Isaac’s legacy in the Negev

A delegation with Jewish Federation of St. Louis visits a Bedouin village. Photo courtesy Jewish Federation

By Rabbi Susan Talve

During my most recent visit to Israel, I traveled to the Negev with a delegation of staff and lay leaders from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Our goal was to learn first-hand about the plight of the country’s Bedouin minority. Approximately 30,000 to 40,000 of these Israeli citizens are at risk of being forcibly relocated if the Knesset passes legislation under consideration.

Driving through the Negev always brings me back to my first visit to Israel in 1968 when I was just 15.  The miracle of the Six Day War pulled at my heartstrings, awoke within me a new height of pride in being Jewish, and inspired me to make my first pilgrimage to Israel. That summer, I spent several weeks working on a kibbutz in the Negev. There, I saw Ben Gurion’s dream of a blooming desert truly come alive.  In that very first trip, I fell in love with the land of Israel and her people. And, all these years later, those connections remain unshakable. 

As a rabbi, I teach about how the Negev  is the place where Abraham and Sara settled, dug wells, and opened their tent to others. It was in this desert that their son Isaac returned and resettled only after reaching an agreement with the local inhabitants. It was here where Zionists returned so many generations later to create a just and moral society — a place for every Jew when no place else would have us.   

On my latest trip to Israel, the St. Louis delegation I was with visited both “unrecognized” Bedouin villages and government-constructed townships. The  35 unrecognized Bedouin villages receive virtually no services from the government, including utilities, schools, and health services. Villagers live day-to-day knowing that government authorities could demolish their homes at any moment. 

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Many Israelis consider the Bedouin in these unrecognized villages to be squatters, but listening to multiple narratives, it is clear that there are deep cultural divides and much misinformation. 

By the 20th century, most Bedouin tribes settled in permanent areas established by their own system of land ownership. These claims were recognized by the Ottomans and by the British. In 1948, most Bedouin living in the Negev fled to Egypt or Jordan; only about 11,000 of the 65,000 prewar population were left by the end of the end of the 1940s.  The Israeli government then enforced martial law, to confine those who remained to live within the Siyag (Hebrew for fence) area located between Beer Sheva, Arad, Dimona, and Yerucham. Israeli authorities designated the land outside of this area as “state” land.  

The Bedouin population of Israel has grown from 11,000 people in 1948 to over 200,000 today. The Israeli government claims that due to the very high Bedouin birth rates, the rural sprawl of Bedouin villages, and lack of master plans for these communities, it is difficult for the state to provide services such as roads, water, sanitation, electricity, health clinics and schools.  However, the government has found ways to provide such services to small Jewish villages and single family Jewish farms throughout the Negev. 

In the Bible, Isaac had to reach a negotiated agreement with other inhabitants of the Negev to settle in the Negev. Isaac’s experience can serve as an example for the modern State of Israel. Through true dialogue and equitable sharing of resources, the Israeli government can find a fair resolution to its dispute with its disputes with her Bedouin citizens.

Israel must include the Bedouin leadership in all negotiations and all stages of planning. Bedouin were not shown any master plans or asked if they supported the government’s initiative before legislation was introduced in the Knesset and the prime minister’s implementation team began its work.  Bedouin needed to be treated as full partners in development plans that affect them.

To maintain trust and demonstrate respect for the humanity of its citizens, the state is obligated to provide existing villages with master plans and, building permits. It should also retroactively authorize structures that are already in place. The Israeli government should refrain from the demolitions of villages, individual homes, trees, and crops without consent until new master plans and a system for issuing building permits are in place.

For the sake of the Bedouin, for all of Israel, and for the Palestinians and the world who are watching to see how Israel treats her Arab citizens as peace negotiations continue, Israelis and American Jews must continue to wrestle with complex issues like the Jewish state’s treatment of its non-Jewish minorities. 

Rabbi Susan Talve is a board member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the group that helped arrange this visit and a member of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization working in Israel for justice for all, including the Bedouin.