One day each summer, my childhood camp was magically transformed into a
mini-Israel for “Yom Yisrael,” Israel Day. My favorite part of Yom Yisrael was
the Beduin tent. There was something mysterious and astonishing about the
characters who served us sweet, strong coffee and welcomed us to sit with them
on the tent’s floor. I was taught that the Beduin were part of the very fabric
of Israel – one of the diverse elements that made Israel “Israel,” and thus that
made me, as an American Jew, proud of Israeli diversity.
I now realize
that my camp’s representation of a Beduin tent reflected the Epcot-esque Beduin
encampments that so many Diaspora Jewish groups visit while touring southern
These cultural attractions are exotic and fun, but generally fail
to provide visitors with a complex representation of Beduin life.
saw firsthand when visiting Beduin villages and towns last week with T’ruah: The
Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Israel has a complicated relationship with its
Beduin population. One of the communities I visited was Khashem Zaneh, which
despite having a population of more than 2,400 people, cannot be found on any
official maps because the Israeli government does not recognize its existence.
Among the houses made of corrugated steel and other re-used objects, I sat in a
home covered by a roof vulnerable to the elements, but with walls warmly
decorated with colorful hand-woven tapestries. I was served a delicious meal as
I began to learn about what life is really like for the Beduin of the
The residents of Khashem Zaneh date the history of their
connection to this land back to before the State of Israel. Several generations
of graves can be found in the village’s cemetery. But because it is not
recognized, its residents cannot get building permits, and most of its buildings
are under demolition orders. Kindergartners in the village generally either have
to be taken on the backs of donkeys to schools many kilometers away or kept
This means that most children begin first grade without the benefit
of early schooling, which has been shown as essential in closing the achievement
gap for the poorest families in Israel. Other basic services such as water,
electricity and health clinics are also sorely absent from these unrecognized
Now, a new threat is facing unrecognized villages like Khashem
Zaneh. Israel’s Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs approved the draft
“Bill on the Arrangement of Beduin Settlement in the Negev” last week and sent
it on to the Knesset for passage.
If this legislation becomes law, the
people in most villages would be offered compensation or new property valued at
no more than 50 percent of their current land claims and required to relocate
and abandon their homes and traditional ways of life. If they refuse the
government’s offer and exhaust their judicial remedies, police will remove them
against their will. It is estimated that 30,000-40,000 individuals would be
uprooted and forced to move to existing cities or recognized
According to our Beduin host, Atia Atameen, this is not what
the people want. In fact, Atia’s brother who moved to a government township
lured by the promise of a better life like so many other Beduin, is now moving
back to the village.
To him, being poor and underserved is much worse in
a city, where it is harder to remain protected from criminal activity and where
women have much less freedom than in a village.
The current government
plan does not “resolve” the Beduin “problem” – it just promises to create many,
many more. Israel is faced with a choice: It could show the world it is actually
it working to honor its enlightened Declaration of Independence by treating all
of its citizens as equals, or it could radicalize another minority living in
within its midst by raising the next generation in poorly planned, underserved
urban centers, rife with unemployment, a poor educational system, and the
traumatic memory of being uprooted from their historic roots. The consequences
of making the wrong choice seem clear.
Next year, when I return to my
home in Philadelphia, I am certain that my son’s Jewish school will host a Yom
Yisrael and that he too will be invited to sit on pillows in a “Beduin tent.” I
am sure in the course of my work as a rabbi that I too, will find myself with
many opportunities to showcase the diversity of Israel’s citizens and
It is my sincere hope that when that happens, I will be able to
say that thanks to the powerful voices of Jews and non-Jews in Israel and
abroad, the Beduin are living their lives securely and at peace, with their own
mixture of tradition and modernity.
The writer is currently living in
Jerusalem and studying at the Pardes Institute, Hebrew University, Hartman
Institute, and the Conservative Yeshiva, as part of her rabbinical studies at
the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania.