In a recent Haaretz op-ed, Alon Tal, a board member of the Jewish National Fund, attacked Rabbis for Human Rights and, by extension, T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (where I am executive director) and the other rabbinic and Jewish organizations working together to ensure that Bedouin Israelis can remain in their homes in the Negev. Besides T’ruah, which counts 1,800 rabbis and tens of thousands of American Jews as our supporters, these groups include the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements. Collectively, we represent the majority of the North American rabbinate and the affiliated Jewish community.
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To date, close to 500 rabbis and cantors have signed a letter calling on the Israeli government to revise the Prawer plan, which threatens to evict some 30-40,000 Bedouin from their homes in “unrecognized villages” in the Negev. As rabbis, we are moved to take action on this issue because we believe that Israel must live up to the Jewish and democratic values on which the country was founded. And as contributors to JNF and supporters of American foreign aid to Israel, we want to ensure that our charitable and tax dollars help all residents of Israel to live healthy and successful lives.
Contrary to Tal’s claims, this is not the story of a few families in one village who are making life difficult for the rest of the community. Rather, this is a story of thousands of families in dozens of villages who have endured decades of discrimination and lack of access to economic and educational opportunities, and who are fighting a last-ditch effort to preserve their communities and their way of life.
In this season of teshuvah, we believe that the Israeli government must make amends for its historic treatment of the Bedouin populations.
Tal suggests that the rural Bedouin are overflowing the Negev, cramping the urban populations. In fact, the Bedouin claim land rights only to five percent of the region. In a perfect Catch-22, these Bedouin live in the Siyag, the area where the Israeli government settled them following the War of Independence. Subsequently, in the 1960s, the government zoned all land within the Siyag solely for military, industrial, or Jewish agricultural purposes. This move rendered the Bedouin villages “unrecognized,” and the homes built there illegal and subject to demolition. Since the villages are “unrecognized” and do not appear on official maps, most receive no basic services such as health clinics or schools.
At the same time as Israel is threatening to destroy these Bedouin villages, most of which include between 400 and 4,800 residents, the government—in partnership with JNF—has established more than 100 new Jewish communities in the Negev, with an average population of 300 residents each.
The rabbis who are supporting the Bedouin to remain in their homes are doing so not only because we care about the rights of vulnerable populations, but also because we care deeply about the future of the State of Israel.
Jewish residents of the Be'er Sheva region complain about crime committed by Bedouin in the region. While there is no excuse for theft or violence, the Israeli government’s plan will only make the situation worse. Past efforts to confine Bedouin in a few cities, such as Rahat and Segev Shalom, have largely failed. Residents of these cities have few economic opportunities, especially once they are stripped of the agricultural way of life that once sustained their communities. The rate of unemployment in the Bedouin townships is more than twice that of the Israeli population as a whole. We already know from the American experience that pushing low-income people into crowded urban areas with few available jobs leads only to a downward spiral of poverty and often crime.
When we talk about the Bedouin, we are not talking about foreigners or recent arrivals. Rather, we are talking about Israeli citizens who are subject to the same laws as other Israeli citizens, and who should receive the same government services as families in Tel Aviv or Be'er Sheva.
Bizarrely, Tal bases his attack on rabbinic opposition to the demolition of villages on the suggestion that support for women’s rights somehow conflicts with helping Bedouin to remain in their homes. In fact, Sidreh, the leading Bedouin women’s organization, was a leader, along with the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages and planning and human rights organizations, in creating an alternate plan to provide social services and public infrastructure to the unrecognized villages, rather than relocate them.
We believe that this is a better use of Israeli taxpayer money—not to mention American Jewish contributions to JNF and other service organizations—than the estimated six to eight billion dollars that it will cost to demolish existing villages and move their residents to urban areas. We also believe that the creation of schools, health facilities, and economic opportunities will do more for women’s rights than any conference.
The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah tells the story of Sarah banishing Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness near Be'er Sheva. God encounters them there, saves their lives, and sustains them in the Negev. This year, we should strive to live up to this divine example. Rather than allowing the homes and way of life of the Bedouin to be demolished, American and Israeli rabbis and other Jews must work with the Israeli government and Bedouin communities for a resolution that allows all Negev communities to flourish.
Alon Tal has been one of the most powerful and inspiring leaders of the Israeli environmental movement. I invite his partnership in working with Bedouin communities, American and Israeli rabbis, and the Israeli government to develop a plan that preserves Bedouin communities, supports women’s rights and welfare, contributes to environmental sustainability, and strengthens the State of Israel.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights (@TruahRabbis), which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis and cantors and tens of thousands of North American Jews to protect human rights in Israel and North America.