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.