Last week I joined 25 rabbis, professionals and funders from our community on a trip to Israel with the Task Force on Issues relating to Arab Citizens of Israel. They spent four days in the Negev exploring the lives of local communities, with particular focus on 300,000 citizens of Israel, known as Bedouin or Negev Arabs, who live in the region. By every socio-economic measure, Negev Arabs are the most vulnerable community in Israel. This is agreed by government, NGOs and the community itself. But how to improve their lives remains a matter of contention.
We visited the new SodaStream factory in the industrial park in the Bedouin town of Rahat, which offers a model for improving their lives.
The company has now moved almost all its operation to Rahat from around the world, a process sped up – but not initiated (so we were told) – by the BDS campaign that targeted SodaStream, which had a major plant located beyond the 1967 Green Line in Mishor Adumim.
They were forced to fire Palestinian workers as part of the moving process. We saw a film of the final day in the old plant, which was deeply moving as their CEO spoke to the Jewish and Palestinian workers with messages of love and coexistence.
The new SodaStream Plant continues to model the values of shared citizenship. Jews of many different backgrounds and Arabs from the Bedouin community work together all over the plant in an environment that models the Zionism of the CEO, Daniel Birnbaum.
A completely different picture of Jewish-Arab coexistence emerges from visiting one of the 35 “unrecognised Bedouin villages” that are home to 120,000 people. These villages remain formally unrecognised by the state and for the most part are not served by education, public transport, health and welfare services.
Children, the elderly, the infirm, pregnant women and young mothers are required to travel to Beer Sheva, Rahat or other recognised communities if they require these basic services.
Paradoxically, we visited a wonderful school built and maintained by the Ministry of Education in one of the larger villages. We learnt that the amount of land that these villages make up only accounts for about three precent of the Negev and were left wondering why this issue cannot be resolved.
Bedouin society is also harmed by internal issues. Polygamy is more widespread than we were aware of and there are all the usual societal problems associated with poor under-resourced regions.
And yet, there are also significant signs of the better integration of young Negev Arabs into wider society.
Increasing numbers of people, especially young women, are getting to university and colleges as well as entering the work force directly.
If SodaStream, provides a model of professional coexistence, the challenge is to to turn this model into a societal norm.
Michael is Chief Executive of UJIA and co-chair of the Task Force.