You may have heard something about the Bedouin in Israel. That the Bedouin are nomadic Arabs. That the Bedouin herd sheep. That the Bedouin are illiterate. That Bedouin men marry many, many women. That the Bedouin have lots and lots of children. That the Bedouin live in the desert. Many of these generalizations are accurate, and things are changing for this group.
Most of the Bedouin live in Israel’s Negev, the desert in the south of the country, and are one-third of the Negev population. The Bedouin are divided into different tribes and each tribe is comprised of different clans. Some Bedouin have served and do serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, usually as trackers. The poverty rate amongst the Bedouin is high and they have high rates of unemployment, mostly having lost their traditional sources of livelihood.
I have met Bedouin Israelis over the past few years, mostly through organizations that are assisting Bedouin women. I have met Bedouin women that were taught a new skill, or developed their skills and were able to start their own micro-business, and Bedouin women that were physically abused and were receiving assistance from numerous organizations, and Bedouin women that were given the opportunity to achieve higher education in a culture where this has not been the norm.
Rahma, a Bedouin village near Yerucham, Miami’s partnership community, has approximately 2,000 residents, with more than 50% under the age of 18, living in 16 scattered clusters around Yerucham. For years, Yerucham has had a positive relationship with the community and has collaborated with residents on a variety of initiatives. Rahma is part of Neve Midbar, a regional council for the Bedouin, but some of Rahma’s residents reside within Yerucham’s jurisdiction. Yerucham provides Rahma residents with various municipal services such as banks, supermarkets, a post office, medical and dental clinics, playgrounds, employment offices and National Insurance Institute offices.
About 13 years ago, Yerucham residents and leaders were instrumental in helping to open a formal Ministry of Education kindergarten in Rahma and in September 2020, a Ministry of Education elementary school. Various initiatives were created with the two communities: a Rahma-Yerucham Women’s Group and a Rahma-Yerucham Men’s Group with ongoing relationships forged. The Ajram Bedouin Women Sewing Initiative was created with the assistance of Atid Bamidbar, an organization in Yerucham, with support from the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Yerucham and Atid Bamidbar have helped the Rahma community develop their own community-based tourism and acquire Hebrew language skills, vocational training, and job placement. Members of both communities have come together to celebrate break-fasts – of both the 17th of Tammuz for the Jewish community and Eid-al Fitr, the end of Ramadan, for the Bedouin community.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to Rahma and visited their elementary school on an extremely hot, sunny day. There is a covered pathway with motivational quotes and sayings on the walls and ceilings – in Arabic, English and Hebrew – that leads to the classrooms. Such a wonderful and inspiring sight to see the students coming out of the school chatting away and smiling, even in the heat. I took a tour of the school. It is not one large building, but a series of portable structures that serve as classrooms with areas between the structures that were transformed into learning corners that the staff and students decorated. Each corner covers a different topic. There is only one paved area in front of the perimeter of the classrooms. The rest is dirt. That dirt becomes mud in the winter and dust in dust storms. There is no shade coverage of the playground area or most of the school grounds in an extremely hot part of the country. There is no electricity and therefore they use a generator which is turned off at the end of the school day; this means that the nothing can be stored in the refrigerators overnight. The school is in need of a science lab and would like to have a garden/greenhouse for the students.
The Vice-Principal, Zaher Abu-Zar is extremely impressive. One of 18 children, Zaher started out doing repairs at the school. He became motivated to do something to help the community and went to college to get his degree. He is currently getting his Master’s degree in Education. A very passionate person who shared the administration’s vision for the school, Zaher stressed how each individual child is important to the principal Sleman Alfregat and to him and the teachers. The school has a digital tech-system in place where they can follow the progress of each student and see how to best assist each student achieve their full potential. I even met one of Zaher’s little sisters who he brings to the school every day. Special efforts are invested in improving Rahma students’ Hebrew skills through various programs with IDF soldier-teachers and tutoring programs.
There are 335 students in the school in first through ninth grade, with 27 teachers. There are 25 students in each classroom – a low number compared to a 35-40 student average across the country. They also have 12 students that are special education students fully integrated into the school system. Together with nonprofit Kadima/Lasova and Atid Bamidbar, the school runs a ‘Youth Home’ for 50 students to give them a place to be after school, any extra assistance they may need with homework, cultural enrichment activities, as well as lunch. Some members of Yerucham’s Robotics Y-Team volunteer to teach robotics at the ‘Youth Home.’ In addition, each year five or six young women from Rahma who are high school graduates do their National Service in the school and with the ‘Youth Home.’
In November 2022, the Israeli government formally recognized Rahma as a future Bedouin town, and from what I understand it a long process to go from verbal recognition to a fully planned and equipped town with legalized status and any benefits that it would entail. What does it mean to be a recognized village? If a village is recognized by the Israeli government, it begins a municipal planning process with a culmination of the receipt of basic services like electricity, water, sewage, garbage disposal, healthcare, education, and public transportation, and the residents paying municipal taxes. They can also acquire formal land ownership rights and be able to build homes without the danger of having them demolished as illegal.
Last year, the Israeli government passed a second five-year plan in the amount of 5.2 billion shekels ($1.61 billion) from 2022-2026 for the social and economic development of the Negev Bedouin community, including employment, infrastructure, education and youth programs. I hope that Rahma sees some of these funds going to improving their community. At a minimum, I hope they have paved roads, national-grid electricity for their school, and a structure that provides shade for the school children to play safely outdoors.
Seeing the positive relationship between Rahma and Yerucham gives me hope. Hope for coexistence and a stronger Israel.
Thanks to Debbie Golan from Atid Bamidbar for her important work and for the education on the relationship between Yerucham and Rahma.