How Do You Love an Israel Whose Values Are Warped?

To love Israel as an American Jew is to ask for a special brand of trouble.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

BERKELEY - To love Israel is to ask for trouble. That much is clear.

But to love Israel as an American Jew - often, in outlook, a proponent of broad human rights, and causes which are pluralistic, liberal, democratic, and, let's face it, Democratic - is to ask for a special brand of trouble. To begin with, from Israelis.

Walking around this place that was my home before I made my home in Israel, I've been trying to put myself in the place of the Jewish American I might have been, had I stayed here so many years ago.

Might I have seen the values of the current Israeli government, and much of Israel as a whole, as warped? I'd say yes, given the fact that I live there, have seen it close up and personal, and see its values as warped.

And yet, might I have continued to love Israel, despite all of it, despite the corruption and the religious coercion and Jim Crow growing within it, despite the callousness and the insularity and the willingness to tell perfect strangers who are Jews "You're not really Jewish" – would I be likely to be an American Jew who still loved Israel? Yes. Definitely.

So, what do you do? How do you love an Israel like that?

You do what families do, in situations like this. You opt for tough love.

Walking around Berkeley, I had an idea. You proceed on the principle that in Israel - just as a few small words can be tremendously destructive, irreversibly so - it's also true that small positive acts can have meaningful, even remarkable, downstream effects.

Here's what I'm thinking. If I were a Jew living in America, I would want to find some personal way to help people in Israel who really need it right now, and who are pretty much off the radar of most Israelis. Part virtual, social-network-based, part face to face. Let's call this effort the Jewish Natural Fund.

The idea? Let's take for example the plight of Israel's Bedouin citizens living in officially "unrecognized" villages in the Negev desert, denied basic services such as water and electricity, and at peril of expulsion from their homes. What if American Jews who love Israel - individuals, congregations, other groupings - decided to "adopt" a village, learn about its residents and its history, find out as much as possible about its current status and how the government planned to deal with it?

What if they made contact with people who live there, and/or those who support them, and with the government, as well? What if, on a visit to Israel, they came to see the place and the people, in person, in context?

Example One: Umm-al-Hiran village, population 600, located within Israel's Negev just south of the West Bank.

At issue: The government wants to expel the villagers in order to create a national-religious Jewish settlement there.

History: After the 1948 war, Israel expelled Bedouins of the Al-Qia’an clan from their homes in the Western Negev, to make way for what would become Kibbutz Shoval. In 1956, Israeli authorities ordered the clan to move to their current homes, in Umm al-Hiran.

In 2010, a state zoning committee recommended recognizing Umm al-Hiran, which would have brought water, electricity and other services to the site. But Prime Minister Netanyahu's office vetoed the recommendation.

Last month, at a special cabinet session held to honor the memory of David Ben-Gurion, the ministers voted to demolish Umm al-Hiran and replace it with the housing-subsidized national-religious Jewish settlement, to be called Hiran. This, despite a pending legal challenge to be heard by the High Court of Justice, which subsequently issued a temporary order to block the eviction and demolition.

Example Two: Al-Arakib village, five miles north of the Negev capital of Beer Sheva. Population: Originally 300 families, now fewer.

At issue: An afforestation project planned by the Israel Lands Authority and the Jewish National Fund, is to be carried out near the officially unrecognized Bedouin village. The ILA, rejecting the villagers arguments that they legally owned the land, ordered them evicted and the village demolished, saying the land belongs to the state.

Since 2010, the village has been successively demolished and rebuilt no fewer than 62 times.

History: After years of wrangling, during which ILA crop-duster planes
sprayed wheat fields planted by the villagers, killing the crops, in 2010 the ILA ordered the village demolished. It rejected the villagers' arguments that they legally owned the land. It called the villagers squatters, fought successful court battles to confirm its ownership, and has pursued the unending cycle of police-supervised demolitions and rebuilding by villagers.

What can the Jewish Natural Fund do to help? As a start, along with other Jewish groups which love Israel, including T'ruah, Ameinu, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, newcomers to the new JNF can write Prime Minister Netanyahu ( and his new ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, to urge suspension of the Prawer-Begin plan for unrecognized Negev Bedouin villages, and a freeze on demolitions and expulsions until the government formulates a just policy in close consultation with the Bedouin community.

There are many other issues that a Jewish Natural Fund could deal with, among them Israel's treatment of asylum seekers, women's and minority rights, civil marriage, and recognition of non-Orthodox conversion.

Tough love. It's only natural.

UPDATE: Benny Begin, a principal architect of the Begin-Prawer Plan, announced Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has decided to drop the current draft of the controversial bill to resettle nearly 30,000 Bedouin living in the Negev into already recognized villages.

Earlier in the week, Begin denied claims that community leaders had accepted the proposal – a key defense used by the government in advancing the plan.

Begin said that contrary to reports, he had never approached the Bedouin with the plan and thus did not receive their approval on the matter.

The shelving of the plan is not expected to ease the threat of eviction and deportation for Bedouin in unrecognized villages.

An Israeli Bedouin women speaks to a police officer in front of the ruins of a structure razed by authorities in the southern village of Al-Arakib, August 10, 2010. Credit: Reuters

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