My Vacation with Meaning: Negev Bedouin Exploration and Experience

Conventional wisdom sees Bedouin in southern Israel as poorly educated, under employed, poor, disobedient, with an inferior standard of living, as a breeding ground for crime and violence, and failing to shape their own destiny. Their survival through the Ottoman era, British Mandate, Israeli military rule gives contemporary Negev Bedouin strength to thrive. Bedouin lost part of their culture, were forced to live in urban villages, were separated from other Palestinian communities, and were forced to work as cheap labor. The Bedouin community endured excessive hardship and rapid change, abandoning its nomadic lifestyle and traditions in response to the economic, political and social pressure from the State.

I have been going to the Negev for over 25 years. Much is happening there that gives me hope. Many individuals and organizations are working to improve life for Bedouins. The success of these people portends promise of Israel’s future.

For three weeks I volunteered in the Negev at projects funded by our Greater Metrowest NJ Jewish Federation and the Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society (SVF). Bedouins are proud and accomplished Israelis, loyal to their clan tribes, and hundreds are active in non-governmental groups ensuring that the challenges of the Bedouin do not go unaddressed. They are dedicated to creating a better future for their fellow Israeli citizens.

I stayed at the homes of two highly educated Bedouin families in Lakiya, a Bedouin town with population of 12,000, while I volunteered at Hagar Bilingual School in Beer Sheva. This was a life changing experience. Integrated schools and bilingual education is a source of light, providing a bridge for cooperation, sharing and equality. See my opinion on integrated and bilingual schools in New Jersey Jewish News.

I enjoyed staying at the home of Dr. Jihad ElSana, head of Computer Science Department at Ben Gurion University (BGU). He is involved in some of the Bedouin accomplishments in the high-tech sector. Jihad’s wife has almost completed her PhD in psychology and works as a social worker in Rahat, (it is the largest Bedouin city in the Negev) while raising four bright and engaged children. Jihad is a board member of the newly created Al Siraj: For the Advancement of Hi-tech in the Bedouin Community (a grantee of the SVF). Al Siraj will integrate Bedouin into hi-­tech increasing economic prosperity, reducing gaps between Bedouin and Jewish citizens and creating high-level jobs and technical excellence for Bedouin.

My stay with Khalil ElSana, a lawyer who studied in London, showed me some unique cultural aspects of Bedouin life. His wife teaches in Lakiya and is raising four children. Both Lakiya homes where big and beautiful. The entire neighborhood was related — mothers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. The Bedouin women drive cars to work, and take children to school or afternoon programs and shopping. On our drive to school I saw the first swimming pool in the town.

One day I returned from a visit in Beer Sheva. My host Khalil gave me directions to get off the bus at the big mosque. The bus traveled through open desert and when we got into Lakiya I looked for a big mosque. To me all of the mosques looked big, and nobody on the bus spoke English. I called Khalil for help and he told me the bus driver is a relative. My hosts were amazing friends to me during my stays. My bus trip heightened my awareness of the power of communication, and underscored the importance of teaching English to youngsters in the Bedouin community. The inability to speak English is a major impediment to Israeli Bedouins.

At Bedouin towns of Segev Shalom and Hura I met people working hard to improve their communities. In Segev Shalom, I met Hand in Hand founder Amal Abu-Alkom, who runs a 50 member young community with a variety of projects that improve local public services, education and empower women and children. Amal came from Wadi el Nam, an unrecognized village, and was forced to leave school in the 8th grade to fill traditional family roles. She was determined to complete her studies and organized a safe house for women who wanted to complete their education and control their future. A decade later, she resumed her education and graduated high school with honors; now she’s getting her bachelors degree. The Hand in Hand projects include tourism where visitors sit in a women’s tent to learn about the changing dynamics of Bedouin women in contemporary Israeli society.

I also met with some people of Hemet Shabab, a new young community established by the ministry of agriculture and Shahaf Foundation, whose 12 core members are actively involved in social justice and employment. They erected the first traffic light at the town’s entrance. The community is composed of educated residents who, with help of the ministry of education, focus on informal education and empowering the future generation. Their first soccer event for all Segev Shalom schools was well received.

Today, we see a huge cultural shift: 60 percent of Bedouins in higher education are women. My work at the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation, funded by the Mack Ness Fund of Jewish Community Foundation of the Federation of GMW NJ and SVF, prepares Bedouin students for higher education. At BGU, I taught English to twenty women and three men, aged 18 to 25, for the psychometric exam for university entry. They aspire to be doctors, pharmacists, engineers… Twenty years ago, Bedouin patriarchs generally would not let their daughters go to school past the sixth grade. I met a highly trained Bedouin woman who is Chief Operating Officer (COO), at Project Wadi Attir. How amazing!

At the social enterprise, Project Wadi Attir (PWA), a SVF grantee, with Hura mayor Dr. Mohammed al-Nabari, I met the new COO, a Bedouin woman with a masters degree in Business Admission. PWA aims to combine Bedouin culture and experience with progressive notions of sustainability and green technologies. It is the first-ever Bedouin agricultural cooperative, and serves as a hub for eco-tourism, and as a model for Jewish-Bedouin collaboration. The hope is that this new vision of environmentally sound development, beneficial to all parties, may impact the entire Middle East as well as other parts of the world. As Mayor al-Nabari puts it: “It is good for the people. It makes them feel good as citizens. It makes them proud to be part of Israel.” Mohammad al-Nabari is widely considered as one of Israel’s most effective elected officials. He is the kind of role model Bedouins increasingly have.

I highly recommend a volunteer experience in the Negev Bedouin community for everyone who loves Israel. The Negev is undergoing phenomenal development and change. I hope this development will be guided by a responsible, socially conscious and inclusive approach that will integrate the growing Bedouin population.

My thanks to Noga Maliniak of Mack Ness Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Metrowest NJ Federation and Dr. Haia Jamshy, CEO of Shahaf Foundation and Eretz-Ir community for organizing our Segev Shalom meeting.

About the Author
Phyllis Bernstein, lives in Westfield NJ, co-chairs economic development for Social Venture Fund for Jewish Arab Equality and Shared Society. She is an artist and active in Israeli Arab issues.
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