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Negev Bedouins: challenge for Israel, priority for the Jewish people
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Negev Bedouins: challenge for Israel, priority for the Jewish people

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. Statistics show that the Negev Bedouins, some 250,000 people in nine communities, are economically the poorest and least- educated community in Israel by far. In practical terms, their absence in large numbers from the Israeli workforce has a negative impact on the country’s overall economy. Thus, helping the Negev Bedouins is the right thing to do — and it’s smart policy. To its credit, the current Israeli government has decided to address this problem and the topic is on the agenda of some federations. But, as many other things in Israel, the subject is complicated.

How big is the socioeconomic gap between the Negev Bedouins and the rest of Israeli society? As of 2016, all Bedouin communities, and only their communities, received the lowest possible score on the Ministry of Interior’s municipal socioeconomic ratings, a paltry one out of 10. According to data provided by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, in 2014 Bedouin men and women had employment rates of 56 and 24 percent, respectively, compared with 74 and 32 percent among Arab citizens generally. They also scored the lowest of any other Israeli demographic on personal income per capita and all educational measurements.

It might come as a surprise that this Israeli government would be the one most prepared to deal with the large gap between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, in that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticized for driving a wedge between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, most notably for comments he made during the 2015 election about the latter group voting “in droves.” But 18 months later he apologized and said, “Today I am asking Arab citizens of Israel to take part in our society — in droves.” And it looks like the government may just be putting its money where its mouth is.

Last February, Israel’s cabinet adopted Government Resolution 2397 (GR 2397), a five-year socioeconomic development plan for the Negev Bedouins, which has a budget of 3 billion NIS (approximately $833.5 million), and follows a 2011 five-year plan for the Bedouins with a 1.26 billion NIS budget. These Bedouin-specific initiatives are in addition to a separate resolution that gives Bedouins 15 percent of monies allocated for all Arab communities in Israel.

Sources close to the issue have told me that GR 2397, developed by the Ministry of Agriculture, is a marked improvement over the 2011 plan, which Israel’s state controller criticized as having been badly mismanaged. This time, Bedouin leadership was fully consulted, and the emphasis is on strengthening local municipalities to more effectively deliver services and promote development, rather than relying on national government offices.

There is another reason for cautious optimism, specifically the changes taking place within Bedouin society itself. Josh Arnow, whose philanthropist father established the Robert H. Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben Gurion University in 1997, observed that “Twenty years ago, Bedouin patriarchs generally would not let their daughters go to school past the sixth grade. But a huge cultural shift has taken place, and today you will find [that] 60 to 70 percent of Bedouins studying in higher education are women.” Moreover, he stressed, “We have witnessed the emergence of effective role models, such as Mohammed al-Nabari, the mayor of Hura, who is widely considered as one of Israel’s most effective elected officials.” 

More good news: Arnow noted the development of a strong civil society in the Negev, which includes the Bedouins. He referenced several inclusive “anchor institutions” including the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation — and Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (AJEEC-NISPED); Project Wadi Attir; and the Desert Stars initiatives. And there are other NGOs in the field working on a variety of fronts, including successful social enterprises, women’s empowerment, and programs preparing Bedouin students for higher education.

AJEEC-NISPED, the largest Jewish-Arab social change organization in the Negev, is committed to playing a partnership role with the government in implementing GR 2397. To wit, the organization’s co-executive director, Ariel Dloomy, described the resolution as “a positive evolution in the state’s approach to the Negev Bedouin community.” Wadi Attir was launched by The Sustainability Laboratory in partnership with the Hura Municipal Council to demonstrate an approach to sustainable agriculture in an arid zone, leveraging Bedouin traditional values, know-how, and experience with modern-day science and cutting-edge technologies.

Matan Yaffe established Desert Stars to nurture a new leadership generation by recruiting select groups of young Bedouins “who wish to develop their life skills and leadership abilities, so they will lay the foundations for future business and social development of the Bedouin” society through a gap-year program and leadership academy. According to Arnow, Yaffe was once harassed by Bedouin youth while riding his dirt bike in the Negev. Instead of responding with anger and resentment, he was motivated by the experience and now devotes himself to this economically distressed community. 

On a local level, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey is one of a handful of federations to invest significant resources in helping the Israeli Arab community, including the Negev Bedouins. Amir Shacham, associate vice president of MetroWest’s Global Connections department which seeks to develop partnerships between Israel and Diaspora communities, told me that the federation sees the integration of Bedouins and other Arabs into Israeli society as a matter of strategic importance. In fact, Global Connections is poised to increase its budget in support of the Israeli Arab sector by 40 percent, which will enable it to establish an additional project in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom. 

Jim Paul of Summit, the lay leader who serves as liaison for Israeli Arab programing at Global Connections, told me he and his wife volunteered to teach students in Segev Shalom after the Greater MetroWest federation hosted Musa AbuKaf, a Bedouin from that community who was honored with Israel’s Best Teacher of the Year award, in 2013. 

In addition, MetroWest was among the first federations to join the Social Venture Fund for Jewish Arab Equality and Shared Society (SVF), according to Westfield resident Phyllis Bernstein. SVF, now based at the Jewish Funders Network, is a coalition of some 20 foundations, federations, and individuals who allocate funds to education and economic-development projects in Israeli Arab communities. Bernstein and Arnow serve as co-chairs of the SVF’s economic development committee. 

Of course, it’s not all rosy. Lingering disputes over land are complicating government-NGO efforts to address the many challenges. Some Bedouin leaders believe they have substantial land claims in the Negev based on arrangements they had with authorities during the Ottoman and British mandate periods. Since these agreements were unwritten, Israeli courts have refused to recognize them. Not wanting to relinquish these claims, and to retain their way of life, some 100,000 Bedouins live in unrecognized villages that are off the government grid and lack basic public services such as electricity, water, and waste management. “The fact that the government’s plan only includes the recognized villages excludes a significant part of the population who are supposed to be beneficiaries,” said Kher Elbaz, the other co-executive director of AJEEC-NISPED. 

Disagreements aside, let’s remember that Gandhi’s call to take care of the weakest is aligned with our own ancient Jewish law and tradition: “Do not mistreat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) The Jewish community has a lot of important matters on its plate these days. This one deserves to be high up on the list.

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