Last month a conference was convened in Be'er Sheva to consider the issue of domestic violence in the Bedouin sector. A recent report prepared by the Bedouin chapter of Women Lawyers for Social Action describes a horrifying situation: 79% of Bedouin women have been attacked by their husbands. 90% describe an ongoing pattern of violence and harassment that they have suffered over their lives by virtue of their being women. Some 80% are afraid to leave their homes without a male escort, for fear of the resulting retaliation. Polygamy has become so widespread that a majority of Bedouin children in the Negev have siblings from a mother different than their own.
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Most of the speakers were Bedouin women, but the conference was conducted in Hebrew so that Israel's Jewish majority could be informed. Representatives from many public interest groups were there, as were several academics and feminist activists. They were both appalled at the government's failure to provide protection to its citizens and impressed by the courage of the women who are finally standing up and calling for change. One organization that purports to speak for the Bedouin was conspicuously absent: Rabbis for Human Rights.
Instead, this organization continues to focus its energies in the Negev in supporting a campaign http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.535827 of a few Bedouin families to receive ownership of lands they claim belonged to them over sixty years ago The El-Araqib area, located just to the south of Rahat, has been in the news intermittently. Israeli courts hear legal petition after petition by the families in their attempts to annul an order from the 1950s that brought these open spaces into the public domain. Consistently, a range of judges were not convinced by the testimony about historic ownership and called the violent behavior of the petitioning Bedouin families into question.
I have met with the leaders of the El-Araqib campaign and also did not found the evidence they presented compelling. Aerial photographs from the past century tell a very different story. And I trust Israel's legal system to offer the petitioners a fair day in court.
At the same time, I recently taught a university course about environmental justice that focused on Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in Israel – and the Negev's second largest town. So I am very familiar with the crowded conditions and the desperate need for open spaces by residents of the city. Even if I did think the petitioning clans had lived there from time immemorial, even a teaspoon of utilitarian justice requires the preservation of these open spaces to ensure that the citizens of Rahat city today and the future enjoy a green belt around their city.
The regional masterplan which is being implemented is designed to prevent an urban sprawl that would connect Be'er Sheva and Rahat. It makes total ecological and sociological sense. If new evidence convinces the courts that there are historic claims, financial compensation can and should be paid to the El-Araqib petitioners. To allow construction there would be a mistake.
Last week I saw a mass email sent out by Rabbis for Human Rights to their extensive list comparing the intrepid El-Araqib campaigners to Martin Luther King's battle for justice. It is time to bring a little sanity into the discourse. The controversy surrounding El-Araqib has absolutely nothing to do with the civil rights campaign of fifty years ago. To invoke the heritage of great Rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel's or Jacob Rothschild's involvement with Dr. King is not just historically imprecise; it is downright disingenuous.
To begin with – the level of violence associated with the El-Araqib campaign is enormous. Some 65% of the grazing that survives among Bedouin herders takes place in JNF forests. As Bedouin communities have practically no parks, the Negev forests are increasingly becoming sanctuaries for Bedouin recreation and celebrations. Yet, the foresters of the JNF have been attacked on innumerable occasions, their vehicles torched and their lives threatened by the small minority of Bedouin who oppose the afforestation work there. For Martin Luther King, non-violence was axiomatic.
Martin Luther King sought justice for his entire people and did not focus his energies on a real estate bonanza for his extended family. If Rabbis for Human Rights succeeds in its campaign, it will means that the 50,000 residents of Rahat – (soon to be 100,000) - will be suffocated to the south by the expansive homesteads of the present protesters, who received a substantial real estate prize for their lawlessness. There is a major debate in Israel surrounding the dimensions and conditions of the proposed land arrangement for the many "unrecognized" Bedouin villages. If lands are the concern, this is the macro-issue which should be the focus of discussion, not this very local maneuver for private property.
Martin Luther King spoke on behalf of the discrimination that left the African-American community poor and disadvantaged. There is nothing in the present campaign that goes to the critical issue of creating economic opportunity for Israel's poorest citizens. The people fighting for El-Araqib are not homeless or indigent. The protesters' houses in Rahat, some of them impressive villas, may be crowded because of their large families. But the issue is surely not a question of providing a roof for homeless refugees.
It is most infuriating to have the Rabbis for Human Rights campaign focus so much of its energies on discrediting the Jewish National Fund. Like the other 8% of Israel's woodlands, the trees planted by the JNF in the Negev prevent erosion, enrich the soil and create recreational sanctuaries for all Israeli citizens. Surely, the Bedouin community deserves its fair share of accessible forests. It seems to me that there are real human rights violations in the Negev besides important land reclamation that need to be targeted.
As part of my research, last month I met separately with the mayors of the leading Bedouin cities of the Negev. Not one was willing to express solidarity with the campaign to privatize El-Araqib. In contrast, they all told me that one of the only non-government organizations that actually helps them in their tireless efforts to improve the quality of life for the Bedouin is the JNF. Indeed, two had even gone on fundraising and promotional campaigns for JNF expressing appreciation for its assistance in building parks, restoring river ways and building one of Israel's most ambitious sustainability centers in Wadi Attir. One of the mayors referred to El-Araqib backers as disloyal to the country – and out of touch with the real needs of the Bedouin.
I am proud that there is an organization of rabbis who feel that Jewish tradition has something to say about human rights and I salute it in its overall mission. In the case of Israel's Bedouin community, however, where violation of human rights is so rampant, their agenda seems confused and their energies seem to be misplaced. It is time to respect the integrity of Israel's court and existing legal proceedings and move on to the real human rights nightmare facing scores of women in the Negev. The Bedouins of Israel really do need the assistance of Rabbis for Human Rights. Let's hope that they start to receive it.
Professor Alon Tal is on the faculty of Ben Gurion University and on the international board of the Jewish National Fund.