Clinton Bailey - Michal Fattal - October 2011
Clinton Bailey this week at his home in Jerusalem. Photo by Michal Fattal
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Joe Shadur
Bailey with Bedouin chiefs from central Sinai, during a trip with then-Governor of Sinai Moshe Dahan, 1971. Photo by Joe Shadur

Do Jews owe their relationship with the God of the Bible to the Bedouin populating Israel's Negev? That's the theory being put forth by Israel's foremost expert on the nomadic people of the Negev, an American Israeli who has spent the last four decades living among the Bedouin and researching them.

Clinton Bailey's fourth book, a controversial tome dealing with Bedouin and the Hebrew Bible, posits that Moses, who fled Egypt into the ancestors of the Bedouin, adopted their way of life and their deity as his own before leading the Jews to freedom. The book is due to be released in English in the coming months by Yale University Press.

"Nomads who are spread out in this area looking for pasture, they're away from all kinds of religious institutions in any case, and they barely have a few items that they can schlep along with them whenever they move. And so, the idea of a god that you can talk to without being in a temple, or without idols or anything like that, is very, very appealing," said Bailey, who synthesized his broad knowledge of the Bible and Bedouin culture and history to write the book.

If it weren't for a series of chance encounters, though, Bailey might be studying Norwegian sculpture or the writings of Sholem Aleichem now.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Bailey's upbringing was as different from the spartan tents of the Bedouin as the snowy winters of upstate New York were from the punishing sun and sandstorms of the Negev desert. Bailey's father surpassed his working-class origins and sent his son to school with the children of affluent families. His secular and apolitical adolescence circled around sports and other leisurely pursuits, he says, but at the end of high school, he came to the conclusion that he couldn't continue on the same path as his peers.

"I just somehow realized somehow or another I would never be accepted in America as an equal," he said, "because of being Jewish. Now, I am talking about the 1950s and a lot has, at least ostensibly, changed since then."

Bailey did not stay to find out if it would; instead he made arrangements to spend a summer studying art in Norway, which would have great impact upon his life trajectory. "For the first time, I felt freer, because in Norway, you're an American - in America, you're a Jew."

At the library of the American Embassy in Oslo, on the advice of a teacher who told him to shore up his literary credentials, he picked up a copy of the Partisan Review, an intellectual Jewish journal. Inside that issue was a story by Nobel-prize-winning Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer translated into English, "Gimpel the Fool."

"That suddenly rang bells for me," said Bailey. His interest piqued, he began to read books about 20th-century Jewish history, "and suddenly my whole focus became Eastern Europe."

Bailey returned to America, served in the Navy, and was soon after turned onto Zionism via a Hebrew teacher in upstate New York. He moved to Israel soon afterward.

A chance interaction with Israel's founding father David Ben-Gurion led to a job offer at Midreshet Sde Boker college in the south of the country, which set the stage for almost all his later endeavors.

"I met Bedouin walking, jogging, this and that, and I saw that the culture was interesting. I could see that there were modern things in the tents, but they were all in tents and on camels, with a traditional diet and everything else. But instead of a water sack, they would have a jerry can or something plastic," recalled Bailey. "I got the idea that I would like to do something to record as much of this culture as I could."

A year of sedentary living in an Arab village gave Bailey the spoken Arabic he needed to navigate the Bedouin linguistic landscape, but it was his itinerate ways that allowed him to construct a body of knowledge about Bedouin culture.

"Clinton Bailey doesn't work like an anthropologist. He's developed his own idea on how to collect data. He uses the old methods," said Emanuel Marx, a professor of anthropology at Tel Aviv University who has also studied the lives of the Negev and Sinai Bedouin in great detail.

Eventually Bailey, whose nomadic research methods mirrored his subjects' lives, parlayed his expertise into a series of books on Bedouin culture, poetry and law.

The ethnographies of one of the region's least-understood indigenous peoples are held in high esteem by peers and amateur anthropologists alike.

"He's done more than anyone else I know, in this generation at least, to write about Bedouin life," said Marx.

Upon reflection, Bailey believes that part of what led him to spend the last 44 years observing Bedouin culture at close quarters was "what they could tell us about our own biblical heritage."

Today Bailey lives with his wife in an empty-nest apartment in Jerusalem, their sons having started families of their own. He continues to study the Bedouin people, and also advocates on their behalf - this week he met with the minister in charge of Bedouin affairs to try to dissuade the government from implementing its new Prawer Plan, which critics complain will dislocate tens of thousands of Bedouin by moving them into recognized villages.

Whether it's because they harbored the embryonic idea of the Jewish God, or because their traditional culture is rich with literary and legalistic traditions, or just because they're citizens of the state and are entitled to equal treatment under the law - Bailey says he wants to see the Bedouin treated with the respect he feels they deserve.