Critics of Israeli legislation aimed at urbanizing the Bedouin population of the Negev desert are trying to enlist American Jews to support their struggle and to apply pressure on the Israeli government to halt implementation of the program.
The plight of the Bedouins, dramatized in the 2012 award-winning feature film “Sharqiya,” is that their land claims were never formalized under Turkish, British or Israeli rule. This has led Bedouin villages — often without running water or electricity — to be poor and largely “unrecognized.” And that means that inhabitants have little legal recourse when the government, ostensibly attempting to alleviate national poverty levels, razes their homes and sends them to cities with amenities.
Anticipating the late June vote, advocates drew attention to the Bedouin cause with a video message by Jewish actor Theodore Bikel, famed for his portrayal of Tevye, in which he compares the situation of Bedouins under the proposed law to that of the Jews being expelled from Anatevka, the fictional Jewish shtetl depicted in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.”
“We want Jews to help us on this issue — Jews from Israel and Jews from abroad — as we think the prime minister listens to them more than he listens to us,” said Attia al-Asam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages.
American supporters of Bedouin rights are hopeful that Jewish involvement from abroad will succeed where domestic advocacy has failed. They view the struggle of Women of the Wall as a model of a campaign in which American Jews were able to change political realities in Israel. But the drive to help Israeli Bedouin has yet to garner similar support and, with the exception of the Reform movement, most mainstream Jewish organizations have chosen to sit out on this debate, avoiding confrontation with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
The plan for resettlement of Negev Bedouins, which was written by former Cabinet minister Benny Begin and by Ehud Prawer, head of the policy planning division at the Prime Minister’s Office, is aimed at regulating the living areas of Arab Bedouin residents of the Negev. The Bedouins, who make up between 20% and 30% of the area’s population, reside in small, unrecognized villages that do not receive governmental or municipal services.
According to the plan, between 20,000 and 30,000 Bedouin will relocate to towns in the Negev, receiving compensation and new plots of land. Backers of the plan insist the displacement “can be a blessing” because of the modernization and financial opportunities that it will bring. The relocation of families “will make it possible for their children to leap in time into the midst of the 21st century, and to build a better future for them while maintaining their culture and way of life,” Begin wrote when presenting the plan.
But critics say that precedent does not back up this optimism. Bedouin towns suffer from poverty, infrastructure problems and disproportionately high crime rates, and urbanization thus far has been a “horrible failure,” said Marc Grey, spokesman for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, arguing that there is nothing to suggest that this wave of urbanization will be more successful.
Al-Asam’s objection is more basic — namely that Bedouin are the only residents of the Negev to have their residences determined by the government. He said, “The government allows Jews in the Negev all types of different dwellings — kibbutzim, moshavim and towns…. What we are asking is, treat us like other residents of the Negev and allow us to choose where we live.”
Mark Regev, spokesman for Netanyahu, said that the Bedouin until now have been subject to “unacceptable levels of underdevelopment and poverty.” By recognizing many previously unrecognized communities and urbanizing residents of others, the state will end uncertainty over the status of their dwellings and “bring the Bedouin into the mainstream as owners of property and assets,” he told the Forward.
Once the status of Bedouin areas is regularized in Israeli law, the government plans to invest billions of shekels in infrastructure that it has refused to establish in unrecognized villages because they are regarded as a legal anathema. Regev called the process “affirmative action” and a “process of empowerment.”
But al-Asam, one of the leading political advocates for residents of unrecognized villages, claimed that the government’s logic that recognition will kick-start infrastructure building is flawed — as it didn’t need to withhold infrastructure in the first place. “These are rights that the government is obliged to give,” al-Asam said, referring to the provision of infrastructure.
“Anyone who opposes the program should ask themselves what is so good about the status quo,” Regev said in response to claims raised by critics of the plan.
The Begin-Prawer plan was adopted by the ministerial legislative committee and passed Israel’s Knesset in first reading by a close margin of 43-to-40.
The near-defeat of the bill, an unusual political outcome for legislation sponsored by the coalition, energized American critics of the plan, who believe that adding the weight of Diaspora Jewry to the voices calling to reconsider the program could tip the balance. “We want members of Knesset and ministers in the Netanyahu Cabinet, especially those from the more moderate wing, to take note of the fact that a significant part of American Jews and American rabbis and leaders are asking them not to take further action on this bill,” said Doni Remba, executive director of Jewish Alliance for Change and co-director of the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice in Israel.
As well as the Bikel video, Remba and other activists in the United States, have organized petitions to Netanyahu and brought over speakers, both Jewish and Bedouin, to speak out against the proposed legislation. The issue has been raised in discussions hosted by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and in conference calls with supporters and opponents of the bill in Israel.
On the organizational front, however, results have been mixed. Critics of the plan registered a major victory as the Reform movement, America’s largest Jewish denomination, joined the campaign. In a June 9 letter to Netanyahu, Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, called for a halt in legislative actions on the plan. “Adopting the Begin Plan at this point is premature,” he wrote. “It is clear that more research is necessary to investigate the possible consequences of this plan and its implementation.”
Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal rabbis also joined the call, but the two other major streams, Conservative and Orthodox, did not take a stand.
Activists still see a pathway to garnering more support among American Jews. Polls conducted in Israel showed a significant change in views on the Begin-Prawer plan once respondents became aware of some key facts in the debate. While initially many supported the legislation because they viewed it as a tool necessary to stop a Bedouin land grab in the Negev, a majority of participants in the poll changed their views once informed that Bedouins claim only 5% of the Negev lands for their settlements.
“I don’t think the Jewish community here gets it, but I don’t think they are to blame, because even people a half an hour from there don’t necessarily understand the situation,” said Naomi Paiss, spokeswoman for the New Israel Fund, which funds several of the groups active on Bedouin rights issues in Israel.
“The first step, for Israelis and for Americans, is to break the wall of disinformation,” said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of external relations and special projects for Rabbis for Human Rights. In a telephone interview taking place while Ascherman attended a weekly protest at the Al Araqib Bedouin village, where houses were torn down to allow a new forest, he noted that signs of American Jewish protests have already began to reach decision makers in Jerusalem. “One of the key architects of the plan told me that our activity is ‘causing damage abroad,’” Ascherman said.
He acknowledged that the campaign has not penetrated the mainstream Jewish organizational world and that, in contrast to the struggle of women seeking equal prayer at the Western Wall, the Bedouin issue does not resonate directly with American Jews. Still, he added, “it may be different than Women of the Wall, but it definitely touches a chord in the Jewish community.”
Efforts of Bedouin-rights advocates to enroll American Jewish support for the battle against the legislation were met with a cautious response. Major organizations, which in the past had spoken out about civil rights issues in Israel, chose to steer clear of the debate, noting the complexity of the issue and the strong arguments on both sides.
Reluctance to take a stand on the specific legislation does not indicate, however, a lack of interest within the Jewish community to issues relating to Arab Israeli citizens. An inter-agency task force set up in 2006 as a joint project of Jewish federations, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and national organizations and philanthropic foundations has raised awareness to concerns of Arab Israelis and to the need for American Jews to extend their support for Israel to its non-Jewish citizens, as well.
“There’s been a very constructive evolution in the level of knowledge of American Jews on this issue,” said Stuart Brown, a senior official at Jewish organizations dealing with Arab-Israeli issues who spoke to the Forward in a personal capacity. “But, I would like to see more.”
The Interagency Task Force, which is an educational body that does not engage in advocacy, did not take a stand on the Begin-Prawer plan. “We are a very, very mainstream Jewish American organization,” executive director Michal Steinman said. “This is a very controversial issue, so we provided people with views of both sides and with the background for the plan.”
In order to provide American Jews with both sides of the picture, the task force has organized conference calls with backers and critics of the plan. In a July 8 call, Begin tried to make the case for the law, speaking out against “a very ugly” attempt to politicize the issue. “We are really harassed and under a propaganda siege,” Begin told his American Jewish audience. “We need people of good will in order to spread the gospel.”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at Jeffay@forward.com