Both a land of compelling images that spontaneously present themselves and a trove of juxtaposing narratives, Israel is a naturally occurring studio where the past meets the present, where opposites co-exist, and a place where conflict and resolution play out in warp speed.
More than anywhere else on earth, it’s the place where a picture is worth a thousand words. Indeed, over the past couple of weeks, images and split screen coverage of conflict on the Gaza border and the American Embassy opening dominated our attention.
At the height of the coverage, I found myself revisiting a journey I undertook in the fall of 2016 to document an Israel that exists beyond these boldface headlines.
Traveling with American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) — the global humanitarian group which partners with Israel to create social services addressing the needs of the most vulnerable — I was delighted to be part of a group of eleven photographers whose mission was to document, among others, children at risk, the elderly, people with disabilities, Israeli Arabs, and the ultra-Orthodox.
Remarkably, we witnessed unexpected commonalities among disparate populations. For example, employment centers designed by JDC to help disadvantaged populations gain skills and access to employment have been specially fitted for the cultural sensitivities and needs of both the Haredim of Bnai Brak and the Arabs of the Negev. These centers have been expanded throughout the country by the Israeli government, with the OECD lauding the work of the Arab employment centers in recent years.
Led by Eli Atias, one of Israel’s most renowned and accomplished documentary photographers, our group further honed our technical skills and, more importantly, learned to find the story that the picture tells. We spent an exhausting and exhilarating week of non-stop travel and site visits throughout the country.
Our trip was a deep immersion into the Israel eluding the public eye — individuals and communities neither trendy nor pontificating on politics. They are the people on the margins and yet paradoxically, they form the heart of Israel. Our job was to capture the reality, and oft-forgotten humanity, of their day-to-day.
Talking, listening, laughing, finding moments of breath-taking silence and dancing wildly in celebratory joy we shared an extraordinary glimpse into how positive change is made among Israelis on the margins.
During my journey I kept a diary, which I turned to over the past two weeks. A particular entry warms me still:
“Negev” in Hebrew, “an-Naqab” in Arabic. It means dry. It also means South. The Negev desert covers more than one half of Israel’s land space. Like all deserts, it is enchanted, apparently barren and arid yet in reality teeming with life and endowed with natural beauty that is at once mystical and tangible.
For centuries the Bedouin, Negev Arabs, have lived a nomadic life here, engaging in agriculture, goat herding, and living a pastoral life intimately connected to the landscape. Since the 1950s, they’ve undergone a rapid process of sedentarization, modernization, and urbanization. As of 2016, approximately 240,000 Bedouin live in the Negev, accounting for approximately one third of the population in the region.”
Late afternoon brings us to Bir Mashashi, a Bedouin village, which epitomizes the complicated relations between Israel’s Arab citizens and the state.
“The Negev Bedouin are by far Israel’s most disadvantaged community in terms of per capita income, unemployment, poverty rate, education and public infrastructure,” I learn from the material in our briefing kits from the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. While most live in seven towns established by the state, perhaps 70,000 – 90,000 Bedouin now live in unrecognized villages in the desert, where land disputes with the state have arisen from the lack of written deeds of sale and land ownership. These villages lack in basic infrastructure, running water, sewage management, electricity, health care facilities, proper schools and paved roads.
We are allowed to visit, largely because of the personal connection that Eli Atias and JDC have forged with leaders of this Israeli Arab community.
At first the visit is formal and disheartening. We are upset by the poverty, disturbed by the differences we perceived in other sections of Israel.
In a large dark barn, we see an old woman sitting alone. She is seated on a faded hand-knotted carpet, dressed in classic Bedouin garb, a long black robe elaborately embroidered and her face is tattooed with marks that identify which tribe or family she is part of. She is busily engaged in the traditional handiwork of Bedouin women. I stare as she works, realizing that I never stopped to wonder how the intricate textile patterns were created and by whom. Absorbed in her work, she exudes dignity.
Watching this woman, my mind flees back to an image of the sun falling on a woman proudly displaying her homemade crafts at the Desert Embroidery Project, a JDC initiative empowering Bedouin women to develop traditional embroidery skills and earn new sources of income by selling those pieces. We learned that the program began with just fifteen women, but today it has trained over 160 and expanded beyond Lakiya into neighboring communities.
Suddenly, I wonder if we are staring at the old woman because the teenage boys are upset by our presence and in particular our cameras and shoo us away. For a moment it feels threatening. There is tension and then one of the other boys calls out, “Come see the goats!”
Of course we’d like to see the goats! Thank goodness for the goats!
Off we are to the goats and suddenly we are in the midst of the action, exhilaration and dust of an impromptu soccer game. “Get in closer, closer” Eli yells.
Annie, one of my fellow photographers, gets a kick in the knee, I land on my bottom, but the children speak the universal language of laughter and tension dissolves.
The sun is setting; the game draws to an end. As we depart the kids drive their bikes up a hill silhouetted against the evening sky, our farewell image of Israel’s Bedouin Arabs.
The result of our journey is now on display for the next six months at New York’s Bernard Museum of Temple Emanu-El in a rotating photographic exhibition called Home: Lens on Israel open through November.
While the subject matter is always relevant, at this particular moment the show takes on another quality, becoming vital viewing for anyone who feels the need to reconnect with the vibrant humanity that resides in the Holy Land.