Desert research, education center threatened with closure

The prestigious Midreshet Ben Gurion research and education complex in the southern Negev Desert will have to close in nine days unless the Education Ministry stands by a commitment to provide a quarter of the institution’s annual budget, Channel 2 reported Saturday.

No money has been paid since July, the report said.

At issue is NIS 12 million ($3.4 million). The institution raises the rest of the budget itself.

Officials from the academy blamed Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the right-wing religious Jewish Home party, for the shortfall, saying he was opposed to the values espoused by the center.

Located next to Kibbutz Sde Boker and connected academically to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in the southern city of Beersheba, the facility was created in the early 1960s to reflect the vision of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to encourage Jewish settlement and intellectual development in the relatively empty, arid region.

It combines a slew of desert-related research and educational institutions, among them an institute for desert research, a national solar energy center, a boarding school, an environmental high school, a field school and a pre-army preparation academy.

It has recorded breakthroughs in the areas of alternative energy, sustainable agriculture for arid landscapes, and biotechnology.

Ben-Gurion, who also headed the Labor movement, lived and is buried on Kibbutz Sde Boker.

“The money will finish in 10 days,” said Yossi Alsheich, chairman of the board’s finance committee. “We won’t be able to buy food for the students, pay salaries to the employees — and therefore we will have to close the institution.”

The Education Ministry, however, accused it of running a deficit “at the expense of the public purse, without justification.”

The relatively small sum involved could not be the real reason, Alsheich insisted, noting that far bigger amounts were handed out to other academies.

The late former President Shimon Peres with late Prime Minister David Ben Gurion on his daily walks through Kibbutz Sde Boker in 1969. (Defense Ministry Archives)

Uri Distenik, the school’s director, charged the Education Ministry with carrying out a “targeted assassination” on what the institution represented.

Zionist Union lawmaker Hilik Bar tweeted sarcastically on Saturday, “If they’d call it the Sde Boker yeshiva [religious seminary], or Midreshet Jabotinsky [after Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a right-wing visionary and key influence on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], there’s a serious fear that the budget would remain.”

Bar, who heads the parliamentary forum for the strengthening of the periphery, posted on Facebook that it was “shameful” and “moral bankruptcy” on the part of the Education Ministry to let the school close.

“The late Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s heritage of love of the land and of mankind must be instilled in all citizens of Israel, regardless of political affiliation, and Midreshet Sde Boker [another name for Midreshet Ben Gurion] in the Negev has been doing this for many years out of a genuine Zionist mission,” he added.

Again in this beautiful place on earth- sde boker!

Posted by Tomi Bar-zeev on Wednesday, 7 June 2017

In letter sent to Bennett last month, the academy’s board of directors accused Education Ministry Director General Shmuel Abuav of avoiding them, according to the Walla website.

“We’ve tried to prevent this [closure] for two months, but the lack of organization and the ongoing contempt [for us] do not allow us to wait any longer,” the letter warned.

The ministry’s finance department torpedoed an alternative plan to approve the NIS 12 million so long as the school established a teacher training college to serve the whole country, Channel 2 said.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left and Education Ministry director-general Shmuel Abuav at a press conference in Tel Aviv, August 30, 2017. (Yossi Zamir)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left and Education Ministry director-general Shmuel Abuav at a press conference in Tel Aviv, August 30, 2017. (Yossi Zamir)

Then two months ago, it informed the board of governors that it wanted to scrap ministry funding gradually over the next five years, according to Alsheich.

The ministry said, however, that it was working on a recovery program that would allow the school to operate without a deficit and serve the entire education system.

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