Ironically, the 53rd demolition of El-Araqib took place this week on Tisha B'Av Credit: Aziz A-Touri

Ironically, the 53rd demolition of El-Araqib took place this week on Tisha B’Av
Credit: Aziz A-Touri

Many years ago, a Christian friend of mine accompanied me to a local production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” She burst into tears at the end, because of what “Her people” had done to mine.

Now, I find it increasingly difficult to hold back the tears, as the Begin/Praver Bill moves through the Knesset legislative process.  However, my faith in the basic goodness and decency of my people is justified by the mounting evidence that, when the disinformation is stripped away, the majority of Israelis oppose this plan.  It is not in our nature to destroy tens of Negev Bedouin villages, transfer up to 40,000 Israeli citizens from their homes to poverty and unemployment wracked townships, or to dispossess them from most of their lands.  Israelis have carried out similar acts, but without public knowledge or in the fog of war, and nothing of this magnitude in recent years.

Theodore Bikel, known for playing Tevye in “Fiddler” countless times, states “What hurts even more is the fact that the very people who are telling them (the Bedouin) to ‘Get out’ are the descendents of the people of Anatevka.  My people.” ( ) Our Torah teaches, “And you shall not oppress the non-Jew who lives among you, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

Three wide spread myths about the Bedouin are:  1.  “The Bedouin are taking over the Negev.”  2.  The Bedouin never owned the land.  3.  This plan is for the Bedouin’s own good.

“Panels Ltd.” recently conducted a poll for Rabbis For Human Rights.  Initially, 87% of Jewish Israelis agreed that “The Bedouin are taking over the Negev,” on an average believing that the Bedouin claim 43.9% of the Negev.  After learning that the Bedouin claim only 5.4% of the Negev, a majority indicated that this was fair (47 %, vs. 34.6%)

Many insisted that the Bedouin don’t really own land.  We have been told, “Bedouin claims were disproved in court.”  Some villages, such as El-Araqib, have Turkish, British and even Israeli documentation of ownership, based on “Western” bills of purchase, titles, etc.  However, the Government is currently asking the High Court to reconsider its ruling that El-Araqib residents must have their day in District Court. The High Court rejected the Government’s claim that their proofs of ownership are moot because the land was expropriated in 1953.  The Begin/Praver plan could “solve” the Government’s problem.  The bill contains a map of where Bedouin will be allowed to live, chillingly reminiscent of the map defining where Jews were allowed to live in late 19th century Russia.  El-Araqib is outside the permitted zone.

Many Bedouin do not have “Western” proofs of ownership.  However, their meticulous land ownership system was honored by the Ottomans and the British and recognized by the pre-State Zionist Movement.  The British kept a written record of Bedouin land ownership that mysteriously disappeared in the State archives.  Scholars have found part of these records.  In 1920, the PLDC of the Zionist Federation recorded 2.6 million dunam of land in the Negev as owned by the Bedouin.  Today, the Bedouin are claiming a mere 650,000 dunam.  These documents are available for all to see. We cannot say that the Bedouin did not own their lands.

Many argue that Israel must concentrate the Bedouin to provide water, electricity, jobs and training.  In the Negev there are smaller and more far flung Jewish communities receiving services – even single family farms. More communities are planned.  We wouldn’t refuse water and electricity to Jewish communities. The State would not tell me, “We are going to move you for your own good.”  Furthermore, government statistics show that poverty and unemployment are four times higher in the townships than in the recognized villages.  Recognizing the 35 “Unrecognized” villages is simply better policy than transfer to the townships.

The question of where the Bedouin should live must be separated from the question of land ownership.  Will the Bedouin be “Better off” without their land?  The best possible outcome for those who live within the Bedouin pale of settlement, and whom the committee the bill will create determines to be deserving, is that they will receive 50% of their land (Or alternative land) and compensation.  If neighbors don’t cooperate, that percentage goes down to 20%.  If one doesn’t sign everything else away, one receives nothing.

MK Issawi Freij summed it up best, “We will give you water if you give us your lands.”  Ya’akov once said to Esau, “I will give you food if you give me your birthright.”  He thought he was being clever, but the price was anger, enmity, and twenty years of exile and estrangement from his brother.

There is another way.  After Israeli media personality Avri Gilad made a second trip to the Negev, met with the Bedouin, saw aerial photographs of extensive pre-1948 Bedouin agriculture, and apologized for the hasty conclusions he had drawn after touring with the right wing “Regavim,” he wrote that there is plenty of good will among the Bedouin and that a solution could be reached if everybody was put in one room to talk to each other.  Talking to the Bedouin as equal citizens is a radical idea, but I agree.  This is in fact what the Bedouin are asking, “Yes, these issues must be resolved.  Shelve Begin/Praver, and begin truly speaking with us.”

Rabbi Arik Ascherman served for 15  years as the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights, and now manages special projects and strategic thinking for the organization.