Israel must protect its Beduin citizens

Cultural attractions are exotic and fun, but generally fail to provide visitors with a complex representation of Beduin life.

beduin protest 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
beduin protest 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 Israel.
These cultural attractions are exotic and fun, but generally fail to provide visitors with a complex representation of Beduin life.
As I 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 Negev.
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 home.
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 villages.
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 villages.
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 cultures.
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.