By Matan TOLEDANO, Chief Executive Officer, JNF UK.

matan toledano

Matan Toledano

The development of the Negev desert has been a common goal of many organisations for decades, but even with the best efforts of the Israeli government, NGOs, and other organisations, which offer varying levels of support, there is only one force that truly drives progress in the region, and it’s the pioneers.

New grassroots movements have come alive over the past decade, leading to the region’s successful progression. The Zionist spirit that sparked the birth of Israel just a few decades ago is still alive and kicking in the Negev. I’ve been privileged and humbled to meet so many inspiring people who have sacrificed everything to shoulder the ideological challenge in making the desert come alive.

During a recent trip to Israel, I met Avi who, with his friend Yonatan, decided in 2011 to go south and establish Derech Eretz, a programme that welcomes youth who’ve lost their way, giving them a home pre and post military service, offering them a better future.

They emerged in the sands of Nitzana and are an example of true pioneering spirit. Many like Avi and Yonatan heeded the call in the past decade, leaving the comfort of their lives to build a new opportunity for Israel in the desert. With this comes our duty to support them. These visionaries have created some of the most inspirational programmes I have ever come across.

They even captured the imagination of the Israeli government and earned the backing of mil- lions of pounds to support their work. Only a true pioneering spirit, like that of David Ben-Gurion, can form radical ideas that drastically enrich people’s lives. These include JNF UK-funded initiatives, such as the Ayalim Association, founded in 2002, which has made significant waves in retaining students and academics in the region, and the Or Movement, founded in 2002, which develops new settlements and supports existing ones.

The pioneers, who now call the open sands their home, have made nothing short of a miracle. Simply put, they are navigating the future of Israel. But big initiatives can’t work in isolation.

We are at a moment in Zionist history when the Jewish people must come together. The consequence of anything less is the widening of the socio- economic gaps, leaving Israel’s south stuck in second gear. JNF UK offered support to the Negev in the mid-1990s, and continues to back many development projects. Additionally, the Israeli government introduced a £370 million ‘Negev 2015’ initiative in 2005 and gave a significant boost to the infrastructure.

The relocation of the Israeli military bases to the Negev is another progress accelerator. Ben-Gurion’s famous 1955 speech rings true now more than ever, when he described that it is “in the Negev that the people of Israel will be tested – for only with a united effort of a volunteering people and a planning and implementing State will we accomplish the great mission of populating the wilderness and bringing it to flourish”.

The Negev is such a strategic asset to Israel, taking up 60 percent of the land area and yet only eight percent of the country’s population.

We should aim to quadruple the number of residents within the next decade. JNF UK works tirelessly to attract new people to the region through the investment of new and existing infrastructures, to create appealing habitable environments for families, youth and professionals in which to thrive.

The answer to the Negev challenge is multi-faceted. No single strategy can apply to such a vast landscape that carries so many complexities and historical nuances. We must support the pioneers and this is where JNF UK and British Jewry can come together to make a difference.

Israel has made colossal imprints on the global marketplace with countless science, research and technological innovations, but the real key to safe- guarding the country’s future is in the hearts, souls and minds of the people of the Negev desert, where the potential is immeasurable.
• Join JNF UK and Jewish News for a live Q&A event on the Negev, as part of the Charity’s Green Sunday Appeal. Visit www.jnf.co.uk for details