We entered the Lehavim – Rahat Train Station for the 3:00 P.M. train to Tel Aviv, as I began reflecting on the day. Five hours earlier, Azdin Abu Latif took us from the station to Ibrahim and Na’ahma Nsasra’s home in Laqiya for coffee. We met their two younger children. The older two sons are attending a summer English program in the UK. Incidentally, Na’ahma is an English teacher. And alluding to education – well, that happened in every discussion, all day.
Accompanied by my partner, Haim, we asked about life and politics in Laqiya, a Bedouin community with a population of 15,000. We heard about crime, education, employment, attitudes towards national politics, and lack of public transportation within Laqiya compared to Rahat (a nearby Bedouin city, soon to overtake Nazareth as Israel’s largest Palestinian city).
Our inquiries had begun in Azdin’s car. He has a Chemistry degree from a prestigious Jordanian university. Still working at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, he recently moved back to Rahat to serve part-time as Director of Partnerships for Tamam Initiatives Group, the umbrella over Nsasra’s business and educational initiatives. From Nsasra’s B.A. in education which led him to becoming a less than enthusiastic gym teacher, he evolved into a bold entrepreneur. Along the way, he earned his M.A. in Public Policy from Hebrew University and completed the prestigious Maoz leadership program. He serves on the boards of several NGOs too. (Disclosure: he is an Abraham Initiatives board member and I am a part-time employee of the organization.)
After a transportation venture, Nsasra’s first factory was Nazid, a catering company located at Idan Hanegev Industrial Park on the outskirts of Rahat. Our exceptionally good lunch was evidence of Nazid’s quality menu. The park, widely recognized as a model for replication, is jointly managed by three neighboring local authorities: Rahat, and the Jewish Lehavim and Bnei Shimon communities. Nazid employs Bedouin women, otherwise not likely employed, and we met an impressive Bedouin woman who manages its HR. Employees work together with Jewish women and men. Nazid employs people with disability – or with ability, they say. Tamam is ensuring more training and opportunities for people with disabilities are forthcoming.
Before lunch, Ibrahim outlined major socioeconomic and welfare issues requiring attention in the Negev’s Bedouin society. He also spoke about his first educational NGO, the Tamar Center. Some historical information added perspective: until 1967-68, there were no Bedouin schools in the Negev. Some families sent their children to schools in Jerusalem or northern Israel. In 1948, upon Israel’s establishment, 11,000 Bedouin remained in the Negev. The rest of the 200,000 Bedouin living there were expelled.
Today, 300,000 Bedouin in the Negev reside on 3% of its land. Hardly reason to fear they will be taking over the Negev – even if the government fulfills a commitment to expanding their communities. Notably, the natural growth rate for Bedouin society this year leveled with the average for the Jewish population.
A tour of Laqiya by car with Ibrahim brought to life his description of Bedouin land claims, the patronizing role of the Authority for Development and Settlement of the Bedouin in the Negev (established in 2007 by government resolution) and its perpetuation of land ownership by the few, regardless of any better intentions. The issues continued arising: lack of infrastructure and paved roads, lack of public transportation within Laqiya. Children on one side of the village without access to children on the other side – they stay in their neighborhoods for school too. Education, like neighborhoods, is administered around tribal and family relations, perpetuating certain aspects of traditional society, with questionable implications for socioeconomic mobility.
Though mobility – with determination – has worked for Ibrahim, the son of illiterate parents and one of over 30 children fathered by his dad with his three wives, and despite many young Bedouin now studying medicine and teaching, Ibrahim is disturbed that many are unaware of other engineering and technology options.
As discussion progressed, Ibrahim’s political acumen – and aspirations – became increasingly evident. Azdin assured us canvassing is underway. Party lists for national elections on November 1, 2022, have to be approved by the Central Elections Committee by mid-August. In Azdin’s view, Bedouin are deterred from voting by lack of faith in the power of their vote – and their representatives – to change things. Azdin later responded to the unasked question about the core of the political problem for the Negev Bedouin – it’s inseparable from the Occupation.
Arriving in Rahat, we were wowed by the almost completed municipal playground. Regretfully, considering issues of personal security – or lack thereof in Bedouin communities – parents may hesitate to let their children play there, lest they be incidental victims of off-target shots.
Once at Idan Hanegev, we visited Nsasra’s newest factory, Shoreshim, that opened two weeks earlier. It prepares ready-to-serve packaged beets and potatoes for commercial and consumer use, stamped for expiration in a year. Next stop, Nazid.
There, we encountered a policeman outside texting. Police were using a Nazid conference room – reflecting business arrangements despite precarious relations between Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Israel Police. Expectations of tensions were offset when Ibrahim casually asked if everything was ok. The policeman winked, “Everything is fine. We came to arrest the factory owner.”
The newest Tamam venture was introduced at lunch by Muhammad Abu Asi’ah who also holds a master’s degree in Public Policy, and incidentally, served in the IDF. He has recruited pre-military academies to send volunteers to teach Hebrew by speaking Hebrew with Bedouin schoolchildren beginning September 1, 2022. The Ministry of Education is watching and willing to adopt the program once success is proven. That answered my question about the Hebrew level in their schools – good enough for standardized tests, inadequate for conversation.
Reference to the discriminatory Nation-State Law reminded me of other questionable outputs of ostensibly democratic processes. Prepared to accept any answer, I asked Ibrahim how he remains dedicated, without a hint of disillusionment, to working with a system that only marginally includes him. He unhesitatingly responded: it’s his country. He elaborated: He would not want to live in a country that would allow ISIS a stronghold.
He will use the system to get what it recognizes as his rights. He would not dissuade anyone from serving in the IDF. Yet, I gather he would probably not encourage his sons to serve in the IDF now. Explicitly, he believes citizens of any given country should serve in its army as a duty to defend one’s country and one’s civil rights. This conviction must be a function of education.
Education as the engine of change was the subtext that resonated throughout the day. Bridging gaps is crucial and Tamam is doing that – in business and in education. Initiatives like recruiting pre-military academy participants to contribute to improving the spoken Hebrew of Bedouin children has reciprocal value.
The young Bedouin men and women we met during the day restored my hope for the future of Israel – for all of us.