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Restore the rights of Israel’s Bedouin citizens

The government's demolition and relocation plan treats the Bedouins of the Negev Desert as a demographic threat

I am one of nearly 800 rabbis and cantors who have signed a public letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu in support of the rights of Bedouin Israelis. The letter, sponsored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Rabbis for Human Rights, asks the government to stop the Prawer-Begin Plan, which calls for the transfer of 30,000-40,000 people and the demolition of their homes as part of Israel’s overall effort to settle longstanding land disputes between the state and its Bedouin citizens.

During my recent sabbatical, my family and I lived in Israel for five months. This provided me with the opportunity to spend time in the Negev desert, visit Bedouin communities, meet residents, and witness their plight firsthand. After studying the issues, I recognize the Israeli government’s resolve to offer positive investments in Bedouin communities, but its plans remain fundamentally flawed since the government continues to start from a point of treating the Bedouin minority as a demographic threat and impediment to more expansive Jewish settlement of the Negev region. There is serious mistrust of the government within Bedouin communities based on Israel’s history of restricting the rights of Arabs in the Negev. The government’s current actions are simply further exacerbating distrust of the government and worsening inter-ethnic tensions.

Bedouins comprise more than 25 percent of the population of the Negev, yet Bedouin land claims only amount to 5.4 percent of the vast Negev. This is nothing like the massive Bedouin takeover of land that the lawmakers purport it to be when selling their plans to the Israeli populace. The land disputes between the State of Israel and the Bedouin community center on lack of written deeds of sale and ownership, where possession of land has traditionally been determined by custom and oral agreements. These understandings existed throughout the Ottoman and British control of the area.

After 1948, the Israeli government enforced martial law in the Negev and confined Bedouins to the Siyag (Hebrew for Fence) area. Then, through planning commissions and master plans, the Siyag area became zoned for industrial, military or Jewish agricultural purposes. As a result, Bedouin communities within the Siyag area were excluded from Israeli maps, regardless of whether they predated Israeli independence or came into existence as part of the relocation of Bedouins under martial law.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, half of the Bedouin communities were moved to seven urban townships created by the government. Thirty-five of the remaining forty-five villages are ‘unrecognized’ by the government, and thereby not eligible for basic public services like water, electricity, or sanitation.

I visited several of these unrecognized villages and saw that many of them were located right next to electric facilities that serviced the Jewish communities of the Negev, but left the Bedouin citizens living in the dark. I met with leaders of one Bedouin village that had been demolished dozens of times in the last three years. Their spirits continue to be high as they hope to remain on their land, raise their flocks, and live in their unique lifestyle, as citizens of Israel.

Even as I write this, the Israeli government is advancing the demolition and relocation process after voting to displace Bedouins from Umm Al-Hiran and replace the village with a religious Jewish community. I am pained to see how Israel, the country I deeply love and support, is choosing to treat minority citizens. The Jewish tradition teaches us to care for and protect those who are most vulnerable in our midst.

With the enormous outside pressures facing Israel from Iran and the Arab world, manufacturing an internal crisis with the Bedouin community is the last thing Israel needs right now. I respectfully urge the Israeli government to stop the Prawer-Begin Plan and create a new initiative that restores the dignity and human rights of the Bedouin people.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater has been the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, California since 2003. He is an executive committee member of the Board of Directors for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, co-founder and co-chair of AFPI, Abrahamic Faiths Peacemaking Initiative and is co-chair of J-Street's Los Angeles Rabbinic Cabinet.