Who Will Carry the Torch of Bedouin Leadership?

Tamer Masudin
Tamer Masudin
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Bedouin town Laqiya in southern Israel
Tamer Masudin
Tamer Masudin

An earthquake hit the Negev, breaking hearts throughout the Bedouin community, upon the death of Knesset member Saeed Alkharumi. “The Son of the Negev” left behind an aching community, bereft and isolated, riven and poor. An entire sector, represented since the first Knesset by a succession of six lawmakers, was left without someone to represent it. The question is: Who will carry the burden of the Bedouin community now?

The United Arab List (Ra’am) is now debating whether to let someone from this community into the party. In my opinion, as a member of the community, this is a heavy load that requires several representatives, with just one being insufficient. To understand the scope of this burden and the mission lying ahead, one must understand the nature of the problem. The Bedouin community’s problems don’t begin and end with the demolition of houses. That is only the tip of the iceberg.

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Here are some facts that can highlight the issues. Bedouin society is afflicted with poverty, as Bedouin villages occupy the lowest socioeconomic tier. The education level in Bedouin schools is very low in comparison to that in the Hebrew and general Arab education system. This is proven by standardized assessment tests, with only 53.5 percent of pupils eligible to take high school matriculation exams, a very low figure compared to the rest of Israeli society.

The rate of Bedouin students in colleges and universities is low compared to other sectors, not to mention the higher crime rates in the Negev, the struggle over unrecognized villages, the high mortality rates and low income. All this data paints Israel’s backyard as it is, as the Bedouin know it: dark, destitute, and neglected.

How many of these issues can be addressed by one person, according to Ra’am members? After all, these issues overlap and are interconnected. How can you improve the level of education when there is no infrastructure? How can you reduce crime levels when there are no jobs? How can you lower mortality rates when your house is in the desert, with the nearest hospital an hour away? How many of the 250,000 Bedouin citizens of this country can one representative carry on his shoulders before collapsing?

Alkharumi worked in the political and social arenas and did what he could, but it’s time to admit that one representative is insufficient. If Ra’am or the Joint List cares about the Bedouin community, they must act now and not wait for a new Bedouin rock star.

In other words, the ball is in the court of the Arab parties, and they must look forward and recruit the young generation so that it joins the fray. We live in a different era, the one of millennials and activists, an era where young people can start revolutions through tweets, ending them with ridiculous trends on TikTok. This is a generation which already knows how to use social media and speak that language.

The Bedouin are indeed neglected, but almost every young person has a mobile phone and is active on social media. It’s not difficult to find a group of young Bedouin with fire in their bellies and concerns about the Negev. Each year, leadership programs in Bedouin communities produce talented young people. Youth movements and NGOs such as AJEEC (Arab-Jewish Center for Empowerment, Equality and Cooperation, at the Negev Institute), the Scouts and HaNoar Haoved VeHalomed, as well as organizations such as Desert Stars and the Kav Hazinuk program train dozens of young Bedouin each year, providing them with exceptional skills with which they can reshape their society’s dark reality, as well as carry the heavy burden Alkharumi left behind.

It’s important to note that these young people are familiar with the Bedouin language, allowing them to talk to their community and speak in its name. Where are these young people? Why don’t they find any expression in the political arena? How could it be that out of all these people there aren’t a few who say: It’s on us, we’ll take responsibility. Is it because they have no political opinions? Or that they’ve lost their trust in politicians? Are they not talented enough? Is it because their representatives in the Knesset who supposedly speak for them, don’t turn to them or succeed in identifying their potential?

A long-term apparatus is required, built, and defined through goals that promote the interests of Bedouin society. Such a matrix will need to find a way of including young Bedouin, taking them in while instilling trust in local and state politics, infusing them with hope and a willingness to shoulder the burden.

There is a need for extensive training of these young people, providing them with practical tools and a knowledge of the language of politics. They should have been approached yesterday; the clock is already ticking. The interests of Bedouin society should also be the interests of the Arab parties. Whether Ra’am admits this or not, the Bedouin are the ones who saved it in the last election. We’re talking about 250,000 people with no representation. You can figure out how many Knesset seats this amounts to.

As a young Bedouin man, I had an opportunity to provide education in a Zionist youth movement, to participate in leadership programs, and I am presently forging my way at Reichman University, where I am the first and only member of my community. How I’d like to see others like me, making their way together with me, on the way to the table where decisions are made, in Jerusalem’s government offices.

My dream is very dependent on the next step taken by Arab parties and their policy regarding Bedouin society. Will the Negev be a backyard for them as well? Or will they allow themselves to prepare young Bedouin to carry forward the torch left behind by Alkharumi?

Tamer Masudin, a graduate of the Kav Hazinuk leadership program, studies government at Reichman University, formerly the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

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