 5:30-7 p.m., Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford | RSVP required: Jay Leipzig, email@example.com / (646) 452-3695