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NJ philanthropists champion Negev’s Bedouins
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NJ philanthropists champion Negev’s Bedouins

Mission explores ways to improve schooling, raise standard of living

A mission from the Central federation arrives at Sami Shimoon College of Engineering in Be’er Sheva.
A mission from the Central federation arrives at Sami Shimoon College of Engineering in Be’er Sheva.

For the past few years, the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey has been deeply involved in efforts to improve the standard of living in the Negev region of Israel.

Now it is extending those efforts to the Bedouin community, exploring ways to improve their educational prospects and raise their standard of living.

From Feb. 27 to March 3, delegates from the federation met with Bedouin entrepreneurs and students on a mission that also included meetings with Jewish groups they have been assisting.

“We have a responsibility as American Jews to help the Bedouins feel good about being Israelis, so that they aren’t attracted to a more radical Arab identity,” said Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield, who has worked on the issue with the Israel-Arab Task Force of the Jewish Federations of North America. “We’ve always been a minority, and we know how important it is to feel accepted and respected. Now we have a chance to make a real difference.”

The group’s meetings were organized by Tehila Nachalon, the federation’s representative in Israel, working in collaboration with Dafna Murvitz, the executive director of the Israel Venture Network.

The meetings ranged from one in Jerusalem with Ayman Saif, the general director of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab Sector in the Prime Minister’s Office, to Bedouin students at Sami Shimoon College of Engineering in Be’er Sheva.

A Bedouin entrepreneur described the program he runs to help Bedouin high school students raise their graduation scores. Mission members also met with high school students during a visit to Rahat, the largest Bedouin city.

“There has been a sea change in the Israeli government’s attitude toward the Bedouins,” said federation executive vice president Stanley Stone. “Things are far from perfect, and there are fundamental differences to deal with, but at least they are acknowledging the issue and spending serious money — 800 million shekels over the next five years — trying to improve conditions for them.”

He pointed out that the Bedouins and Jews are neighbors — “even if not good neighbors. They live in one another’s backyard so they have to deal with one another. And how we deal with the Bedouins is a testament to our value system.”

‘Hope, better options’

The Central federation has become a significant player in Negev development efforts through Keren Ness, its Ness Business Loan Fund. With funds bequeathed by NJ farmer Mack Ness, who died in 2004, the federation is supporting projects designed to attract people to the region, and to retain those already there.

In a phone interview with NJ Jewish News, Nachalon said part of the effort is intended to improve security by improving relations between the region’s Jews and Bedouins.

“People also need hope and better options. They need education, and not just crime control,” she said. “The Bedouin are one quarter of the population of the Negev, and we’ve known that we can’t have successful development there if we don’t also try to help them.”

In many ways they are worse off than any other segment of the Israeli population. Nachalon pointed out that only 2.6 percent of Bedouin youth go to college, compared to 30 percent of Jewish students.

More than 60 percent of the Bedouin live under the poverty line. In Rahat, 77 percent live on a social security stipend. The unemployment in surrounding towns can be as high as 90 percent. And more than 60 percent of the Bedouin are under age 17.

The federation has worked with Murvitz and IVN, providing funds to mentor Jewish entrepreneurs to strengthen and expand business opportunities, and it is now looking into supporting IVN’s work with Bedouin entrepreneurs.

One of those is Fadi El Obra, who recognized that most Bedouin students came out of their schooling unable to gain entrance to community colleges. In 2008, he set out to find students with promise and persuade their parents to back his efforts. His organization, Duroos, has set up six teaching centers so far and is planning to create many more. Around 2,000 students have come through his program, and they have been scoring about 20 percent better than the Bedouin average.

If Bedouin boys have it tough, their sisters face the double disadvantage, with parents reluctant to let them out into the world at all. The mission participants met a group of young women studying engineering at Sami Shimoon College of Engineering in Be’er Sheva. They are part of a program initiated by Kahir Elbaz, a Bedouin social worker who set himself the goal of getting 100 Bedouins trained as engineers within five years. Though many aren’t allowed by their families even to travel after dark, the girls make up almost half the current group of 62 students, all with full scholarships.

Part of Elbaz’s program deals with high school, to steer the students to the right subject choices. He has found funding for scholarships, and then looked ahead to provide them with post-graduation job placement.

The group met in Be’er Sheva with the kind of people Elbaz is working with, members of Kav Mashve, a coalition of employers committed to opening up job opportunities for qualified people from minority groups.

According to Stone, the Central federation is primarily committed to improving life for Jews, and the amount of money spent on Bedouin projects will be relatively minor, but those projects will ultimately add to the security and well-being of all Israelis.

“For Israelis, there is a responsibility not to oppress a minority,” Stone said. “These people have rights, and they need access to what the society has to offer.”

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