Minister: Israel Looking at Ways to Lower Bedouin Birthrate

Bedouin spokesperson labels Yair Shamir's idea as 'insane,' but supports attempts to stop polygamy.

Gil Cohen-Magen

Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir said during a visit to the south on Sunday that he was examining ways to lower the birthrate of the Bedouin community. Shamir heads the ministerial committee on Bedouin resettlement arrangements.

“We have to take all the Bedouin and get them out of the desert a bit and bring them closer to a normal state from the perspective of legislation, life expectancy, education and livelihood,” Shamir said. “Perhaps we could even deal with the phenomenon of multiple wives to reduce the birthrate and raise the standard of living. That’s why we are now focusing on economic solutions by arrangement.”

According to Shamir, by 2035 the Bedouin will constitute half a million people. “Only a suicidal country doesn’t recognize the Bedouin problem; the blindness is terrible,” he said. “We are working by a different method than the Prawer Committee [which previously dealt with Bedouin resettlement]; I lean more toward an economic approach than a legal one.”

During his tour, Shamir said officials in his ministry are in constant contact with the Bedouin leadership, “and the fact is that they aren’t demonstrating. We provide a response to their requests.” He added that the government had allocated 120 million shekels ($32.8 million) toward making arrangements for the Bedouin in the Negev.

Fadi Masamra, director general of the Council of Unrecognized Villages in the Negev, said in response, “From a feminist perspective I support stopping polygamy, but to talk about dealing with the birthrate is insane. There’s no one in the world who says something like that without an ideological agenda, and it’s no different from the agenda being conducted by this government – a right-wing government that sees the Bedouin as a demographic threat. [Shamir] thinks the problem is the birthrate, but the problem is the deliberate discrimination by the government and the minimal investment in services over the years.”

According to a report by the Knesset Research and Information Center, drawn up at the request of MK Orit Strock (Habayit Hayehudi) in 2013, some 30 percent of Bedouin families in the Negev live a polygamous lifestyle. While the Population, Immigration and Border Authority lists 361 Muslim men as having more than one wife, many men live with multiple women without formally marrying them.

The Knesset report notes that the phenomenon has not declined in recent decades, and is common among younger, educated men as well. Welfare officials say that, in general, polygamy has a detrimental effect on family life and is associated with child neglect, domestic violence and poverty.

While Israeli law generally forbids taking more than one wife, Muslim sharia law allows it, as long as the man can provide for the women’s needs and under certain conditions – among them that the first wife isn’t fertile, isn’t fulfilling the husband’s sexual needs, gives birth to several girls and no boys, and others.

Shamir’s latest remarks weren’t the first time he has raised hackles in the south. Two weeks ago, the agriculture minister criticized the behavior of residents of Kibbutz Nahal Oz on the Gaza border during Operation Protective Edge, saying, “We will not forgive the residents of Nahal Oz for supporting the disengagement [in 2005, when Israel evacuated the Gush Katif settlements], but despite that we’ll help them.”