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Settling the Bedouins: Sad and inevitable

As happened with Native Americans, new Knesset legislation will bring an end to the beauty of Bedouin culture

The year is 1887. An American Senator named Henry Laurens Dawes believes that today the Congress will pass the “Dawes Act,” a law which will once and for all regulate the ownership of land by Native American Indians. He begins the task at hand by stating his belief that to be a civilized person means to “wear civilized clothes … cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey [and] own property.”

The responses to the Dawes Act were as diverse as they were fascinating. Alice Fletcher, the Head of a group called “Friends of the Indians,” who participated in the drafting of the law said, “The Indian may now become a free man; free from the thralldom of the tribe… free to enter into the body of our citizens. This bill may therefore be considered as the Magna Carta of the Indians of our country.”

It seemed as though everybody was satisfied with the passing of the law in 1887, except for one marginal and apparently non-relevant group of people called “the Indians.” One Indian from the Nez Perce tribe, who was involved in the legislative debate, stated clearly, “we do not want our land cut up in little pieces….”

Many members of Congress did not understand the opposition of the tribes. Indeed as people of progress and order, they were sincerely trying to improve the life of the Indians. Actually, every head of an Indian family received for the first time, according to the law, the right to possess about 640 dunam (160 acres) of agricultural land. But the Indian opposition was motivated by another aspect, namely the fact that the remaining lands were declared as “surplus” properties, which were immediately sold to white settlers. Consequently, in a single day, the official recognition of tribes and the right to tribal ownership of lands disappeared. Prior to 1887, the Native American tribes possessed over 600 million dunam. Within 20 years after the ratification of the Dawes Act, they had lost over two-thirds of these lands.

On Monday, a vehement debate took place in the Knesset over the first reading of the “Praver Act,” which is intended to regulate the rights of the Bedouins to lands in the Negev, in an effort to settle them in organized communities. Like the Native Americans, the Bedouins do not necessarily view the regulation of land ownership as a positive, or even necessary, phenomenon. It is difficult for our Jewish-Western minds to grasp the reasoning and essence of their opposition.

The trend of distributing land possession by tribal affiliation disappeared from our nation about 2,500 years ago. Nevertheless, the state is currently granting the Bedouins the right to register title over real estate assets worth hundreds of millions of shekels in aggregate, while young couples throughout the country are struggling to acquire even a small apartment.

The anger that exploded on Thursday in the Knesset was an expression of a massive collision of cultures and customs. What the Indians were trying to explain to the US Congress 126 years ago was that it is impossible to put a price tag on a unique way of life, such as theirs. They were unable to convince the American majority and the inevitable result transpired.

I support the Praver Act initiative. We can argue about the quality, the quantity and the location of the lands being offered today for Bedouin communities. These are legitimate arguments, which will apparently last for many years, but it is impossible to stop the progress of the regulated settlement of the land of Israel. By the way, there are still open lawsuits in American courts regarding the interpretation of, and the implementation of, the Dawes Act. Nevertheless, the supposition is that the lack of regulation of title to land will create more friction between Jews and Bedouins in the South, than the inconveniences, which are caused by the current legislation.

Regardless of my support for the law, Monday was a sad day for me. It was sad to see Members of Knesset making laughingstocks of themselves and degrading one another. It was sad to see MK Achmad Tibi and his colleagues tearing up the draft bill and pouring water on it over the podium of the Knesset. It was sad to hear MK Afu Agarbiya call in a formal hearing, from the dais of the Knesset, for civil disobedience and a new intifada. There is no doubt that these Members of Knesset digressed from the rules of proper civil decorum. Anyone who was upset, however, by such behavior was missing the primary source of pain associated with this discourse.

Monday was a sad day primarily because it marked the end of the age of unique nomadic life in the land of Israel. The stunning beauty of the Bedouin culture, from this day forward, will die slowly but surely until it completely disappears. I loathe the thought that a day is coming when there will no longer be people drifting throughout our deserts with their herds of sheep and goats, following the seasonal plant growth and sources of water. It is hard to imagine that after thousands of years of life according to an ancient tradition, “enlightened” Western culture has succeeded in conquering the life of the Bedouin.

The Praver Act is necessary, inevitable and important. However, it is a sad initiative. We can only hope that the Knesset of Israel will soberly consider the true price that the Bedouins are paying today, and will be generous to the maximum extent possible when determining the quality, quantity and locations of their permanent settlements. More than anything, I hope that the interaction with the Bedouin communities will be handled with sensitivity, which ensues from the understanding that their way of life, which is old and old-fashioned to us, is precious to them and is being stripped away. At the end of the day, they are our Israeli Bedouins.

About the Author
Calev Michael Myers is the President and Executive Chairman of ARISE - Alliance to Reinforce Israel's Security and Economy (ARISE) and the Deputy President of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (IAJLJ). He is also a Senior Partner at Yehuda Raveh & Co. Law Offices (YR&Co.). The opinions expressed in Calev's blogs may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the IAJLJ, ARISE or YR&Co.