Henry Lovgren
An American Student in Israel

Lessons from the Negev

I did not envision my first night in Israel sitting at an Iftar in the Negev. In the outskirts of the Arab-Bedouin village Lakiya, I frequently thought, “what the hell am I doing here?” Here I was, an American-Jew, celebrating with Muslims the end of their daily fast during Ramadan.

I ended up at this Iftar through the Tamar Center, an organization that promotes education among Arab youth. Through an internship program, I’m spending six weeks working for them. The Iftar, hosted by a wealthy Arab-Bedouin in collaboration with the Tamar Center, brought me to Lakiya my first day on the job.

Shortly before five, my boss picked me up, and we began the drive towards an unrecognized portion of Lakiya. As we approached the compound, a sense of unease overtook me; along the unpaved roads were tin structures, litter, and abandoned vehicles, even a few camels roamed in the distance.

Questions overcame me as I tried to make sense of a side of Israel I never encountered. How can such scarcity exist hours away from the beaches of predominantly Jewish Tel Aviv? Was it possible for a peaceful Israel to develop amid seemingly racial inequality and what role would Arabs play in a society I found increasingly difficult to understand?

With these thoughts on my mind, we entered our host’s idyllic compound. Inside a fountain churned as people scurried around setting white-clothed tables. I couldn’t understand anything — neither Arabic nor Hebrew — which left me de facto mute and uncomfortable. After setting up a few signs in preparation for the guest’s arrival, I set my sights on picking up trash — a seemingly intern-esque task.

A garbage bag in tow I wandered around looking for bottle caps and cigarette butts. As the evening sun beat down on me, I noticed a group of Arab men chatting in the shade. Minutes passed, and periodically during the garbage collecting adventure, I’d look over and see if they’d get up and help prepare.

Then the situation’s irony dawned on me, here I was an upper-middle-class American-Jew, collecting trash in front of the relaxing group of men. Their blasé attitude contradicted how I saw Arab-Bedouins. In my attempt to grasp the poverty in Lakiya, my mind reverted to a pessimistic, black and white thought process of an Israel where Arabs never relaxed because of a system that required them to work. The men choosing to sit as Jews and Arabs worked illuminated Israel’s nuances, and my internal dialogue ebbed as I realized I didn’t need to have everything figured out.

Gradually a steady stream of guests from all over Israel trickled in. Jews and Arabs entered the gates of the compound, and the sounds of Arabic and Hebrew filled the dimming sky. Before sunset, an organizer sent me to a table in the back where three Arab-Bedouins and two young Jews sat. As they greeted me, I smiled in return.

Moments later, a student took the stage and spoke in Arabic about her experiences at the Tamar Center, followed by another speaker in Hebrew. After a few more speeches and a prayer, I watched a fasting man eagerly break a piece of bread and pass the other half towards a Jewish woman who graciously accepted it. Although unintentional, the profoundly symbolic act resonated with me.

As my boss drove away from the compound, I saw unrecognized-Lakiya in a different light. The night in the desert showed me the power of mentality. Achieving a peaceful and equitable Israel tomorrow requires us to fight for it today. My initial cynicism didn’t allow me to see Israel for what it is — a beautiful and flawed land with tremendous potential for Arab-Bedouins. At that night’s Iftar, I saw the Israel I yearn for, one in which Arab and Jews not only tolerate one another but chose to share their most sacred moments.

About the Author
Henry Lovgren is a foreign student interning at the Tamar Center in Be'er Sheva. He is working towards a BA in French and Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Recently, he became the Assistant News editor and lived in Turkey in a Rotary Youth Exchange Program for a year. He's from Portland, Oregon.
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