TORONTO — Rivka Carmi was a “child of the state,” an Israeli who was born in 1948, the year David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s statehood in the teeth of Arab threats to invade the newly established nation.
“We were told we had a special role to play in Israel’s development,” said Carmi, a native of Zichron Yaakov, one of the first Jewish settlements in pre-state Israel. “I took it seriously.”
Carmi, the daughter of European immigrants who arrived in Palestine in the early 1930s, has the distinction of being one of the most distinguished members of the “class” of 1948.
A physician who has campaigned for gender equality in Israel, she was the first woman to be the president of an Israeli university. She was appointed president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev six years ago. Based in Be’er Sheva, it is Israel’s newest institution of higher learning.
Prior to this, as dean of Ben-Gurion University’s faculty of health sciences, she was the first female director of an Israeli medical school.
Two years ago, in yet another breakthrough, she became the first woman to serve as chair of the Committee of University Heads in Israel.
“I never dreamed of becoming the president of a university,” said Carmi, who was recently in Toronto on an official visit on behalf of Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “I wanted to go back to my clinical work and research.”
Although she was flattered to be offered the position, Carmi was not even sure she wanted it. Nor was she certain she was the right person for the job.
But after deciding that the presidency would be the fulfilment of a life-long dream and ambition to help develop the Negev, which accounts for two-thirds of Israel’s pre-1967 land mass but holds only 10 per cent of its population, she relented.
For Carmi, Ben-Gurion University, founded in 1969 to promote the development of the Negev, is the place to be. “I came here in 1975 with a mission,” said Carmi, a graduate of the Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical School. “I wanted to be part of Ben-Gurion University’s new medical school, which was only two years old.”
Carmi’s mother, Zipporah, a Polish Jew who admired Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was delighted when she joined the Soroka University Medical Center and the faculty of the university.
“Ben-Gurion was a central figure in my childhood,” she said. “Ben-Gurion’s vision of settling the Negev was a serious concept for me. The future of Israel was and is in the Negev. It’s the only region where Israel can physically expand as a country. I expect its population to double within about a generation, though we must preserve its natural beauty. What is Zionism if not settling the Negev? If we can conquer the Negev, we can do anything.”
Since becoming its president, Carmi has worked to upgrade its academic stature, both in Israel and abroad, and make it an integral and indispensable part of Be’er Sheva, the gateway to the Negev.
“My goal is to invest in research and getting the university much more involved in Be’er Sheva and in the development of the Negev,” she explained in an interview.
The university has a student body of more than 20,000 students, and employs about 5,000 teachers, researchers and administrative and support workers.
More than half of its students are enrolled in undergraduate courses, but in the future, four out of 10 students will be on the post-graduate level, Carmi said.
Close to 1,300 of its students are Israeli Arabs, of whom about half are Bedouin. During her presidency, Carmi has made special efforts to bring in Arab students.
Spread over five campuses in six different schools, the university has eight research institutes, including the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, and a host of interdisciplinary research centres from the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center to the S. Daniel Abraham International Center for Health and Nutrition.
At present, the university is building an advanced technology park, a collaborative effort between industry and academia that is expected to provide employment opportunities in the Negev.
Its first building is scheduled to open next June, and the entire complex will be up and running within eight to 10 years, Carmi said. “It will have a tremendous impact on the Negev,” she noted.
A leader in desert research, the university played a major role in developing drip irrigation, a cutting edge technique, and has made important contributions to dry land agriculture, solar energy, water purification and desalination and the cultivation of dry-climate exotic fruits.
“Our research is geared to turning the desert into a place that can sustain life,” she said. “In this respect, we have really managed to make the desert bloom.”
The university, too, has striven to promote the advancement of the Negev in terms of education, culture and health.
She added, “Without us, Be’er Sheva would be a small village. By our mere existence, the city has been positively affected.”
The university has been affected by government cutbacks in funding, Carmi said, but is trying to work around them.
Although she no longer has the time to conduct hands-on research in such fields as neonatology and medical genetics, she remains a consultant and a scientific reviewer for various international journals and funding agencies.
A believer in free speech and a middle-of-the-roader in her political beliefs, Carmi defended the right of Neve Gordon, a faculty member, to publicly support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and to brand Israel as ‘an apartheid state.’
“He’s entitled to these views as an individual,” she said. “But I loathe his views.”
Carmi’s term of office ends in May 2014, but she is still contemplating whether to accept an extension. “I really don’t know yet,” said Carmi, the mother of a 34-year-old daughter who works as a management consultant in New York City.
Whatever her decision may be, Carmi can rest assured that her career has already had a significant effect on the cause of gender equality in Israel.
“There is a lot of light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, suggesting that another Israeli university may soon be on the cusp of appointing a woman as its next president. “This would be really good news,” she said, savouring the prospect.