It was one of the hottest days of August. The heat and humidity had gone beyond unpleasant and become truly bad for one’s health.
Betsy and I waited until evening to take a short bike ride in the fields surrounding Hoshaya. The air was still very hot. The fields that are normally busy with runners and cyclists were practically deserted.
Suddenly a young man jogged passed us. Crew cut dark hair, wearing a shirt with a military insignia from which protruded a greenish plastic bag. He was sweating heavily. When I greeted him he stopped running and began jogging in place.
“What’s that garbage bag under your shirt for?” I asked.
“To wrap around my body so I sweat more.”
“You want to sweat more on a day like today?!” I exclaimed. “Where are you from?” I added, attempting to understand the garbage bag.
“I’m your neighbor. Bedouin. From the village Arab al-Heib. I’m an officer in the Bedouin Battalion. Soon I’m going on a Company Commanders course.”
“Good for you!” Betsy and I chorused. I added, “But why do you make things harder for yourself with a bag under your shirt on such a hot day?”
“Because I’m a Bedouin officer,” he said, still jogging in place, “and a Bedouin officer has to work harder to succeed.”
The admiration on our sweaty faces grew. I asked if I could photograph him. He agreed, on condition it was from behind so he could not be identified. He then continued on his run, leaving us admiring and astonished.
Although I am unconvinced of the value of running wrapped in a garbage bag on a hot evening, to succeed as a Bedouin officer certainly does require extra work.
A Bedouin officer, over and above the difficulties facing any combat officer in the IDF, faces several additional challenges:
First, before army service. Bedouin youth come from communities where not everyone supports army service. Their education, language skills and acculturation tend to be below the national average, and that is before acknowledging that the “Arab enemy” the IDF is training to fight, actually looks and sounds like them.
Second, when they get to the army. For them, Hebrew is their second language. Even in units like the Bedouin battalion, the army’s language and mentality is Hebrew, and often the system is affected by prejudices and suspicion.
Third, when they go on leave. On the bus, in the mall, in a restaurant or at a movie, when a Bedouin soldier is not in uniform he looks and sounds… Arab. In Israel, as painful as this is to admit, Arabs are viewed with more suspicion. Their bags are checked more carefully at the mall, they are stopped more often and questioned more.
Fourth, when they get home. Not every Bedouin family supports army service for members of the Bedouin community. Depending on the village and clan, a Bedouin soldier might be viewed with admiration and respect, or with resentment and anger.
Fifth, when they complete their army service. Despite increasing awareness and greater efforts by government and NGOs, there is still a great gap between what awaits newly released Jewish soldiers and their Bedouin peers.
“You’re right,” I silently told the anonymous Bedouin officer running off into the distance. “You do have to work harder. But you’re not the first in that position. Think how hard the Jewish immigrants to Canada and United States had to work to integrate and succeed in their new societies a century ago. And see how far they’ve come today!”
And finally, may Israel’s immigrants and minorities spend less time complaining and more time following the example of that Bedouin officer! Perhaps not to wrap themselves in plastic bags on a steamy evening, but certainly to arm themselves with determination and commitment to work harder, on the way to success and integration.
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College. Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution. His book “Son of My Land” was published in 2013. Sagi can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.