My romance with Israel began in 1972, when I was fresh out of college and possessed of a burning hunger for adventure. Choosing Israel as my destination surprised everyone who knew me, as I was most definitely a secular Jew. My Jewish identity consisted of eating gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, and brisket with my family at holidays.
The love affair bloomed first at Kibbutz Gat, where I started my adventure as a volunteer, then Kiryat Shemona, and finally Jerusalem — four years in total.
Israel was a child then and, in essence, so was I.
Since then, my heart has remained in Israel, and I have returned many times. The development of the country, which sits in the middle of an unfriendly neighborhood, is astounding. The region is unfriendly not just to Jews, but to its various religions, tribes, families, and political entities. Yet, in spite of adversity from within and without, the human spirit prevails in Israel. The diverse population produces results of mystifying proportions in such areas as high-tech, agriculture, mining and manufacturing, the diamond industry, tourism, and transportation.
During the first two weeks of my most recent trip, in April, I traveled throughout the country with 16 first-time visitors, mostly Christian Americans — I referred to these folks as “Israel Virgins” — and a knowledgeable Israeli tour guide.
We visited typical tourist spots and had visits with a teacher in Majdal Shams, a Druze town north of the Golan Heights; a Christian Arab woman in her home in Jaffa; a Palestinian hotel owner from east Jerusalem; an Armenian shop owner in the Old City of Jerusalem; an Orthodox Jewish family in B’nei Brak; and residents of a resettlement center for Jewish Ethiopians in Tzfat. The endless diversity in Israel impressed and surprised members of the tour group, who saw the country as exotic, mysterious, and complex.
Before my trip, I let it be known that I would be available to give English lessons in exchange for homestays; I had previously been an English as a Second Language teacher to both children and adults in Israel and the United States.
An acquaintance, a retired female army colonel, offered me a week in her Tel Aviv home in exchange for English immersion. I also contacted Michal Zur, the manager in Israel of Global Connections for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which gives spiritual, emotional, and financial support to Jews worldwide, and suggested that I teach in the federation’s partnership communities.
Thanks to Michal and the GMW staff in Israel, I taught children at Hagivah, a grammar school in Ofakim, a partner community in the Negev, and worked closely with two English teachers there, Olga, who incorporates yoga, art, and English into the classroom, and Cami.
Next I went to Lakiya, one of seven “recognized” Bedouin villages in the Negev. (“Recognized” means the village is on the grid regarding electricity, sewage, and garbage pick-up.) I stayed with Tesehel and Islam, an educated and handsome young couple. I chose to ignore the concerns of some Israeli Jews who questioned my embarking on this adventure, and upon entering their beautifully furnished home, which was built on property owned by Islam’s family, customary in the Bedouin culture, I immediately felt safe and at ease.
Tesehel and Islam extended a welcoming hand in friendship and treated me with warm hospitality. We became so comfortable so quickly that after two days we were joking that I could be Islam’s second wife — it’s still customary for Bedouin men to have multiple wives and many children, a practice which results in a rapidly growing population.
Tesehel wears the hijab (“cover” in Arabic) when outside the house, even in the backyard. She is a modern woman who speaks Arabic, Hebrew, and English and works as director of youth futures in Segev Shalom, another “recognized” Bedouin settlement in the Negev. Each morning we drove to the town, passing nearby unrecognized villages with camels, sheep, and metal shacks. On the way to the Al-Mustaqbal school where I taught, I saw huge beautiful homes, subsidized by the Israeli government and owned by Bedouin families. The contrast was shocking.
The Al-Mustaqbal school is one of many Bedouin grammar schools in the Negev. Finding it quite dirty and brimming with overactive kids, I was taken aback by the lack of discipline, with youngsters roaming the hallways and opening and closing classroom doors during class time. But I admired the teachers I worked with, who had come from Arab Muslim villages in the north.
Mohamed, a big-hearted first-year English instructor eager to learn new teaching methods, allowed me to take the lead in his third- and fourth-grade classes. I had fun teaching these kids the names of body parts in English by playing “Simon Says” and singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”
Every day I began the classes with “Hello, my name is Miriam. What’s your name?” The kids mimicked me, taking turns introducing themselves to one other. I wanted them to feel that speaking English is possible for them. Some of the kids got so excited they literally screamed the words. Others, shy and meek, barely opened their mouths.
The hugs and kisses they gave me, accompanied by “I love you, Maryam” — they used the Arab pronunciation of my name — were overwhelming. This and the “Hi, Maryam” shouts in the halls made me feel quite the celebrity.
In a frightening moment, one boy showed us wounds on his chest and back. “My cousin stabbed me,” he said matter of factly. Horrified, I urged Mohamed to tell the school principal, which is required by law. Mohamed told me he knew nothing about this law. That horrified me, too.
The principal said he did know about the incident and had called the boy’s father, who claimed his son had not been stabbed, but had fallen. The boy was not in school the next day and I worried for his safety. The police generally stay out of Bedouin crime cases, leaving families to resolve their issues on their own, or sometimes with the help of tribal sheikhs.
Rula, the other Arab-Muslim English teacher from the north whom I worked with, lives with her husband, a psychologist, and their three-year-old son, who attends school in Be’erSheva. Her command of the English language is lacking, but she shines in her insistence that the children respect themselves, each other, and her. There are no discipline problems in her classes.
I stayed with Rula’s small family for a few nights in their large rented house in Segev Shalom. One afternoon they took me to one of 40 unrecognized Bedouin villages to meet their friends, a young couple, both of whom work outside the village, which predates the establishment of the State of Israel, dating back to Ottoman times or British rule. They have no electricity, no sewage, no garbage collection, no running water. The occupants use gas canisters and solar panels for energy and keep camels, sheep, and goats.
It is not permitted to build in the unrecognized villages. The residents are formerly nomadic people who are resistant to “urban life,” which is how they view the recognized villages. Bedouins who are willing to relocate to a recognized village receive compensation from the Israeli government, a privilege not offered to other Israeli citizens. But for those who stay in unrecognized villages, there are no extracurricular activities available to the kids. Their playthings are often bales of hay, metal objects, rocks, anything to occupy the time. Just hours after visiting this particular village, we learned that two children who had been playing with collected metal objects died when one of the objects exploded.
Since there is no pickup, garbage is burned in the backyard. Heavy smoking, drug trafficking, and joblessness are rampant.
But there is good news: Today 60-70 percent of Bedouins studying in institutions of higher education are women. Not that long ago, girls were not allowed to continue their education past the sixth grade. As the older generation passes, and members of the younger generations take on leadership roles, launch empowerment initiatives, conduct development projects, embrace modern-day conveniences, and seek growth opportunities, the landscape of the Negev will change, both literally and figuratively.
As for me and my experience with these Negev Bedouins, I left Israel with hope in my heart. One of the students I was fortunate to tutor was a talented fifth-grader. Her mother, a teacher in the school, is planning to send the girl to England this summer to improve her English. She sees the value in education and is committed to her daughter’s having a fulfilled life.
When she hugged me and said that my presence occupied a significant place in the heart of the school, I felt I had really accomplished something. Diversity is both the challenge and the key to Israel’s success. I am happy to be part of it.