As I drive across the Negev to get to work in Midreshet Ben-Gurion or to run errands in Beersheba, the radio often blares headlines about the neighboring Bedouin communities that dot the desert landscape across my travels.
Usually the news details the rising crime rates, brawls, smuggling and illegal weapons in Bedouin communities. But the reality often is much more complex when speaking to people on the ground – and sometimes even surprisingly positive.
The city of Yeroham, where I live, and the local Bedouin community of Rahme, an unrecognized village whose residents number roughly 1,500 according to local authorities, have shared good relations for decades. There are no rock-throwing incidents or violent altercations at this particular point in the Negev. Last May, right before Operation Guardian of the Walls, residents of Yeroham and Rahme, which is part of the Azazme tribe, sat together for a traditional iftar meal during Ramadan.
But these good relations did not appear out of thin air. There are dedicated individuals in both communities who worked hard for years to foster the warm and supportive connection rarely highlighted in the national press.
“You have to learn how to live together, and you need actions to make that work,” said Debbie Golan, the co-founder and president of Atid Bamidbar, a nonprofit that strengthens development in the Negev through collaborative social projects and initiatives, including in the Bedouin community.
“The interpersonal relationships are vital between Yeroham and Rahme,” she told the Magazine in a recent interview.
“It is with great sorrow to see what happened at Soroka hospital,” commented Golan, addressing the armed brawl that took place outside the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba between two feuding Bedouin families from Rahat back in November. “But those headlines don’t do justice to the tens of thousands of Bedouin who want to lead normal lives and make a decent living.”
Golan, who grew up in the Brookline neighborhood of Boston, and has been living in Yeroham for the past 35 years, noted the important role that local authorities play. “The leadership on both sides work to instill moderate tones among the youth – and you could really see that during Operation Guardian of the Walls last year, where the situation was peaceful here, unlike other parts of the country.”
She also cited the various collaborative projects initiated by Atid Bamidbar, including the White Hill Farm, a joint urban farming center for residents of Rahme and Yeroham as well as kindergarten children, who plant and pick produce together.
Atid Bamidbar, which is based in Yeroham, also conducts joint tourism initiatives in Rahme and Yeroham, in addition to sports and Hebrew-language programs for Bedouin residents. Other projects include the Ajram Bedouin Women Sewing Initiative, Good Neighbors Network in the Negev, and joint Jewish-Bedouin Women’s Group.
Atid Bamidbar (Hebrew for Future in the Desert) works closely with Mirkam Azori, a local citizens’ group in Yeroham that has advanced mutual interests between Rahme and Yeroham for over a decade, with the Neveh Midbar Regional Council, which is responsible for providing Rahme residents with social welfare and educational services, and with the Yeroham Municipality, in whose jurisdiction many Rahme residents reside.
But perhaps one of the most important joint projects led by Rahme and Yeroham residents has been the establishment of Rahme Elementary School. Like other unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, Rahme did not have an elementary school until two years ago.
ONE OF the central figures that led the campaign for the school is Yeroham resident Yael Agmon, together with Sheikh Odeh Zanun of Rahme, head of the Rahme Residents Committee, who served in the IDF for many years. Zanun had long dreamed of opening a school for Rahme’s youth, as the village children had to be bused long distances for schooling.
Agmon, who volunteered all her time to get the school opened, described the endless bureaucratic process; the follow-up calls to the various government offices, going out to obtain the required signatures from local government offices for all sorts of documents, and endlessly faxing and emailing authorities the right paperwork in order to get the permits and approvals needed to open the school on the designated plot of land.
She mentioned that former Yeroham mayor MK Michael Biton and current Mayor Tal Ohana were instrumental in moving things along as well.
“Odeh described me as his unofficial secretary when people asked him what my role was in getting this school opened. I tell people I was the ‘nudnik’ who made things happen,” she smiled.
“I never imagined that I would be involved in something like establishing a school after I retired,” Agmon mused.
“But I believe that Bedouin are just like you and me, human beings who deserve the opportunity to advance, if they are given the right tools and help,” she commented. “There are good people out there. You have to look beyond the news and the politics to see that. ”
Agmon, 71, who has been living in Yeroham for over a decade, grew up on Kibbutz Nirim and raised her family in Kibbutz Kerem Shalom. After she retired, she and her husband moved to Yeroham to be near their grandchildren.
It was Sarah Vaknin, a well-known local who owns a one-stop shop in Yeroham’s shopping center, who initially got Agmon involved with the Bedouin community. Vaknin, who has been living in Yeroham since 1971, is especially known for helping out the Bedouin community in whatever way she can, especially with government paperwork and bureaucracy.
“Sarah opened my eyes to the Bedouin community here. She made aliyah to Israel from Morocco, so she knows Arabic and is able to communicate with the Bedouin and understands how to help them. She often goes with them to the post office and to the National Insurance Institute, said Agmon. “And she does this all voluntarily.”
Vaknin, a religious woman who covers her hair and recites Psalms in her small shop when not waiting on customers, did not want to be interviewed for the article.
“My rabbi told me not to do any more interviews. It’s better that I work quietly,” she told me. “I’m sorry,” she added and went back to helping out an elderly Bedouin man with some papers that needed to be filled out.
“Look,” said Agmon, “there are challenges in the Bedouin community, too – the polygamy practice is detrimental, and there are cultural limitations on women that need to change.”
For Yeroham residents like Vaknin, Golan and Agmon, assisting the Bedouin community has become a way of life whose waves continue to leave an impact.
ZAHER ABUZAR, the vice principal of Rahme Elementary School, said that the care and concern shown by Yeroham residents is unique in his eyes. He grew up and went to school in Wadi al-Na’am, an unrecognized village close to Beersheba, the oldest of 12 children.
“We didn’t have this kind of relationship with Beersheba,” he said at the school, which is made up of mobile classrooms, painted light blue on the outside, complete with a computer room, and a soccer and basketball court. “For me it’s amazing to see the cooperation between Yeroham and Rahme.
“Every week, Yeroham residents, both young and old, come to volunteer at our school. I never knew that anyone could care so much about a school. People really invested their time in making this school happen, and continue to do so,” Abuzar commented.
Two of his younger siblings travel with him from Wadi al-Na’am every day to attend the school.
Abuzar also co-manages the first youth center ever opened for Bedouin schoolchildren, in cooperation with several nonprofits, including Lasova NGO’s Kadima youth center network (with 21 youth centers across the country), Mirkam Azori, Atid Bamidbar and Ajik.
Opened in December 2021, the youth center provides Bedouin youth with help in homework, informal education, and a safe place to play and engage with the staff. Together with comanager Neta Tsahor, 36, of Kibbutz Revivim, who serves as the pedagogical coordinator of the youth center, the two aim to provide a quality education and structure for local youth.
“So far 50 children are part of the youth center programming, and it operates three days of week. There has never been such a youth center in Rahme before,” added Tsahor, who has been engaged in coexistence initiatives for many years.
“Before, these kids did not have what to do after school. It was a worrying situation,” said Abuzar.
He views the violence and lawlessness issues as a result of a breakdown in hierarchy in Bedouin society.
“When there are adults who serve as role models and have authority, those things won’t happen. Parents don’t want those things to happen. But it’s really hard to control youth when you have really huge families and the grandfather no longer has the final word,” Abuzar pointed out.
Abuzar, 26, studied sciences at Achva Academic College and worked in his former elementary school in Wadi Na’am before coming to Rahme.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “My parents never went to school, but it was really important for my father that we all study.”
Several of Abuzar’s siblings are also teachers. When asked whether he feels that his father is proud of what he has accomplished at a relatively young age, Abuzar shakes his head. “My father is always saying I need to do even more to advance.”
Abuzar works with Sleman Alfregat, the principal of Rahme Elementary School. Alfregat is a Rahme native who has worked in the education system in the Negev for nearly two decades. He told the Magazine that as a child he never imagined that there would be a school in his home village. “This school gives the residents here a lot of pride – a school to call our own. This answers so many needs.”
Alfregat, 46, was a geography teacher for many years, having earned a BA in geography and an MA in education management.
“This school provides our students with an address – a place for those who want to advance and to succeed in studies.
“There is no connection like the one between Yeroham and Rahme anywhere else in the Negev,” he said. “It gives us hope that we can educate a generation of future doctors, engineers and teachers, starting right here.” ■
The writer made aliyah from Maine in 2004. She lives in Yeroham with her family and works as an English-language teacher in Midreshet Ben-Gurion.