Hastily, at 20 minutes to midnight last Wednesday, Culture Minister Miri Regev published an inflammatory post on Facebook against an event held Monday as part of the Cinema South International Film Festival in Sderot. It included the screening of short films created by Bedouin women from unrecognized villages in the Negev.
The films included a documentary about house demolitions in the unrecognized village of Al-Araqib, an artistic silent feature film and a film showing the step-by-step preparation of Bedouin pita. All were created as part of a workshop on video documentation founded by the Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, which gave these women their initial grounding in the basics of photography.
In a series of articles starting in 2015, I have described this digital photography project, which included holding exhibitions and publishing books. Through it, Bedouin women document their lives in the unrecognized villages.
It’s hard to believe that Regev perceives a threat from women, most of them mothers, some of whom don’t know how to read or write, who have learned, for the first time in their lives, to hold a camera and look through its lens at the reality of their lives.
The project’s manager, Sabreen Abu Kaf, is a young journalist from the Bedouin village of Umm Batin, which received government recognition in 2000. She wears a hijab, in line with her community’s traditions, but represents the new spirit beginning to infuse Bedouin society, a spirit that must be given space in which to act.
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“All you have to do is teach them about social equality in the broad sense, and they already start thinking about their rights on their own,” Abu Kaf said, explaining the revolution she’s fomenting by giving cameras to Bedouin women.
“There are traditional villages with very conservative characters where I go in and see that the women’s role is only to clean, give birth and raise children. When I give out cameras in a place like this, it frightens them, because it changes the social order.
“Sometimes, even the woman herself can fear the change. She has gotten so used to oppression that you can see she’s afraid of discovering and understanding that there’s much more in our world than they taught us,” Abu Kaf said.
Subject to many restrictions on their photography (Bedouin women, for instance, don’t have the freedom to take selfies such as those Regev frequently posts on her Facebook page), these women learn to bring the camera into their familial space. While seeking the right angle for a shot, they open their eyes to the area both inside and outside the house, learn about their most basic rights and replace despair with hope.
Almaz, a 64-year-old mother of 11, said she chose, at her age, to learn photography because “We have many house demolitions. I very much want to document this and show people what we’re going through.” Bushra, a 53-year-old mother of seven, said, “My life is hard. My husband abandoned me and I remained alone with the children. I don’t have money even to go the doctor. I want to say what I feel via the camera. I want to let out what I’m going through.”
When I was 12, I read an expansive article in some weekend supplement that shook me up. It was written by my uncle, Sami Michael, who, at the newspaper’s request, had gone back to his early career as a journalist to describe the neglect, the dire poverty, the discrimination and the expropriation of lands suffered by Bedouin residents of the unrecognized villages.
The Mizrahi debate and the Mizrahi struggle are like my mother tongue, and they shaped my worldview. My heart grieves anew every time I see the cynical use Regev makes of this debate. As a Mizrahi woman, Regev should have extended a hand to Bedouin women and striven to advance them out of solidarity. But Regev, who upon taking office as culture minister discovered new ways to sow division and hatred, doesn’t hesitate to incite even against the weakest women in Israeli society.
It’s worth noting that the Negev Coexistence Forum, which was founded in 1997 by Bedouin and Jewish residents of the Negev, is a rare and special island of cooperation. But it has been targeted recently by far-right extremists and is currently even waging a legal battle over the continued existence of the cultural club it operates in Be’er Sheva. It’s horrifying to realize that there are people who view cooperation and dialogue encounters between Jews and Arabs as the greatest possible threat and incite against them.
“It’s outrageous to think that while residents of the south are suffering through rocket barrages, there are some who choose to provide a platform at the Cinema South International Film Festival for inflaming tempers between Arabs and Jews in the Negev,” Regev wrote cynically at the end of her Facebook post.