The Bedouin of the Negev – a response to Geoffrey Alderman

The Hebrew Bible speaks many times of the importance of how we treat others, speaking of equality under a shared law, of the humanity of all peoples. Leviticus tells us “If a stranger sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I am the Eternal your God. (Lev. 19:33-34); and “you shall have one manner of law, for the stranger as for the home-born; for I am the Eternal your God” (24:22)

So how can we, who love Israel, stand by silently when we see her breaking a founding principle from her Declaration of Independence that “[Israel] will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” ?

Geoffrey Alderman likened the treatment of the Bedouin in the Negev to that of the people living in the path of the proposed high speed rail link in the UK.  His analogy is disingenuous and ignores the sensitive and complex factors around the historical treatment of the Negev Bedouin. He asserts that the outrage surrounding the Prawer-Begin plan is “completely artificial, pseudo-sentimental, a pollution of rancid hot air” but he is wrong on all counts.

It is true that many Bedouin did not register their ownership of land under either Ottoman, British or Israeli law, but that does not mean that they did not have their own traditional system of communal and individual ownership of land. Forced under martial law in the fifties and sixties to move to a condensed area between Dimona, Arad and Beer Sheva, many later moved into urban townships and had to give up all claims to their land. But some did not and found themselves living in unrecognised settlements, with no municipal status, no supportive infrastructure of water, sanitation, electricity.

They are perceived as criminals, unable to lawfully develop or build on the land on which they live.

Not registering their land did not mean they did not own their land. The JNF and the Jewish Agency bought land from the Bedouin in the years before the State of Israel came into existence – they clearly thought the Bedouin owned that land.

The Negev Bedouin are amongst the poorest Israelis and with the least opportunities to improve their lot. They have limited access to education or to health care. Clearly the situation must be addressed, and I congratulate the Government of Israel for finally trying to solve an issue that has festered for so long. This has been a long lasting conflict between the State of Israel and her Bedouin citizens in the Negev. But how does one begin to create a different future? Not by imposing a ‘solution’, or by treating the other side as less than equal. Not by playing up a stereotype of a rootless and wandering people who have no particular place they call home. Not by saying that because our legal system has no record of ownership, there can be no record of ownership. And certainly not by not bothering to consult with the people involved but rather treating them as primitives or children who cannot know what is in their own best interests.

“If a stranger sojourn with you in your land you shall not do him wrong” says scripture. It matters that the majority of Negev Bedouin are living under the poverty line; it matters that the process of urbanisation has dislocated the Bedouin from their traditional lifestyle of agriculture and animal husbandry. It matters that there is high unemployment, delinquency and crime rates in the townships. We have to find a mutually agreeable solution to the benefit of both the State and her Bedouin citizens so that both people and land can develop sympathetically. The measure of a society is found in how it treats the most vulnerable citizens, and it is also found in how respectful it is of all its citizens. To claim that a solution is “extraordinarily generous” when there has not been any discussion or consultation is to misunderstand generosity. The closest word in Hebrew for generosity is ‘nadiv’ and it bespeaks both generosity of resource and nobility of leadership.

Bimkom, a group of architects and planners have worked with the Bedouin of the Negev to create an alternative plan, based on the existing settlements and which provides a basis for a viable development of the region as a whole, while maintaining the principles of equality, recognition and justice.

A different future could be created if we simply returned to our founding texts of bible and of our modern state – One law for the stranger and for the Israelite; Doing no wrong to people who live alongside us.

It is possible to resolve the disputes of the Bedouin of the Negev if the political will made it so, if the politicians act like nedivim with both generosity and nobility, working together with all those involved rather than imposing a ‘solution’ that does not recognise the needs of those who will live with it. It is possible, with real political will, to give the people of  Israel the leadership they surely deserve.

This article was printed in an abbreviated form in The Jewish Chronicle on 10 January 2014 and online on 17 January 2014. You can view it by clicking here.

Supporting Rabbis for Human Rights and the Bedouin is an expression of Zionism

Yesterday’s event entitled “The Bedouin Community in Israel” made me reflect anew why my support of Rabbis for Human Rights is an expression of Zionism. The event was organised by the Israeli embassy in response to the public protest of Jews and non-Jews against the so-called Praver-Begin bill (for background click here). In the opening remarks, the embassy representative, a Bedouin from the Gallil-region in the north of Israel, explained that the negative headlines concerning the Praver-Begin bill were based on propaganda from, what he called, anti-Zionist groups.

We weren’t off to a good start! I seriously considered leaving the event, but then thought to myself that these views shouldn’t be allowed to remain unquestioned and decided to stick around until the Q&A.

The presentation itself focused on how Israel’s plan to resettle the Bedouin was only in their interest and a plan that focused on not leaving any Israeli citizen behind. Explaining that girls in the Bedouin community generally were not allowed to graduate from High School, Lirit Serphos (Head of Policy and Planning on the Development and Growth of the Bedouin Community) said that resettlement of the community was vital to ensure that these children would have full access to education.

In my response to her, I pointed out that the Israeli government currently fully finances a school system, namely the orthodox religious one, which results in all boys finishing school without a High School Diploma because they stop learning maths, English and science at age 10!

Of course, I believe that every child should have access to a good education but I stressed that in light of the treatment of the ultra-orthodox community it seems as if Israel is applying double standards when it comes to the Bedouin. In their case, the government seems to adopt a quasi-colonialist approach of knowing what is best for the indigenous people. Even Lirat had to acknowledge I might be onto something but then quickly added that one cannot compare the Bedouin and the ultra-orthodox community.

I explained that I was opposed to the bill not because I am an anti-Zionist or a self-hating Jew but because I am a passionate Zionist. Because I am a religious Zionist, I believe that Israel should exercise leadership in accordance with Proverbs 14:34: “Righteousness exalts a nation;” placing justice and compassion at the heart of all policy making. I believe that Israel must show each time anew that it legislates according to the precepts of “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Because I am a religious progressive Zionist and a supporter of Rabbis for Human Rights, I believe that our Jewish values must be in constant dialogue with the values of contemporary society and as such, we must ensure that the rights granted, just as the responsibilities demanded, apply to all citizens of the State of Israel equally – be they Jewish or not.

That’s why we need to fight for the rights of the Bedouin as Zionists for Israel’s sake!

Take Action on Behalf of Bedouin

65 UK rabbis have written to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen to ask them to prevent the passage of the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev. To learn more about their letter click here.

We would like you also send a letter to these ministers protesting against the bill and to find a fair and just solution to the living arrangements and welfare of the Bedouin community in the south of Israel.

It is simple to take action! Just click here to also send a letter to protest against the bill.

Op-Eds Advocating on Behalf of the Bedouin

Two members of British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights wrote op-eds for Jewish newspapers to draw broader attention to the situation of the Bedouin in Israel and to mobilise more support for the campaign to stop the legislative process of the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev through the Israeli Parliament.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright wrote on June 13, 2013 in the Jewish Chronicle: ‘All is desolation and destruction’. Read the full op-ed here.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg wrote on June 23, 2013 in the Jewish News: “Let’s show Israel is based on Jewish value of justice”. Read the full op-ed here.

He also wrote on July 15, 2013 in Haaretz: “Every Jew should see the Bedouin issue as test of Israel’s moral values”. Read the full op-ed here.

International Press Takes Note of BFRHR’s Protest on Behalf of the Bedouin

The international press has given extensive coverage to the letter signed by 65 UK rabbis under the auspices of British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights to protest against the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev.

UK Press

International Press

65 UK Rabbis Protest against the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev

65 Rabbis from the Orthodox, Liberal, Reform and Masorti movements of Great Britain this week have joined together to sign a letter of protest to the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ministers Yair Lapid (Finance), Tzipi Livni (Justice) and Meir Cohen (Welfare and Social Services), demanding that they stop the legislative process of the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev through the Israeli Parliament.

Meeting with BedouinA copy of the letter, written under the auspices of the British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights (BFRHR) was delivered to His Excellency, the Israeli Ambassador by Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner (Chair of BFRHR) and a delegation from BFRHR on Thursday 6th June.

If the Bill is passed, it would result in the forcible eviction of 30,000-40,000 Bedouin residents from their villages in the Negev into existing townships. Moving the Bedouin, they argue, ‘disregards traditional family and kinship ties and the communal and social fabric of their villages and has already been shown to result in disastrous levels of unemployment, destitution and disillusion.’

The BFRHR letter appeals for a proper consultative process with Bedouin men and women to settle land claims and recognise the Bedouin’s historic rights to their lands, leading to the provision of proper services for their villages and attention to the long-term needs of the Bedouin. The Rabbis warn that the Bill is likely to do serious damage to the international reputation of the State of Israel.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Chair of BFRHR said, ‘The Ambassador listened carefully to our questions and concerns. Now what matters is that this Bill that could drastically alter so many people’s lives is challenged in the Knesset as it is being challenged throughout the world.’
Spokesperson for the BFRHR, Rabbi Alexandra Wright added that the Bill is unjust and unfair in its discrimination against an impoverished and marginalised minority in Israel and that she earnestly hoped that the Ministers would, instead, provide a fair and compassionate process that would enhance Israel’s international standing.

View/download the full text of the letter click here.

The Tractate of Independence – Massekhet Atzma’ut

A great deal of effort is made by RHR in Israel to offer teaching on Jewish ethics to young men and women about to start their military service. One important source for their studies is the Israeli Declaration of Independence with detailed references to the traditional Jewish teachings on which it is based. We reproduce below one page from their specially created “Tractate of Independence – Massekhet Atzma’ut” – anyone who would be interested to see more and possibly run some teaching sessions in their own communities should contact Rabbi Nava Hefetz at RHR Israel for more information.

masekhet Atzmaut

My Testimony

(Testimony written by the servant of Esther in the days of Achashverosh, the king who reigned from India to Ethiopia, over 127 provinces)

You have probably never noticed me in Esther’s book.  I am one of the ‘seven maidens’ given to Esther on her arrival in the harem of the king’s palace. The chroniclers have given us no names, no history, no identity; we are there to take care of the women while they wait to be summoned by the king.

I scarcely remember my own story; I watched my mother and younger siblings die at the hands of Persian forces, sent to suppress the uprising of our city.  I fled into the forest and survived eating berries and leaves from trees and shrubs.

After three days, I was captured by a soldier who brought me to Persia and sold me to Hegai, keeper of the women, and that is how I am here in the king’s palace. We are slaves.  We sleep on old mats outside the chambers of the women who have been brought into the harem.

This woman Esther is somehow different from the others: proud, yet not unkind to us; courageous, yet fearful too.  I feel in her presence a prescient terror of something sinister, not yet revealed. She prays alone, addressing an Unseen Presence in a strange tongue. Some say it is the language of the Jews – Hebrew.  In her face, I see something of my own grief and loneliness and am moved to pity for this woman, also uprooted from the place of her birth.

The king is capricious and irascible, in the thrall of Haman the Agagite.  Haman has got the king to assent to a decree eliminating the Jews – ‘a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples.’ 

We know of this planned genocide even before Esther.  Her cousin, Mordecai, is sitting outside the king’s gate in sackcloth and there is terrible weeping and wailing among his people.  At night, I cannot sleep, imagining that I am witnessing again the decimation of my own people.

‘What is the matter?’ Esther touches my arm gently.  I cannot hide the news from her.  She is distraught.  She confides in me – no one can come into the inner court of the king unless summoned.  ‘Surely I will be put to death.’  Mordecai prevails over her: ‘If you hold your peace this time, then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish?’

There is an intimate, royal banquet – the king and Esther and Haman – on the first night; and then, on the second night, another banquet is prepared.  As the candles are lit and the food prepared for the table, I listen to the hammering of Haman’s men outside building a gallows for Mordecai.

Tonight I dress her carefully – in a deep purple silk gown that falls to the ground, her waist bound by an embroidered girdle, her head crowned with a diadem of precious stones; her face and throat whitened with lead powder, her lips reddened with crushed mulberry.

I know that her people are sold, to be destroyed, to be slain and to perish – all the silks of India, the dyes of Phoenicia, will not save the life of this woman or her people.  I cannot tell her this, for she is resolute, there is something determined in her expression, a deep and enduring protest against the injustice of the king’s written decree.  I watch her approach the king, confront her enemy and point her finger towards his face.  He has forced himself upon her; she looks away – his face is consumed with hatred and lust, in his eyes a stony godlessness.

They cover Haman’s face – a face that looked only on itself, that was its only self-referent; eyes that averted their gaze from the face of the other lest the soul submit to responsibility, compassion, a moral urge to place others before, even above himself.  They cover his face because he will die alone, because he has betrayed ‘the most basic mode of responsibility’. 

Haman will die for his failure to see in the face of Esther a yearning for life – le droit vitale.  U’f’nei Haman chafu – his face is covered to extinguish that asymmetrical look that says: you are an infiltrator, a maggot, you deserve to die.  Esther will live and set her own people free, because she suspends her own natural right to self-survival for the sake of justice and for the sake of the life of others.

I, too, will be given my freedom by Persia’s new king, Mordecai – a freedom that will be difficult, but breathed in a place of peace and truth, of equity and trust.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright is Senior Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London, and vice-chair of BFRHR.

RHR helps to stop demolition of West Bank village

The Palestinian village of Susya located on south of Jerusalem in the West bank has been saved from immediate demolition by Rabbis for Human Rights. The 350 villagers who have five times been forcibly evicted from the land which they legally own have been granted a stay of execution in the Israeli Supreme Court where they were represented by RHR advocates.

The court decided that within 90 days a plan must be prepared for the village which will make clear where houses can be built and the Israeli authorities must also ensure that Palestinian farmers are not prevented from getting to work on their fields. Until now the Palestinians have not been given permission to build houses on their land which has been declared a site of archaeological interest. As the villagers were not offered any alternative place to live, they set up homes in caves adjoining their fields, and when these were destroyed they put up the  tents in which they now live. However Israeli settlers have been allowed to build a village with good houses in the area and Regavim a right wing organisation supporting the settlers presented a petition to the High Court calling for the demolition of the tents and other property belonging to the Palestinians.

RHR campaigns for better housing for disadvantaged Israelis

RHR have organised a cross party lobby group in the Knesset to ensure that public housing is built to higher standards and allocated fairly. RHR want to ensure that affordable housing is included in the plans for each neighbourhood. It is vital that legislation includes planning for housing units of various sizes, e.g., for single people, multi-generational families, as well as ensuring that provision is made in each neighbourhood for long term rentals and affordable housing so that low income families and other vulnerable people are not excluded from certain neighbourhoods. Lack of affordable housing was one of the main reasons underlying massive social protests in Israel in the last two years. As RHR point out, the people, who are excluded from living in a neighbourhood because housing is too expensive, are also deprived of the opportunity to take up local jobs, send their children to good local schools or benefit from transport services.