Identity crisis

Youth in the Negev Bedouin city need the right tools to integrate into Israel's higher education system and job market.

Beduin women in the Negev (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH)
Beduin women in the Negev
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH)
“Right now, I don’t know who I am or what I am or if I have an identity. Sometimes, I feel Palestinian and sometimes I feel part of Israel,” says Haneen Alkarnawi, a 20-year-old college student from the Beduin town of Rahat in the Negev Desert.
It is a bright Sunday morning in Rahat, and as I chat with Alkarnawi over coffee in the library of the Alnajah High School – she is undergoing a teacher-training placement in English here – she opens up about her conflicting emotions and contradictory experiences as a young Beduin woman starting her adult life in Israel.
Alkarnawi was born and raised here in Rahat, the largest of seven townships created by the government in an attempt to urbanize the Negev Beduin.
Ever since its founding in 1972, Rahat has remained an anomaly.
With a population of around 65,000, Rahat is the world’s largest Beduin city, a huge urban center for a society that is traditionally seminomadic and rural. It is a modern city, with shops, schools, mosques and health clinics, its streets plastered with advertisements for Arab Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. Yet it is deeply divided, with all but one of its 33 neighborhoods inhabited by a single tribe, which refuses to intermingle.
Rahat’s educators and community leaders – and young people like Alkarnawi – say the city’s youth are undergoing an identity crisis.
Caught between tradition and modernity, the Arab world and Israel, they are unsure of who they are. And as Rahat has an overwhelmingly young population – around 57 percent of the city is under 18 – these problems seem set to grow.
While the roots of the crisis are deep and tangled, community leaders say it is exacerbated by the difficulties even Rahat’s best and brightest young people face in integrating into mainstream Israeli society.
In many ways, Alkarnawi’s story epitomizes these issues. She says that when she graduated from Alnajah High School in 2011, she dreamed of becoming a doctor.
However, rather than applying to study medicine at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, just a few kilometers from her home, Alkarnawi chose to major in English at Hebron University in the West Bank.
Why would a talented, would-be medical student travel miles across checkpoints to study English in the West Bank? “There was no way I could have got a high enough grade on the psychometric exam,” she admits to The Jerusalem Report, referring to the standardized test equivalent to the US SATs and used by Israeli universities for admissions.
Alkarnawi says she could have spent a year studying for the test, but she didn’t have the money, so she applied to Hebron, where there is no psychometric requirement.
Khanan Alkirinawy, who runs the Youth at Risk program for the Rahat Municipality, says Haneen Alkarnawi’s choice to bypass the psychometric test by studying in the West Bank is not unusual. “Many students told me they would prefer to study at BenGurion University, but they can’t pass the psychometric test. Plus they find it harder to study in Hebrew because it’s their second language,” she remarks to The Report.
According to Alkirinawy, there are about 200 young people in Rahat who, like Haneen, travel to the West Bank every weekend to study special courses for Arab Israeli students at Hebron University.
Alkarnawi says she rides a 6 a.m. bus every Friday morning and crosses through a checkpoint into the West Bank, where she and her fellow Beduin students are usually made to wait at least an hour. She attends classes all day on Friday and Saturday, and returns home Saturday night.
THE PHENOMENON of Israel’s Arab citizens traveling to the West Bank or Jordan to study is not just restricted to the Beduin community, according to Yousef Jabareen, director of the Nazareth-based NGO, Dirasat Arab Center for Law and Policy. Jabareen says there are upwards of 8,000 Israeli Arab students at universities in Jordan, with a further 2,000 in the West Bank.
He agrees with Rahat’s Alkirinawy that difficulties with the psychometric exam are a major reason why Arab youth choose to study outside Israel. “Our research concluded that the psychometric exam is culturally biased.
So students feel they are driven out of the Israeli education system. They give up from the start,” he notes to The Report.
Jabareen believes the exodus to West Bank and Jordanian universities is starting to have significant implications for Arab Israeli identity and social cohesion. “There is a psychological aspect. Our research has shown that most [Arab Israeli] students studying in Hebron said they would have preferred to study in Israel. These students feel very frustrated. And that does affect society,” Jabareen adds.
Arab Israelis who study in Jordan and the Palestinian territories strengthen their identity as Palestinians, Jabareen says. When they graduate and return to Israel, they struggle to reintegrate into society and the job market.
These graduates tend to have weak Hebrew because they did not study in that language, he adds, and they also lack the contacts and professional guidance they would have gained if they had studied at an Israeli university.
Alkirinawy from the Rahat Municipality agrees that this situation prevents talented Beduin graduates from joining mainstream Israeli society. It’s hard for even these graduates to find work, she says. “There’s no place to work in Rahat, only small businesses that operate within the community. It’s not enough. People do work outside, but mostly in low-grade jobs, because they don’t have the job-seeking skills to find anything better,” she adds.
The unemployment rate in Rahat is extremely high – around 70 percent – Alkirinawy says, adding that the number of high school dropouts among Beduin students is far greater than for the Jewish population.
A recent report by the Myers JDC Brookdale Institute found that around 43 percent of Beduin males and 32 percent of females do not complete high school.
The sense of discrimination that Rahat’s youth feel also directly contributes to their growing identity crisis, Alkirinawy believes.
“Young people in this town simply don’t know who they are. Are they Israeli or Arab, Palestinian or Beduin?” she says.
Alkarnawi says she feels “hurt” because she believes she has been effectively excluded from Israel’s higher education system.
She says that life post high school is very different for Beduin young people than Jewish Israelis. While her Jewish counterparts have to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, Beduin are not obliged to do so, and while Alkarnawi says she knows “one or two” Beduin men who volunteered to serve, the attitude toward those who do is generally negative.
That attitude likely explains why, of the 1,400 Beduin serving in the IDF – most as trackers on the northern and southern borders – only a third are from the Negev.
The rest are from the north of Israel, where they have a better standard of living than their counterparts in the south.
Alkarnawi also complains that IDF soldiers at the checkpoint crossing into the West Bank treat Beduin students differently from the way they treat Jewish Israelis, thereby alienating her even more.
“I tell [the soldiers], look, I am Israeli, I have an Israeli ID card; but every time, they make us wait for ages while Jewish citizens just cross [the checkpoint],” she says.
She says these experiences, coupled with recent antagonism with the Israeli authorities over plans to resettle Beduin living in unrecognized villages, have made her sometimes identify herself more as a Palestinian than an Israeli Arab citizen. “I guess, yes, sometimes I do feel Palestinian,” she says. “I love the Jews, but the way they treat us hurts me.
Kasem Alshafiee, who heads the English department at Alnajah High, is direct about what will happen if things don’t change. Fewer than 10 percent of the Beduin population are college graduates, Alshafiee, a young, softly spoken man with worry lines permanently etched into his forehead, tells The Report.
This, he adds, means most young people are not qualified to get good jobs outside the community. “We are looking at a black picture in Rahat,” he warns.
Both Alshafiee and Alkirinawy say they support reforms proposed by Education Minister Shai Piron that will change the university admissions system. Under the proposed reforms, universities would accept students who either had a high score on their matriculation exams or on the psychometric exam, rather than taking an average of scores on both tests.
BEDUIN EDUCATORS say this move would make it easier for Beduin students to access university education in Israel, providing an important first step toward integrating them into mainstream society.
However, Merav Shaviv, deputy directorgeneral in the Planning and Policy Division at the Council for Higher Education, tells The Report that these changes would not come into effect for another five years.
In the meantime, Shaviv says that Arab Israeli students, including from the Beduin sector, are offered extra courses to help them prepare for the exams. Shaviv admits that Beduin students face a serious disadvantage on the psychometric test.
“The gap between Jewish and Arab psychometric test scores is about 100 points.
In the Beduin sector, that gap is around 200 points,” she says.
While local educators and social workers express frustration that these changes will take time to be implemented, they admit that Rahat has made great educational leaps forward in recent years. Alkirinawy notes that overall literacy rates, while still comparatively low, have improved drastically over the past decade.
Suzi Ben-Harosh, a spokeswoman for the Education Ministry in the south of Israel, tells The Report that education standards in Beduin communities have also improved significantly in recent years. Around half of Beduin 12th graders now graduate high school and the ministry says it has improved teacher training in the district, with Beduin educators now required to hold a professional qualification in the subject they teach.
Ben-Harosh says the ministry has also begun a program to reduce “learning gaps” that encourages Beduin students to complete missed high school matriculation exams at the end of the school year. Ben-Gurion University has also developed programs to help Arab Israeli students, including Beduin, bypass the psychometric test.
Prof. Riad Agbaria, director of BGU’s School of Pharmacy and adviser for Arab student affairs, says the program provides intensive courses for up to 100 students. If they pass with high grades, they are allowed to join regular classes across the university’s faculties, without taking the psychometric exam.
However, only 45 students have enrolled in the program, despite incentives such as scholarships covering 70 percent of tuition fees and unlimited private lessons.
If students like Alkarnawi complain the psychometric test is a major barrier for them, why is the enrollment in the course so low? Agbaria tells The Report the answer is probably because the course is extremely difficult and academically intensive. “The truth is, many students just prefer to enroll in colleges and take less intensive courses in subjects like teaching, or they study in Hebron where it’s also easier,” he says.
According to Agbaria, Ben-Gurion is working hard to increase the total number of Beduin students enrolled in degree programs. And that number is growing: There are currently 450 Beduin students at the university, 300 of whom are women – but the numbers are still very small.
Rahat community leaders say that because local youth feel excluded, they do not believe they can achieve or compete with their Jewish counterparts. The director of Rahat’s community center, Ibrahim Abo Shareb, says young people in the city do have talent, but they lack motivation, vision and self-belief.
“Plus they feel they lack equality, so that influences them to give up on their dreams,” he adds.
THE COMMUNITY center, a large, airy building located next to the town’s main shopping center and the local branch of Pizza Hut, is another microcosm of the contradictions faced by Rahat. It is Arabic Book Week, and inside the center several people – two young women and an older man in a traditional keffiyeh – are browsing the display of books for sale, a testament to the city’s growing literacy rates. Outside, gaggles of unemployed young men hang around smoking, drinking coffee, looking bored.
In between taking calls in Arabic and Hebrew on two cellphones and a landline, Abo Shareb tells The Report it is not surprising that young people in Rahat experience a confusion of identities and values. The entire community is passing through a process of transition, he says. While older people in Rahat preserve more of their traditional Arab Beduin lifestyle and values, younger people are exposed to the world outside.
“Young people meet Jewish culture up close and they are exposed to other ideas through media and the Internet. So young people have multiple identities – Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, Beduin, and they cannot decide which culture they live in,” Abo Shareb says.
The situation regarding access to the Israeli higher education system is a “very sensitive issue” for young people in Rahat, he believes.
The sense of discrimination and isolation from Israel makes the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian identity more attractive to Beduin, Abo Shareb adds. “They feel a connection with the Palestinians; they identify with them more and more,” he says.
Abo Shareb echoes Alkirinawy from the Rahat Municipality and Alshafiee from the local high school; he says what is needed in Rahat is improved access to higher education in the Israeli system, and employment opportunities after graduation.
Abo Shareb believes, however, that part of the onus for making this happen rests not just with the Education Ministry and universities, but also with Rahat’s educators and community leaders. “Sure, the government needs to do more, invest more. But it is also our role and our responsibility to educate our youth to take control of their own lives,” Abo Shareb concludes.
Rather than feeling they should give up before they even start to try to compete with their Jewish counterparts, Rahat’s youth should start to take responsibility for improving their own prospects, he says.
Abo Shareb says he is doing his utmost to empower Rahat’s youth by establishing volunteer groups and a local youth council that has links with the Israeli Jewish youth movement, Hano’ar Ha’oved.
He is also collaborating with Rahat native Jamal Alkarnawi, a social worker and advisor for Arab students at Ben-Gurion University, on a new project to improve youth education and employment issues. Together with the Rahat Municipality, has secured funding from the National Insurance Institute to establish the city’s first youth club to help young men and women improve job skills via training and work placements.
JAMAL, WHO is adamant that local people need to take the initiative to improve their situation, describes how he established an NGO, A New Dawn, to empower local youth.
“I looked around and I saw what was going on, and how our young people felt they had no prospects. So I said, let’s do something about that,” Jamal says.
True to his word, Jamal has done something.
As well as obtaining funding for the Youth Club, he brings volunteer English teachers into Rahat high schools to help prospective university students improve their language skills. “We want to tackle youth issues via cultural, educational and volunteering programs that involve international partners,” Jamal explains.
Part of Rahat’s new breed of community leaders, Jamal and Abo Shareb firmly believe in preserving the Beduin identity of Rahat’s youth, but are keen to involve Jewish and international organizations in initiatives to help improve education. And while both say they are keen to give the city’s next generation the right tools to integrate into Israel’s higher education system and job market, they believe young people themselves must play an active role in their own development.
“Of course we need to give our young people a sense of belonging, but they need to belong as active citizens,” Jamal insists.
Will these initiatives be enough to help Rahat’s Beduin youth integrate? Can they develop their own, unique identity as Beduin citizens of Israel? Or are they destined to identify themselves more and more with the Palestinian cause and Palestinian culture? For her part, Haneen says that while she feels Palestinian to some degree, for the most part she prefers life in Israel to what she sees in Hebron.
“When we go to Hebron, the Palestinians call us Jews,” she says. “And actually, we are more open-minded here in Rahat. A lot of things are better here. I just wish I could have studied here.”