The looming demolition of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, which has been approved by Israel’s High Court of Justice, would mark the third time the village is forcibly displaced to make room for Jewish settlers.
Its residents, a proud Bedouin tribe named Jahalin, have opposed the transfer, as have many Palestinians who believe that the village’s symbolic and strategic location, east of Jerusalem, along with its longstanding resistance to Israel’s displacement policies, has made it emblematic of Palestinian steadfastness and struggle for statehood.
Yet the story of Khan al-Ahmar is just the latest chapter in the tortured saga of Bedouin displacement. The village would not be the first to be razed by Israel, nor is Bedouin displacement confined to the West Bank.
Today, half of Israel’s own Bedouin citizens live in so-called unrecognized villages, where they face the daily threat of forced displacement. One village, Al-Araqib, has been razed more than 100 times, as successive Israeli governments continue to view the indigenous Bedouin population as a dispensable obstacle in the way of development plans for Jewish settlements.
The irony is that the Israeli government’s current attitude toward the Bedouin marks a striking departure from the legacy of the first Zionists, many of whom believed that the Bedouin of Palestine were "the lost tribes of Israel."
Early Jewish newcomers in Palestine shared a widespread fascination with the Arab Bedouin. Members of the First Aliyah (1882–1903), who came mostly from Eastern Europe and Yemen, drew on centuries of biblical depictions of the Holy Land as an exotic desert landscape awash with tents, palm trees, and herds of goats.
Their literature is replete with nomadic motifs, ranging from invoking the common tribal descent of Arabs and Jews to cultivating a Jewish desire to "go native" after the fashion of the Arab Bedouin.
The Bedouin, they believed, retained intact traces of ancient Jewish life, like its tribal ideals and nomadic character. Hailed as the modern descendants of the ancient Israelites, the Bedouin served not merely as agents of Jewish return to a lost biblical past, but also as an autochthonous model for the New Jew - as opposed to the urbanized Jew of the Old Yishuv - and hence as a symbol of national revival in Palestine.
"The Farm of Rechabites," published in Jerusalem in 1903, was the first modern Hebrew story to be printed in Palestine. Ephraim, its protagonist, is a Jewish newcomer roaming among the local Arab tribes in search of the lost Jewish tribes of the Bible.
The narrator follows the protagonist’s discovery of a Jewish tribe near the Jordan River, whose members are recognized as the "sons of the ancient Rachabites," a reference to a biblical clan. Thanks to centuries of assimilation into the native Arab Bedouin population, the Jewish tribe had managed to preserve its ancient heritage in its purest form.
The story culminates in the heroic feat of a tribal leader striving to reunite Arabs and Jews around a shared tribal ancestry. The leader, a Jew gone Arab, welcomes the Jewish wanderer as his blood brother. A happy ending.
The story’s author was none other than Hemda Ben-Yehuda, wife of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the prominent Jewish lexicographer widely hailed as the reviver of modern Hebrew. The young couple, who migrated to Palestine from Belarus in 1892, are commemorated in Israeli historiography as the first Hebrew-speaking family in Palestine.
Hemda’s story was the literary incarnation of Eliezer’s vision, which involved reviving the ancient Hebrew language by tracing its roots in the Arabic spoken by the native Bedouin tribes. To Hemda, the Bedouin were not an exotic race of Arabian wanderers, but "hidden Jews" in whose veins ran the blood of the ancient Hebrews. It is the Arab Bedouin, not the exilic Jew of Europe, who lodged in her imagination as the prototype of the modern Hebrew nation.
If Ephraim’s search was fictional, those of the Zionist pioneers were anything but. Prominent Zionist leaders like Yitzhak Ben-Zvi frequently traveled among the Bedouin tribes of Palestine in search of the lost Jewish tribes of Israel.
Like Ephraim’s, Ben-Zvi’s quest came to a happy end. His wife, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, recalls in her memoir, Anu Olim ("We Ascend"), a burst of collective euphoria among Zionist newcomers as they came upon a Bedouin tribe who had "descended from the ancient Jews." She quotes her husband saying, "The Bedouin are men of nature. We shall let new blood into the veins of the Yishuv, Hebrew blood from the desert."
Ben-Zvi’s discovery was part of a dominant Jewish cultural tradition in the Bilu movement pioneered by Israel Belkind, which promoted the agricultural settlement of the land.
In 1882, as a newcomer in Ottoman Palestine, Belkind fell under the spell of Bedouin life. He would wander for years among the Bedouin tribes on both sides of the Jordan River, learn their language and customs, and weave his ethnographic observations into a theory on the Jewish origins of the Bedouin of Palestine.
In the Arab Bedouin, Belkind believed he saw the solution to the mystery of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Thrilled by the discovery, he would encourage his Jewish followers to move to the Galilee and realize their Zionist dream by marrying Bedouin women and assimilating into the Bedouin population.
In the spring of 1903, Belkind’s followers moved with their flocks to Upper Galilee and founded Ha-Roeh (The Shepherd), a Hebrew Bedouin group that aspired to create a form of class fraternity with the Arab Bedouin. The Shepherds lived among the Bedouin tribes, adopting their cavalry customs and herding skills. By assimilating into Bedouin culture, these Hebrew shepherds meant not only to fashion themselves into a new breed of Jewish romantics, but also to craft a sense of belonging and strike roots in the land.
To grasp the profoundly paradoxical cultural impact of the group on later Zionist leaders, one need not look beyond the cover of the Ariel Sharon biography "Ha-Roeh", published in Hebrew in 2005. It features the architect of the "Green Patrol" - an anti-Bedouin campaign known among the Bedouin of the Negev as "the black patrol" - kissing a goat in his arms.
The tradition persisted well into the era of British Mandatory Palestine (1920-1948), when the Bedouin became part and parcel of the cultural landscape in the Jewish Yishuv. Zionist writers of the period still praised the Bedouin’s ethos of bravery, communality, and loyalty to the tribe.
In his memoirs, "The Sons of Ishmael", Moshe Shamir reflected on his childhood in Palestine by recalling how "the Arab Bedouin lived in Jewish consciousness as a symbol of deep rootedness." Moshe Smilansky’s literary hero, a Hebrew Bedouin named Hawadja Nazar, boasted pompously of the Arab Bedouin’s admiration "for his heroism, for speaking Arabic fluently, for riding a galloping horse like one of them, and being dressed like them with abbaya, keffiyeh, and igal, and fully armed."
Romek Amasi, the protagonist of a novel by Yaakov Rabinowitz, implored his fellow Jews to adopt Bedouin ways: "We are a withered and feeble people with little blood in our veins. To redeem itself, our nation needs to infuse a tribal blood in its veins. We must have Jewish Bedouin."
Assimilation into the Bedouin lifestyle also left its cultural mark on Zionist paramilitary groups in the Mandate. Legion Ha-’am (The People’s Legion) adopted military language and customs borrowed from the Bedouin. Its members would spend the prewar period herding and shepherding and roaming the Sinai Peninsula after the manner of the native Bedouin tribes. The Legion, with its strong tribal character and ideals, would inspire a succession of paramilitary underground groups that flourished in the Jewish Yishuv, notably Bar-Giora and the Palmach.
In her memoirs, Palmach commander Netiva Ben-Yehuda summed up Zionist fascination with the Bedouin as follows: "The more familiar one was with Bedouin custom, the more God-like one appeared to us."
She also recalled how Palmach members cultivated a proud Bedouin identity in their language, customs, and warfare. Her fellow Palmachniks retained the custom of wearing the Bedouin keffiyeh, even as it had emerged as a Palestinian national icon, while practicing Bedouin-style horsemanship and fighting skills. In a tragic twist, they would draw on those same skills to displace most of the native Bedouin tribes in 1948.
For nearly half a century, indigenous Bedouin tribes like the Jahalin were celebrated by Jewish newcomers as a model for Hebrew revival in Palestine. For early Zionist pioneers, assimilation into Bedouin culture was key to their rootedness, belonging, and renewed bond with the land.
With the founding of Israel, the image of the Bedouin as the lost Jewish tribes has all but vanished from Hebrew culture and literature. The tragedy is that if Israel’s displacement policies towards the Bedouin continue unabated, it will be not only that image, but also the Bedouins' distinct identity itself, that might be on the verge of erasure.
Seraj Assi is the author of The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimaging Nomadism in Modern Palestine (Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2018), from which this article has been adapted. Twitter: @Serajeas
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