A Diaspora Jew Goes to the Negev

The moment I open my mouth it is clear that I am a diaspora Jew.  I learned my Hebrew in the classroom, not at home.  I learned it through textbooks filled with stories about Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the prophet, and about noblemen dropping diamonds in the river, to be improbably swallowed by fish that were improbably caught by poor but righteous fisherman, and about the man who couldn’t rest at night if he hadn’t given away his last ruble to someone poorer than himself (and his long-suffering wife).

There’s always a gulf between the ideal and the real, between the Israel I learned about, and the Israel that exists.  Sometimes it’s not such a big thing (yes, there should be less national pride centered around refusing to think first before opening one’s mouth and saying things that are offensive and foolish)  Sometimes it matters deeply.  I learned in elementary school about making the empty wastelands of the Negev bloom, but I didn’t learn about the cost to the people already living in those not-quite-empty wastelands.

I learned a new word in Hebrew recently, or rather, was reminded of an old one: sayag, which is a word for fence.  I knew it from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, where it says ve’aseh sayag la’torah, make a fence around the Torah, which means rules piled on rules to protect you from accidentally breaking the real rules.

In the Negev I learned a different form and usage for the word sayag. It refers to the area between Beer Sheva and Arad where most of the Negev Bedouin were confined from 1948 to 1966. They weren’t allowed to leave it without a special pass. Those who had originally lived elsewhere lost their land; those who had originally lived within that area also lost land, to the newcomers.

I learned another new word in Hebrew recently: nishul, dispossession.  I learned this word in the context of the Prawer-Begin plan, the prospective new law that recently passed its first of three votes before the Knesset. It will recognize some of the land claims that the Bedouin have been making (and the state has been denying) for decades, and the rest will be displaced to new or expanded development towns.  Estimates of how many people will be displaced range from 20,000 to 40,000.  Some numbers are hard to wrap your mind around.

The first times I went to the weekly protest organized against this plan by the Negev Coexistence Forum, I was quiet.  Over the din of traffic, I only grasped pieces of what was being shouted and chanted.  But over time the words became familiar, as have the faces of the regulars there.  A few weeks ago, it was a small and tired group of us, and the chants kept dying out, and I realized that, crummy Hebrew or not, I should help out. At the next lull, I took a deep breath, self-conscious about shouting in a language I still stumble over, and as my words rang out my outsider-accent was clear, as was my inability to keep straight the words “hakara” (recognition) and “akira” (uprooting), prompting friendly laughter from the crowd.

The others were curious about where I was from, and why it mattered to me to be there.  How do I explain that I am here because maybe fences should be built around Torah rules, but they certainly shouldn’t be built around people?  That I am here because I may confuse the words for recognition and uprooting, but the government has muddied the very concepts.  That regardless of whether I believe it, I was taught at an impressionable age that Eliyahu HaNavi will come through for the people who are righteous, and the people who are suffering, but not for the people who, in power, use their power to oppress and to dispossess.

One of the guys said he was glad I spoke English, because he wasn’t good at Hebrew.  He hadn’t worked hard at it in school, because, he said, it was a language of war.  Also, he had watched a lot of English television.

I wanted to say it’s not a language of war, it’s also the language of my people, the language of prayers and religious texts.  But what could I say about the language that was used to write 90 pages of impenetrable (to me) bureaucratese that puts a veneer of legality on dispossessing a minority group that has been abused for decades, and already lives on the most marginal lands?  And what could I say to this young man who had led us shouting until he was hoarse, in his own accented Hebrew, Yehudim v’Aravim, neged harisat batim, Yehudim v’Aravim mesarvim le’hiyot oyvim, Jews and Arabs oppose demolishing homes, Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies?

About the Author
Sarah Meyers is a fourth-year medical student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's Medical School for International Health