Patron Saint of the Bedouin: A Jewish Millionaire

If the Bedouin had saints, they would presumably be canonizing Robert Arnow. But the Bedouin are Muslim, so Arnow's friend Ismael Abu-Saad suffices with saying that Arnow's name is uttered with gratitude by every Bedouin resident of the Negev.

If the Bedouin had saints, they would presumably be canonizing Robert Arnow. But the Bedouin are Muslim, so Arnow's friend Ismael Abu-Saad suffices with saying that Arnow's name is uttered with gratitude by every Bedouin resident of the Negev.

"He is the new father of the Bedouin," declares Abu-Saad, a professor of education who is the director of the Bedouin Center for Studies and Development at Ben-Gurion University, which Arnow was instrumental in establishing.

In an enlightened world, the relationship between Abu-Saad and Arnow, as well as Arnow's absolute devotion to the Bedouin population, would not be so out of the ordinary. But the reality of Israel and the rightward tilt of American Jews make the story almost aberrant.

"I love Israel but am not proud of it," Arnow declares. His attitude toward Israel is viewed through the prism of how its treats its Bedouin citizens.

Secular mitzvahs

Until eight years ago, Arnow, now 79, was just another wealthy Jewish New Yorker. A past member of the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the world was essentially another Jewish version of the American dream.

Arnow was born in Boston to a middle-class family that owned a drugstore. The family lost its money in the Great Depression, and Arnow was forced to go to work at age 11 to help support the family. He went to pharmacy school, a natural extension of working in the drugstore, but did not finish at the top of the class. His life changed when he married Joan Weiler. To this day, he speaks with near awe of his father-in-law, Jack D. Weiler.

With his help, Arnow entered the real estate business and became active in the young leadership of establishment Judaism. "For the first time in my life, I felt independent, and I became an involved person," he relates. "I always felt that you get a lease on life, and have to do something constructive with it," adds Arnow, who is thoroughly secular. "I saw my father-in-law doing philanthropic work, and it became a part of my life, too. Doing mitzvahs is a duty, not a choice."

Twenty-five years ago, Arnow served as general chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, and between 1985-95 was chairman of the Board of Governors of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is still the university's "chairman emeritus."

The Bedouin revolution in Arnow's life came out of the blue, a little over six years ago. Whenever he visited Israel, he would go to the Bedouin market in Beersheva. "I love markets, and I enjoyed the haggling," he explains.

It was his wife who proposed that they visit a Bedouin family. On that trip, Arnow heard about Ismael Abu-Saad, the first Bedouin to receive a doctorate from Ben-Gurion University. Arnow knew little else about the Bedouin.

The lunch at the traditional family home of Abu-Saad, a resident of Lakia, one of the seven Bedouin cities in the Negev - which Arnow calls "the seven failures" - proved to be a turning point in Arnow's life.

At the meeting of the university's Board of Governors, he asked for the floor. "My heart was beating harder than at my bar mitzvah," he recalls. "I spoke with great emotion about the situation of the Bedouin that would some day reach the boiling point, and I presented the case for a center for Bedouin research, based on a memorandum drawn up by Ismael."

In April 1998, the center was established, through a $2 million endowment fund set up by Arnow. However, Arnow's deeper connection to the Bedouin was conceived in the course of his first visit to the center, which is situated in a small basement room on campus. It was there that he first met two Bedouin female students from unrecognized [by the Interior Ministry] settlements in the Negev, who spoke little English.

"To me, they seemed like a miracle," says Arnow. "Two students from an unrecognized settlement that had no water, no electricity, no public transportation. On the spot, I promised myself to help 10 Bedouin women every year. I assumed that women have greater influence on society than men do. It is they who raise the children, while the men sit outside and play with their beads. I did not have any grand vision of altering Bedouin culture, just of helping the two women whom I happened to meet."

Arnow decided to grant full scholarships to the Bedouin students. Since establishing the Bedouin Center for Studies and Development, the number of female students he supports has grown from eight in 1997 to 183 in the current academic year (half of all the Bedouin students at Ben-Gurion University are women).

He contributes some of the money himself, and the rest he raises from other philanthropists. "In six years, Arnow has done more for Bedouin education than the State of Israel did in all its years of existence," says Abu-Saad.

There's always an excuse

Since then, Arnow has often been challenged with variations of the talmudic argument that "the poor of your own city take precedence" - why give to Bedouin when there are needy Jews? His conscience is clean. He also gives to Jewish organizations, and to the City of New York. But in Israel, he says, the most neglected sector of all is the Bedouin.

"I decided that if the government wasn't doing, I would do. I couldn't deal with all of the Arabs of Israel, it's simply too big for me. Because of my connection with the south, I could deal with the Bedouin issue. How many times in your life did you get the opportunity to see such a dramatic change take place in front of your eyes?"

Arnow's enthusiasm shifts into rage when he refers to government policy over the years toward the Bedouin. "I tried to raise awareness of various governments to the discrimination against the Bedouin, but got no response. They simply refuse to deal with it. They always have an excuse that something more important is happening."

Arnow likens the attitude toward the Bedouin to the internment camps that America set up for Japanese-Americans during World War II, which he calls a black mark against America. Where is the voice of the Jewish public in Israel on this issue? he asks.

"I remember Martin Luther King marching arm in arm with Rabbi Heschel. Where is this voice in Israel? Where is the Jewish soul?"

Our conversation takes place in a week in which a police report on crime in Israel is released. Special emphasis is placed on crime among the Bedouin. The same week, the identity of three suspects in the murder of the soldier Oleg Shaichat is revealed; two are from the small Bedouin community of Kafr Kana.

Asked if this doesn't mean that the Bedouin are at least partially responsible for their plight, Arnow is incensed. "The government hasn't done even the most token things for the Bedouin, for instance public transportation to the seven cities it established in the Negev without any economic program. How can you not expect this to spawn crime and social ferment? Israel is a developed high-tech state, which has created within it a Third World Bedouin state. They respond to the pressure and discrimination, and the more they are pushed to the sidelines, the more we can expect these sorts of phenomena. What do you expect them to do, given their situation?"

Arnow is determined to fight the government's new five-year plan for the establishment of seven new Bedouin cities. The flippancy with which the plan was formulated makes him boil. "If the first seven cities failed, what are they going to do with the seven new ones?," he wonders. He is now funding, at a cost of $40,000, a public and media campaign against the five-year plan, which is to be launched in early November.

The cover of the flyer to be distributed in the campaign features the picture of a young Bedouin child waving a poster that reads: "They want to destroy my house." Inside is a list of "Ten things you didn't know about the unrecognized villages of the Negev."

Some are basic facts that are meant to challenge popular myths, such as "The Bedouin are gaining control of Negev lands." In actuality the Bedouin, who represent one-quarter of the population of the Negev, live on less than 2 percent of the land.

Other sections describe the daily life of the 50 percent of the Bedouin population of the Negev that lives in the unrecognized settlements.

Six of the sections refer to the failures of the new government plan, which was accepted without any input from the Bedouin, in total disregard of their needs and rights, and in contravention of the position of the National Security Council, which argued that it is a "recipe for disaster."

Most of the resources of the plan have been allocated to enforcement, in other words, to the demolition of some 4,000 "illegal" homes. Not long ago, representatives of Amnesty International were in Israel researching a report on house demolitions. For the first time, demolitions in the Bedouin sector were included.

"This government has lost all sense of humiliation," says Arnow before heading into a marathon session of the steering committee of the Bedouin Center for Studies and Development. He had asked that the discussions be limited to only two days, in order to have a chance to get back to New York before Yom Kippur. The weekly Torah portion read on the Sabbath before the holiday is his favorite.