In Disregard for Bedouin, Israel Is Forgetting Its Founders

It's not that Negev Bedouin are inherently nomadic – it just suits the Israeli government to treat them as such. Ironically, pre-state Jewish immigrants saw Bedouin as the model for the New Jew.

Seraj Assi
Seraj Assi
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Dozens march for Bedouin rights, March 26, 2015.
Dozens march for Bedouin rights, March 26, 2015.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Seraj Assi
Seraj Assi

Israeli Arab citizens marked the 39th anniversary of Land Day last week with an "awakening march," led by Knesset members from the Joint List in support of the Negev Bedouin community. The Prawer Plan genie was out of the bottle again – as protesters decried it as a looming threat. The plan, which calls for relocating nearly 30,000 Bedouin into recognized communities in what is actually a shrewd attempt to displace them from their land, has sparked an ongoing debate over the fate of so-called "unrecognized villages." This, in turn, has led many Israelis to wonder: Why is it that Israel, which prides itself on its democratic character, continues to dismiss Bedouin land rights?

Israel's attitude toward the Negev Bedouin is clearly the product of a mentality that fails to see human and civil rights beyond the single prism of Jewish settlement. It is rooted in a territorialist outlook that views mobility and tribal formation as the antithesis of stability, belonging and most importantly, state formation. Many historians have pondered why modern states oppose nomadic peoples.

It's not that the Negev Bedouin are inherently nomadic, but it has served the interest of successive Israeli governments to treat them as such. Israel, for its own ethnocentric reasons, was never truly interested in settling the Negev Bedouin. Unlike the Ottoman and British authorities in Palestine, the Zionist establishment never made this its policy. Instead, it came up with a host of notorious plans based on the ideology of Jewish settlement: "Conquest of the Desert," the “Green Patrol” (known among Bedouin as the “Black Patrol”), and most recently, the Prawer Plan.

It is not immediately obvious nowadays that this is the root of the state's attitude toward the Bedouin. Few Israelis seem to realize that the necessity of pushing nomadic populations to lead a sedentary lifestyle is a mere political fiction created by liberal scholars and activists. The fact remains that as far as the Israeli government has been concerned, the Bedouin community was meant to remain unsettled, and thus stateless, unlike the Jewish communities of the Negev. Ironically, this policy was justified by projecting a settler narrative onto the Palestinian Arab Bedouin: They are conquerors, invaders and barbarians responsible for the destruction of what had been a fertile granary of the Land of Israel.

Israel's most recent plan to unseat the Bedouin, the Prawer Plan, raises fundamental questions not only about Israel's democratic character, but also regarding its Jewish roots. Anti-Semitic sentiments in Europe have been largely predicated on the same territorialist mentality that viewed the Jewish Diaspora as yet another form of "statelessness." Speaking at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Max Bodenheimer, the first president of the Zionist Federation of Germany, reassured his European hosts: "So long as we are in exile, we will wander, we have no right whatsoever to establish ourselves in Switzerland."

Ironically, this led the early David Ben-Gurion, along with other Zionist pioneers in Palestine, to exclude the Diaspora experience from their historical narrative of the Jewish people. In a 1907 letter to his father, Ben-Gurion wrote that it is not the nomadic Diaspora Jews, but rather the settled Jews of the Yishuv, who are the true natives, the sons of the soil.

Historians of the pre-state Yishuv period, including Oz Almog, note that this trend gained momentum with the consolidation of the Jewish Yishuv during the 1930s and 1940s, when the image of the "New Jew" – the Sabra – solidified as the anti-Diaspora Jew par excellence. The native Arab Bedouin served as a model for those European Jewish newcomers seeking to free themselves from the yoke of Diaspora.

Yet nostalgia for the nomadic way of life was a recurrent theme in Yishuv-era literature. Even devout Zionist writers like Moshe Smilansky praised the Bedouin ethos: courage, freedom and loyalty to the tribe. It is also well-documented that pre-state movements such as Hashomer and its offshoot Haroeh (the Shepherd) had an unmistakably Bedouin character. One need not go beyond the cover of Ariel Sharon's recent biography "The Shepherd" – featuring the architect of the "Green Patrol" kissing a goat in his arms – to grasp the irony of Israel's current treatment of its Bedouin population.

With the founding of the State of Israel, the long honeymoon between the early Jewish immigrants and the Arab Bedouin came to an unhappy end. Overnight, the Bedouin were turned from an agent of the Jewish return to history into the eternal enemy of the state. In disregarding the historical right of the Palestinian Bedouin to their land, Israeli Jews are forgetting an integral part of their own history.

Seraj Assi is an Arab Palestinian citizen of Israel, and a Ph.D. candidate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. He is writing his doctoral dissertation on the politics of nomadism in Mandatory Palestine.

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