Kindergarten conflict

August 14, 2010 09:33

A recent ruling in favor of creating kindergartens in Rahma is one of the fruits of a unique Bedouin-Jewish partnership in Yeruham.

Rahma children walking to school.

311_Beduin children. (photo credit:Sarah Levin)

YERUHAM IS NO LONGER A stereotypically dusty southern development town, nor is it the symbol of the failure of development towns in the Negev. With a population of 10,000, Yeruham is still just as isolated and far away from any other town or city, surrounded by vistas of open, empty desert as it always has been. And it still shows many of the signs of the social and economic failures it has suffered since its establishment in 1951 – first as a transit camp and later as a community center for immigrants from Romania, India, Iran and North Africa who were brought here, most of them unwittingly, to fulfill then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s dream of settling the Negev.

Indeed, Yeruham has been beset by the challenges of the lack of an economic base, its distance from the center, minimal transportation, and social tension stemming from the cultural differences among its inhabitants. For years, Yeruham had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

But in the past few years, the town has experienced a renaissance. With an influx of government monies and an improvement in local governance, Yeruham looks different than it did 20 years ago. The commercial center is well kept, with attractive stores surrounding a pleasant central square. A quick glance at the bulletin board reveals a relatively large number of cultural events. And next to the old, drab, crowded apartment blocks dating back to the 1950s, there are now many modern and spacious homes.

The human landscape is different, too. While there are still many poor and disadvantaged families, there are also socially and economically well-established ones. Some are veterans of the original immigrants and their descendants. Others came in the 1970s and 1980s as volunteers sent by the youth movements to provide support for the failing town. Over the past 20 years, thousands of immigrants have also come here, some from the former Soviet Union (FSU) and some from Ethiopia. And in recent years, there has been an influx of young professionals, who have settled in Yeruham to escape the din of the overpopulated center of the country.

AND SOME 1,500 BEDOUIN LIVE here, too, most of them in the village of Rahma, which is located within the municipal boundaries of the town.

Throughout the Negev, relations between the Bedouin and Jews are hostile, with the Bedouin accusing the Jews of stealing their land and the Jews accusing the Bedouin of stealing their property and goods. But in Yeruham, many of the Bedouin are well integrated into daily life, working in the few factories, doing their shopping and receiving their health, postal and banking services. Here, their presence is simply taken for granted. “We’re not Arad or Omer,” Jews and Bedouin alike tell The Report, referring to two other, more upscale towns further to the north, where residents have tried to prevent the Bedouin from coming into the towns.

Rahma, the Arabic-speaking Bedouin village, and Yeruham, the Jewish development town, share the same roots. Traditionally, the site is identified as the location of the well where Hagar found water for Ishmael, Abraham’s son considered the ancestor of Arab people, after Abraham drove them out.

It is also where a group of Bedouin and Jewish activists, from Rahma and Yeruham, joined together to petition the Beersheba District Court to instruct the Education Ministry and the Yeruham Local Council to establish kindergartens for the children of Rahma. In May, the court accepted their petition, marking a first in Bedouin-Jewish cooperation in the Negev.

Only a five-minute drive separates the well-tended commercial center in Yeruham from the point at which the town begins to look as if it is part of the Third World. About 100 yards east of the industrial area, there is a left-hand turn into Rahma. The oncepaved road is now just a dusty winding path, strewn with dangerous potholes. After a ride of just over a mile – which takes the untrained driver at least 10 minutes to traverse – the group of tents, tin shacks and discarded freight containers that form the eastern part of Rahma appears. About 300 families live here. The western part of the village, which is made up of similar housing and also has a recently built mosque, is several miles away.

“In Arad and Omer they treat the Bedouin as some sort of a plague. They want to get rid of them, to throw them as far away as possible,” says businessman Moshe Peretz, a former Likud political activist who has lived in Yeruham since his childhood in the 1950s. Peretz intends to run on an independent list for head of the local council in the upcoming November elections. “I grew up with the Bedouin… It’s important to me that the Bedouin know that I count on them, want to take care of their needs, and see them as part of us.

“The paths that Arad and Omer have taken can only lead to constant conflict,” he adds. “This whole issue of human rights and civil rights doesn’t really mean much to me. I’m interested in what is best for Yeruham and what is best for my neighbors.”

Peretz, together with other Jewish activists, has formed Mirkam Ezori (Regional Texture), a group that seeks to create more equitable relationships between Bedouin and Jews in the Negev.

“We live in this area, we drive on the roads every day, and we see what has happened because the government has ignored the Bedouin and refuses to talk with them,” Attorney Jeff Goodman, a member of Mirkam Ezori, tells The Report. Goodman, who has lived in Yeruham for many years, is also chairman of a local Torah study group.

“If we don’t organize for the sake of the Bedouin from the grass roots, then no one in Jerusalem [the government] will do anything.”

Improving relations between Bedouin and Jews, Goodman continues, is in both of their best interests. “Each time I see barefoot Bedouin children running around, without any educational framework,” he says, “I understand that if we don’t do something, the whole thing will explode in our faces.”

Leah Shakdiel, an educator and veteran human rights activist, who has lived in Yeruham since 1978, says that “unlike the other towns, Yeruham did not take over Bedouin areas... But in Yeruham we usually only think about the Bedouin when there is a catastrophe – when someone tries to prevent a Bedouin from coming to the public pool or when someone suddenly complains that they’re harassing our girls or when there’s an accident between a car and a camel. If we keep thinking about the Bedouin only after a catastrophe, we’ll wake up to a catastrophe that will drag us all into an abyss.”

IN THE EARLY 1950S, WHEN Yeruham was established, Rahma had a population of several hundred residents. Several years later, the Military Authority (the entire Arab population of Israel was under martial law until 1966) forcibly moved dozens of additional Bedouin families to this area. Yet the government has never agreed to recognize the existence of Rahma, refers to it as an unrecognized village and, as part of its efforts to settle the Bedouin in towns, is demanding that the residents move to the town of Segev Shalom, near Beersheba, some 20 miles away. (See Unrecognized Villages on page 21.)

In the absence of official recognition, the state refuses to grant them building permits and does not provide infrastructure, such as electricity, sewage and roads. It also does not operate medical clinics, does not provide postal services, and has not established any schools there

According to the Compulsory Education Law, the Ministry of Education and the local authorities are bound to provide education for every child, even if his or her parents reside in the country illegally or, as in the case of the children of Rahma, they live in an unrecognized village. Furthermore, the state must supply this education in an “official and accessible educational facility” that is located “close to the students’ place of residence.”

With regard to Bedouin children, Israel does not deny its responsibility, but has maintained for decades that schools must be located in the recognized villages and cities to which the government intends to relocate all of the Bedouin. Accordingly, the approximately 250 children of Rahma are expected to attend school in Segev Shalom, where the government wants their families to move.

To get there, the children walk about a mile to a bus station, where they are picked up at 7 a.m.; then at 3 p.m. they are picked up from school, dropped off at the same bus station, and walk the mile back home.

There are cultural problems, too. Bedouin society is exceedingly tribal, says Awdeh Zanon, chairman of the Village Committee, so “most of the parents are not willing to send high school-age girls to study with boys from families that they don’t know.” As a result, only a small percentage of the village girls actually go to high school, and most of them drop out after elementary school (although compulsory education extends through high school). “If there were a school in the village, all of the girls would attend and some of them would even make it to university,” says Zanon.

Even the younger children, boys and girls alike, often stay home. “We’re simply afraid to send the young kids off alone on the bus,” explains Zanon. As a result, many of the children from Rahma are only sent to first grade when they are 8 years old. “When an 8- or 9-year-old is seated next to a 6-year-old,” Zanon says, “he doesn’t learn anything and he’s disruptive. This creates tension between the children and sometimes between the tribes.”

Zanon has lived in Rahma all his life. “I remember from my own childhood days, how the Jews suddenly appeared here and found themselves with the Bedouin in the middle of the desert,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “They got along fine with us. They came from small villages in Morocco and Tunisia, spoke Arabic and established good relations with our tribe. As a child, I used to tend the sheep together with the children from the Yeruham transit camp. I’m still friends with some of these people to this day.”

Zanon served in the IDF for 28 years. He retired in 2002 and thereafter established the Village Committee and was elected its head. The kindergartens were his first order of business. Zanon emphasizes that he distinguishes between the struggle to create kindergartens in Rahma and the struggle for government recognition of the unrecognized villages. “We refuse to fight on the backs of the children,” he says. “Our children deserve a good education, regardless of the recognition issue. It’s the state that connects these things, using the kindergartens to pressure us.”

The Education Ministry dismissed Zanon’s requests, claiming that the Interior Ministry forbade it to build schools in the unrecognized villages. So the then-head of the Yeruham Local Council, Baruch Elmakayes, who has known Zanon since childhood, had a more radical idea. In 2005, he proposed that Rahma become a recognized neighborhood in Yeruham. The residents of the eastern part of the village would move to the western part, which is within the municipal boundaries, and thus, approximately one-third of their land would receive official recognition. The Council would then develop a neighborhood for the Bedouin, and they would pay municipal taxes and receive municipal services – including education.

The residents of Rahma eagerly supported the idea. The government, on the other hand, was outraged. The Interior Ministry dismissed the plan outright; the Israel Lands Authority claimed that the plan would grant legitimacy to the Bedouin “invasion” of state land; and the Bedouin Authority accused Elmakayes of undermining government policy. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) was also less than pleased with the revolutionary idea. Undaunted, Elmakayes brought the idea to the Yeruham council, where it easily passed.

But by the fall of 2005, then-interior minister Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) decided to replace Elmakayes with Amram Mitzna, former mayor of Haifa and a one-time leader of the Labor Party. The issue of Rahma was never mentioned as a reason for Elmakayes’s dismissal – indeed, Paz-Pines replaced Elmakayes only after the Yeruham Council dispersed after failing to pass the 2005 budget, and Elmakayes had been under investigation long before for questions of financial irregularities and mismanagement.

Still, to this day some people in Yeruham believe that Elmakayes’s support for the Rahma idea contributed to his dismissal.

“Baruch Elmakayes put us on the map,” Zanon says. “And ever since he was replaced, we’ve been fighting to stay on the map.”

In February 2006, Zanon appealed for help from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). In response to representations on behalf of Rahma by ACRI, Mitzna wrote, “It is indeed our intention to establish, within the municipal boundaries of Yeruham, an educational institution for the children of Rahma that will include facilities for kindergartens as well as facilities for first and second grades in an elementary school.

In May 2006, the Yeruham Local Planning Committee approved the project. But that’s as far as it got. According to standard procedure, the plan for the new neighborhood should have been referred to the Regional Planning Committee, but instead it was put into a deep freeze, due to objections from the Interior Ministry.

THE ACTIVISTS FROM MIRKAM Ezori and Rahma, represented by Attorney Gil Gan Mor from ACRI, petitioned the courts making it clear – perhaps to allay fears among the Jewish residents of Yeruham – that the parents in Rahma did not want to send their children to Jewish kindergartens, which, the petition stated, “are not linguistically or culturally suited to the children of Rahma.” “The sole reason that the plan has been rejected is the illegitimate desire to pressure the residents to move a recognized village... these things are written clearly,” Gan Mor wrote in his appeal.

The assistant district attorney for the Southern District, Yaakov Danino, who represented the Education Ministry, reiterated to the court the state’s contention that the Bedouin’s demand for a kindergarten was nothing less than a cover for their aspirations “to continue to take over state lands.” “If they [the Bedouin] really and sincerely wanted to find an educational solution for their children,” Danino, wrote to the court, “they would pay attention to the educational solutions in the nearby neighborhoods that were offered them.”

Mitzna suddenly reversed his position. “We cannot ignore the fact,” wrote Attorney Carmit Aharon Emuna, representing Mitzna, “that behind the camouflage of the children of Rahma’s right to education hides the issue of Bedouin settlements throughout the Negev.”

In May, a year after the petition had been filed, Judge Baruch Azoulai, the deputy president of the Beersheba District Court, found on behalf of the petitioners and instructed the Education Ministry and the local council to establish a kindergarten in Rahma by September, when the school year opens.

“This ongoing situation, in which the children of the village live within the municipal jurisdiction of Yeruham, which does not have any early childhood education facilities for children aged 3 and 4, is unreasonable and contradicts the duties incumbent upon the Education Ministry and the Yeruham Local Council,” Azoulai wrote.

Despite Azoulai’s ruling, there is no guarantee that the kindergarten will open. ‘The financing for the kindergarten must come from the Education Ministry,” Mitzna tells The Report.

He says that he has asked the Education Ministry to allocate the necessary funding, but that the ministry has yet to do so. A ministry spokesperson would only tell The Report that “the ministry has no intention to comment on this subject publicly.”

IN THE MEANTIME, AVINOAM Doron, a high-tech professional, who coordinates Mirkam Ezori’s activities, says that the group will continue its efforts to “break down the demonization of the Bedouin” and to advance the recognition of the legitimacy of their village on the lands of Rahma.

The activists are now debating whether to make the issue of the schools and the proposed neighborhoods part of the November municipal elections, when Mitzna and the appointed council will step down. Zanon tells The Report that several of the potential candidates have told him that they support the Rahma Bedouin’s struggle.

But some members of Mirkam Ezori are more skeptical. “I don’t know if it will come up or not in the elections,” says Peretz, “but I know that the problem of Rahma must be solved. I see how the influence of the Islamic Movement is growing there, and I see how the number of young men willing to enlist in the army is going down. I just can’t understand what the Jews are thinking. Does anyone really think that if we keep ignoring the Bedouin, and don’t let them study and work, that they’ll suddenly become members of the Likud?”

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