Failing to address the pervasive poverty and lack of educational opportunities of Israel’s Bedouin community leaves a dangerous void among its young people that could be filled by extremism or crime.
That warning came from Dr. Alean Al-Krenawi, president of Achva Academic College in central Israel.
A Bedouin and the first non-Jew to be appointed head of an Israeli academic institution, Al-Krenawi spoke at a Feb. 5 program sponsored by Rutgers Hillel and Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
“I’ve said this on Israel TV, that for the sake of Israel I need to take care of these people,” said Al-Krenawi, outlining his plans to make Achva a place Bedouins will view as a springboard out of poverty.
Without the means to better themselves economically, they will become increasingly dependent on government assistance and easy targets for extremism.
“We need to close this gap and take care of this population,” said Al-Krenawi. “If not, they have nothing to lose. There are a lot of extremist people who can come and fill that gap. They can become thieves. If we leave that gap, a lot of people can jump into it. As a responsible person, I want to give them hope.”
He also cautioned that “if you don’t give people hope, they will become your enemy.”
During the program, held at the student center on the university’s main campus in New Brunswick, Al-Krenawi recounted his own experience as a minority member who grew up in poverty.
His institution, located in the coastal plain between Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva, is near impoverished communities of both Bedouins and Ethiopians.
“We have a saying in Arabic that when your neighbor is angry, you have a problem,” said Al-Krenawi.
Israel says 190,000 Bedouin-Arabs live in the Negev. Al-Krenawi spoke of the approximately 111,000 Bedouins who, he said, were “the poorest of the poor.” Traditionally a nomadic desert tribe, Bedouins in Israel accepted Israeli citizenship after the 1948 War of Independence and many have served in the Israeli Defense Forces.
The tribal structure of Bedouins differentiates them from much of the Arab world, explained Al-Krenawi.
“The individual is less important than the group,” he said. “It is a collective society.”
Israel attempted to urbanize the Bedouins in the late 1960s and early 1970s by settling them in communities in the northern Negev in order to make it easier to offer basic services and modernize their society.
“The problem was they moved the Bedouin from the traditional way of living,” said Al-Krenawi. “They were not prepared or trained to compete with the average Jewish person in the market, so the society became even more marginalized.”
Besides having less access to schools and lower education levels, Bedouins have the highest birth rate in the world and, because of their tribal culture, often have trouble fitting into Western-style Israeli communities. Other issues, including polygamous marriages that cause strife within families, are also problematic, said Al-Krenawi.
Al-Krenawi laid out a depressing scenario: Sixty percent of Bedouins are under 18, and 60 percent of their fathers and 75 percent of their mothers are unemployed.
“It doesn’t matter who’s to blame,” he said. “We are dealing with reality here.”
Al-Krenawi himself is one of 15 children who grew up in a village with no high school. After coming home from elementary school, he tended sheep before rushing to do his homework before dark.
“There was no running water, no electricity,” he said. “We lived in a tent.”
He had to leave his village to attend high school and later convinced his parents to let him attend Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he is also a professor of social work.
At BGU he helped institute an “affirmative action” policy, which over a three-year period brought in 153 female students. They received academic support, much of it “thanks to many Jewish people in North America.”
“The only way to keep the Bedouin out of poverty is through education,” said Al-Krenawi.
Achva already has 500 Bedouin students, most of them female, among its 3,500-student body. Al-Krenawi also started a project through which college students live among impoverished Ethiopian Jews in nearby Kiryat Malachi, where, he hopes, they will become role models
“I want all students who leave [Achva] to be role models,” said Al-Krenawi. “At Achva we are all equal. We have diversity and we are all part of Israel.”