How to Stir Up Hatred Between Jews and Bedouin in Israel

The government's bill to transfer 40,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel from their land, to be debated in a Knesset committee this week, will harm Bedouin women even more than men.

The struggle on behalf of "unrecognized" Bedouin villages in Israel's Negev Desert comes to the Knesset Interior Committee this week, as its members begin to debate the Begin/Prawer bill.

If this bill is passed, dozens of villages are likely to be demolished. Bedouin will be dispossessed of most of their remaining land. Up to 40,000 Israeli citizens will be transferred from their homes to townships that are magnets for crime and poverty because the Bedouin living in them have been torn from their agricultural sources of income and their culture. In his op-ed "Why don't Rabbis for Human Rights care about Bedouin women?" Alon Tal attempts to delegitimize Rabbis For Human Rights' support for this struggle by claiming that we neglect Bedouin women's rights. But what is planned in the bill, and its consequences, will harm Bedouin women even more than men.

The issues facing Bedouin women are very serious, as we frequently hear from the Bedouin women activists we partner with. But the reality is that these women still choose to fight this bill while struggling in their communities on women's issues because they know just how deeply they will be harmed by the bill's passage. Unemployment in townships like Rahat is four times higher than in recognized villages (there are no statistics for unrecognized villages). In addition to suffering transfer and dispossession as Bedouin, women will be the first to be unemployed. The social anomie created by urbanization only increases violence against women.   

While fighting the Begin/Prawer bill would be legitimate and necessary were Rabbis for Human Rights doing nothing on behalf of Bedouin women, a quick Google search reveals that we just concluded Women Citizens For Equality, a three-year empowerment program for Jewish and Bedouin women. Tahrir Elatika, the young Bedouin woman who co-coordinated the project, has written to Prof. Tal. After describing the projects that Bedouin women have established in cooperation with RHR to promote women's rights, she concludes: "Let the women flourish and develop in their own villages, as they do not want to move to townships like Rahat, that offer only poverty and neglect." 

Tal plays on the stereotype that the Bedouin have no legitimate land claims and are illegally taking over the Negev. In 1920, the Palestine Land Development Company of the Zionist movement recorded nearly 650,000 acres as belonging to the Bedouin. When the Bedouin were invited to submit their land claims in the '70s they submitted claims for less than half of this (many landowners had fled or been expelled). The government said it would not recognize Bedouin claims to 124,000 acres of communal grazing land, and nearly 50,000 acres have been dealt with since then either through arbitration or in court.

Most of these cases have not gone well for the Bedouin. Unlike the Ottomans, British and pre-state Zionist movement, Israel does not honor the internal Bedouin system of land ownership. Some 150,000 to 160,000 acres of land are still unresolved. Altogether the Bedouin land claims amount to around 5.4 percent of the Negev, while the Bedouin compose 30 percent of the Negev population. When stereotypes about the Bedouin "taking over the Negev" are peeled away, an RHR-commissioned opinion poll shows that most Israeli Jews think the Bedouin land claims are fair.

Contrary to Tal's claims, the courts have not yet determined the status of El-Araqib. He knows this.  As a member of the Jewish National Fund's directorate, Tal deserves credit for using his influence, backed by thousands of letters to the JNF organized by Rabbis for Human Rights and our partners, to partially freeze the JNF's work turning El-Araqib into a forest without waiting for a court decision.

El-Araqib has Turkish, British and even Israeli proof of ownership, such as purchase records and tax documents, in addition to the silent testimony of a cemetery with graves dating back to 1914. The state argues that this proof of ownership is irrelevant because the land was expropriated in 1953. In December, the High Court ordered the district court to hear the case. When leaving the court before the decision, one resident said to me, "I hope the judges realize that doing justice here isn't just good for the Bedouin, but for all Israelis."  

If the Begin/Prawer bill is passed, the courts will no longer be able to help El-Araqib. It is outside the "Pale of Settlement" outlined on the map attached to the bill delineating where it is permissible for a Bedouin community to exist. Courts will be also circumvented for those inside the pale. A special committee will be set up. At best, if the committee decides a Bedouin is entitled to his land, he might receive 50 percent of that claim or alternative land, plus some compensation. If all his neighbors don't cooperate, the percentage goes down. If he doesn't agree to forgo all other claims, he gets nothing. The right of judicial appeal will be severely limited.

One might get the impression from Tal's article that the land taken from El-Araqib will somehow benefit the overcrowded Rahat township. A highway and a new Jewish community separate Rahat from El-Araqib. The Bedouin of Rahat will be no more allowed to live outside the permitted pale than the Bedouin of El-Araqib. If the issue is recreation, the residents of El-Araqib are willing to cooperate on creating a green community. I am sure there could be picnicking arrangements without taking their land. If the state really wants to alleviate Rahat's overcrowding, that should be done on land closer to Rahat without dispossessing the residents of El-Araqib. If Begin/Prawer is passed, overcrowding in townships will actually get worse because residents of demolished villages will be moved to the townships.

In previous conversations with Tal, I had thought we put to rest the unfounded claims of El-Araqib violence. I have not been able to uncover any case of El-Araqib residents physically attacking JNF workers or torching vehicles. Tal was not able to back up his allegations either. The Bedouin we work with are committed to nonviolence. They point to us when their children say that all Jews are oppressors. While Tal questions our references to Martin Luther King, King's greatest challenge in convincing his people to struggle nonviolently was despair and disbelief stemming from ongoing injustice.  Our sages taught: "The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and justice denied" (Pirkei Avot).

Contrary to Tal's claims, Rabbis for Human Rights' current focus is not the JNF. The Israeli government is responsible for the Begin/Prawer bill. If this discriminatory legislation is passed, the JNF will need to make a moral decision whether to collaborate. We remain optimistic because our opinion poll shows that we Israeli Jews have a finer sense of moral justice than that expressed in the Begin/Prawer bill.

We recently read in Parashat Lekh Lekha how Abraham, the father of the Jewish and Arab peoples and a figure closely associated with the Negev, provides an example to us all. Rather than imposing his authority on his nephew Lot, when conflict arises between their shepherds, he bends over backwards to avoid enmity, recognizing that there is enough land for everybody. "Let there be no strife between you and me for we are kinsman." (Genesis 13:8)  Let our government cause no strife between Jews and Bedouin, for we are all Israelis, and part of one human family.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the president and senior rabbi of Rabbis For Human Rights. To help RHR defend the Bedouin, please contact rhr.bedouin@gmail.com.

The Bedouin township of Bir Hadaj in the Negev.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz