Moshe Milner/GPO
An igloo-shaped kindergarten in Beersheba, 1974Moshe Milner/GPO
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Building Israel’s Dust City

After decades of great expectations, Beersheba often seems like a lost cause. But a recent visit revealed a city finally on the cusp of a breakthrough.

by
Matti Friedman
August 10, 2021
Moshe Milner/GPO
An igloo-shaped kindergarten in Beersheba, 1974Moshe Milner/GPO

Every city is a battle against entropy, and Beersheba (to paraphrase a famous saying about Jews) is like other cities, but more so. There’s one spot where you can stand on a rise of fresh grass overlooking a lovely new amphitheater that will stage cultural activities for the residents of Israel’s sixth-largest city. Then you turn around, without moving a step, and see electric pylons receding from the edge of town into the dun sea of the desert, the tin-shack Bedouin empire spreading over the slopes.

You can call Beersheba, population 200,000, the “capital of the Negev,” and air-condition spanking new shopping malls until the jeans are cool to the touch. You can open boutique hotels and unfurl the “biggest pride flag in the Middle East.” But the desert will still hem you in, crushing you with heat at 9 a.m. If the sprinklers fail, the green grass by the new amphitheater will be trash-blown sand in a week.

David Ben-Gurion knew the future of Israel was in the Negev, which had most of the country’s land and almost none of its people, and he famously called on the pioneer youth to make it flower. In Zionist mythology, Beersheba is the city of the future. Is that still true? Unless Israelis have a pressing reason to come here, they don’t. Maybe the future arrived, and everyone has been too preoccupied with Tel Aviv real estate and vegan moussaka to notice?

Beersheba’s partisans want to think that progress, in the form of the city, is encroaching inevitably on the desert. But the place is defined by the nagging fear that it’s the other way around. For most Israelis, vague reports of a popular mayor and a facelift come on top of older assumptions about the city being one to avoid at all costs, leaving Beersheba as a question mark somewhere to the south, like the famous “textile factory” at Dimona.

As you drive down the main drag into the city you’ll see a name atop a few of the new apartment towers—AVISROR—and then on buildings all over town, so I decided to start my investigation by understanding what that meant. AVISROR seemed like it could be some kind of conglomerate: Israelis in construction, maybe some blurry Putin money or a multinational connecting the Negev with Hungary and the Punjab. It turned out to be the name of a local Beersheba patriot, formerly a peddler of dates and arak from the hinterland outside Agadir, Morocco.

The Zionist heroes that Ben-Gurion thought would make the Negev bloom were probably suntanned kibbutz socialists and not Moshe Avisror, who appears in one picture with a white suit, matching fedora, prayer shawl, and sunglasses. Moshe and his sons aren’t kibbutznik socialists. Neither are they American-style developers with business-school degrees. Their walls feature paintings of North African rabbis, like the cloaked miracle worker Baba Sali. These are the people who built Beersheba, and who are now knocking parts of it down to build it higher.

Moshe Avisror was a young father in January 1963, when he and his wife, Esther, (whom he married when he was 13 and she 12) took their four kids and left Morocco, sneaking past government spies and police, trying not to attract attention on the bus to Casablanca before sitting amid cargo crates on a transport ship to Marseilles. At the French transit camp Avisror’s kids saw snow for the first time. They didn’t have much time to enjoy it, though, before they sailed to Haifa, then drove overland at night into the desert to a place called Yeruham, which turned out, when the sun rose, to be a dusty cluster of tents. Zion!

Moshe spoke only Moroccan Arabic and had no formal education, just Torah and years of living by his wits in the marketplaces around Agadir. It was enough. He got a job hauling cement blocks, then building a kindergarten and then a few rooms at a school. Then he built a whole school.

In 1973 Moshe bought land for a home down the road in Beersheba, which the government had started calling the “capital of the Negev.” The name was aspirational. The city was a backwater of apartment blocks thrown up quickly to house immigrants, grouped in neighborhoods that weren’t even known by names, just letters of the alphabet. The old part of town, where the Arabs had fled the Jews in 1948 and were replaced by Jews who’d fled other Arabs, was a slum.

In the early days, Avisror’s construction workers were Moroccans, including Moshe’s own sons. One of them is Eli Avisror, the current CEO, a gravelly character in jeans and a white polo shirt; another is Jacky, Eli’s deputy, a more fashionable type in tortoiseshell glasses whom I bumped into at the Roasters in one of the Avisror condo developments. (The paterfamilias himself is ailing, and unavailable for interviews.) After a while, the Jews didn’t want to be workers anymore. They wanted to be managers, and now, Eli growled, “Everyone thinks they’re a developer.” These days, the company’s working hands belong mostly to men who come from China or from Palestinian towns in the West Bank.

The turning point for the family business, and for the city, Eli told me, came in the early 1990s with the great wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union. This human movement that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet empire was perhaps the biggest stroke of luck in Israel’s history, proof that God gives this country what it needs (though not necessarily what it wants). This time, His gift came in the form of a million Jewish atheists.

The Russians needed homes and Beersheba needed people. Today a quarter of the people who live here were born in the Soviet Union. In a closely related piece of trivia, Beersheba has more chess masters per capita than anywhere else in Israel.

By 1997 the Avisrors had raised a building that was seven stories tall, towering over most of downtown—Avisror House, with the company offices on the top floor. Seven stories now seems quaint in light of the company’s new cluster of 30-story towers, the city’s tallest.

Real estate prices in central Israel are so hot that they’ll probably go up 5% before I finish writing this sentence, but here they’re flat. The most recent numbers from the Central Bureau of Statistics, from 2019, show more people leaving the city than coming, a net loss of 1,114—while Netanya, which is the same size and at roughly the same midpoint in Israel’s socioeconomic rankings, but closer to Tel Aviv, gained 2,298 new residents. New housing units are going up in Beersheba anyway, more every year—910 in 2017, more than double that the following year, and inching upward since then—rising next to the new malls and next to the city’s great hope, the hi-tech park.

The collapse of the Soviet empire was the biggest stroke of luck in Israel’s history, proof that God gives this country what it needs (though not necessarily what it wants). This time, His gift came in the form of a million Jewish atheists.

The success of the hi-tech park could propel the city closer to what it wants to be. The army is supposed to transfer its main technology units here from bases around Tel Aviv, but the move has been delayed because the kind of Israeli who serves in tech units in Tel Aviv isn’t the kind who wants to live in Beersheba.

Then there’s the university. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a world-class institution with, by all accounts, the best student life in Israel. The social buzz on campus, the hangouts under the rosewood trees on Ringelblum Street, the first-rate veggie Indian restaurant—you’re unlikely to meet anyone who studied here and didn’t love it, or to meet anyone who studied here and stayed. The jobs just aren’t here. Beersheba produces more engineers than any other Israeli city, but the economy that needs them is around Tel Aviv, which over the past 20 years also happens to have become—to Israel’s fortune, and the misfortune of every other city in the country—one of the coolest places in the world. How can other cities compete? So the students come to Beersheba and have a great time, they study and snooze on the grass and fall in love on the campus, which was built by some incomprehensible logic as a concrete castle fortified against the native peasantry. The students don’t mix much with the locals, and once they get those degrees they’re gone.

Real Beershebans are used to people leaving. It stings, but you don’t live here if you don’t have thick skin. The city’s secret weapon is its fierce local patriotism, a force not entirely intelligible to an outsider, but which is one of the most compelling aspects of the place. Eli Avisror is a wealthy guy, he owns apartments in Tel Aviv, but wouldn’t dream of living anywhere but Beersheba. His four kids and 10 grandkids all live here. Why? Southerners are warm, he said. The city is like a family, and whether you’re celebrating or mourning, no one’s door is ever closed.

I spent an evening with a few local entrepreneurs who had a long list of complaints, from bureaucratic red tape to the Bedouin tribes outside the city, like the al-Tarabin, who send some of their daughters into the city to study social work and some of their sons to shake down business owners for protection. Do you need a security guard? Are you sure? Because if you don’t, maybe your windows get smashed, and maybe your insurance deductible is 15,000 shekels, and maybe you decide that 2,500 shekels a month for “security” is a better deal.

In the desert outside town, the tribes are a law unto themselves. And of course there’s the heat, and the fast train that never gets built, and the state’s preference to spend billions on a light-rail system that will alleviate congestion in Tel Aviv instead of trying to get the people there to realize they can live down here for a fraction of the cost. There seems to be a consensus that despite the immense efforts of the locals, the city is stuck. But—I pointed out, taking Beersheba’s side—they’re still here, investing money. And yes, they had to admit, it’s true, they were.

I spent the night in the Old City, in a lovely boutique hotel called the Anilevitch Mansion, which opened a few years ago. (The owners might have called it Desert Wind or something, instead of naming it for a doomed fighter from the Warsaw Ghetto; but Anilevitch happens to be the name of the street, and Beersheba doesn’t really do cute.) When Aviv Koppel and his wife, Galit, opened the hotel in 2018 it was the first establishment of its kind, and others have followed. The night I was there, all seven rooms were booked. Entrepreneurs always like to talk up neighborhood “potential,” but the Old City genuinely has it—low stone buildings, an appealing street layout, a funky vibe. It could be fabulous one day. Right now it’s too dark at night, many of the buildings are empty, and the druggie-to-hipster ratio is not where everyone wants it to be. The art galleries aren’t exactly fighting for commercial space. The thriving businesses I saw were falafel places like the Bean House (“Fourth Generation of the Secret!”) and a curbside table where Russian guys were selling fake Fila hats to Bedouin guys, or the other way around.

Koppel grew up in Beersheba, the son of two cops. He knows Tel Aviv well, and is preoccupied less by the physical distance between the two cities than by the human distance. People here, he says, aren’t looking for great restaurants or culture. They want to get up to work, “take the sandwich in a bag,” come home by 5 p.m., and watch TV. The greatest hope for a young person is a steady job at one of the chemical plants outside town. He wants them to want different things, but they don’t. And yet he’s opened no fewer than six businesses in the Old City, betting on a trendier future, and runs a street party that was drawing more than 10,000 people before COVID shut it down. Sometimes he thinks the city’s a lost cause. Other times he thinks he’s in on the beginning of something great.

If you’d like to believe the latter, which I would, it’s a good idea to hang out with people who work for Ruvik Danilovich, the city’s first native-born mayor, elected when he was just 37. Danilovich is the recipient of Assad-level popular support—92% in the last election—and he is credited with much of the city’s revival in the past decade. His team is all about what’s happening now or will be soon, God willing: A Jewish National Fund campus for diaspora youth, price tag $180 million; a desert biosphere, under construction; an artificial lake, nearing completion. A communal renaissance in one formerly neglected corner of the city generated by a group of university students who bucked the trend and stayed, calling themselves The Network. A planned redesign of the tragically botched ’60s-era city center, which will bring the university out of its concrete battlements and link the train station and the shops and the hospital together to create an “innovation quarter.” The city of the future!

If the city’s future is anywhere, it’s in the tech park, which has sleek steel-and-glass buildings with letters spelling out company names like WeWork and AudioCodes. I popped into the lobby of one building for a Hawaiian poke bowl with edamame and raw salmon that wouldn’t shame a food stand in Palo Alto. I know this is what success looks like in 2021. But the most beautiful thing I saw in the gleaming lobby was a formidable grandma in a Soviet dress and sturdy shoes, selling flowers for Shabbat. The people in charge of The Future must have been dozing, and she slipped through with her folding table and petunias. Her name is Ora, and she came from Zhytomyr, in Ukraine. Yes, she said, this was a good place to live. She seemed a bit surprised by the question. Would I like to buy some petunias? I certainly would. The weekend was almost here. Beyond the sliding doors, the dust cloud gathered.

Matti Friedman is a Tablet columnist and the author, most recently, of Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.

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