Journey to El Arakib ~ by Rabbi Amita Jarmon

nterfaith Vigil for Al-Arakib

Last Friday I joined a few other rabbis and least 100 other Israeli and international activists at a solidarity gathering and prayer service with the people of El Arakib whose homes have been demolished at least a dozen times in the past year.  July 27 was the anniversary of the first destruction of their village — homes, sheep pens – including the sheep, fruit orchards and olive groves.  Prior to last Friday, I had participated in olive harvests and olive tree plantings in the West Bank, the barley harvest and a day of accompanying shepherds in the South Hebron Hills, and in many actions in and around Jerusalem, but I had never before visited El Arakib or been involved in any other activity with the Bedouin of the Negev.

Until Friday, I knew very little about the situation of the Negev Bedouin, other than what Arik has posted on the RHR website over the past year.  I sat with a few men (the women were nowhere to be seen), listening to their stories about the history of El Arakib, looking at iPhone videos of repeated demolitions, and asking naïve questions. I learned that, in contrast to my stereotype of Bedouin as nomadic shepherds, by the early 20th century, most of them were settled in villages and engaged in farming such as cultivating barley, vegetables, vineyards and olives, as well as in grazing livestock.

One of the men who had grown up in El Arakib now lives in Rahat with his wife and children.  In the late 1970s – early ‘80s, Israel established 7 urban townships and promised Bedouins services in exchange for the renunciation of their ancestral land.  Rahat is the largest of those “concentration cities.”  This 30-something man moved there because he couldn’t build a home or farm legally in El Arakib.  He says he hates the urban lifestyle and feels claustrophobic in Rahat.

By concentrating the Negev Bedouin in these 7 cities (half of them had relocated by the mid-80s), they were denied access to their former sources of sustenance – grazing and agriculture.   These townships have the lowest municipal budgets in Israel, lower water allotments than their Jewish neighbors, inadequate sewage infrastructure, interior roads, and links to public transportation (which limits accessibility to labor markets and educational opportunities), and a lack of public facilities.


Rahat (2010): These townships have the lowest municipal budgets in Israel, lower water allotments than their Jewish neighbors. cc: wikipdeia.

Back to Mas’ei

In re-reading parashat Mas’ei, I was struck by the contrast between what the government of Israel has done by concentrating half the Bedouin in 7 development towns (more accurately, undevelopment towns), and what YHVH did by ordering the Israelites to assign 48 towns for the Levites to dwell in, as well as ample pasture land for the Levites around each town (BaMidbar 35:1-8).  The Levites were not permitted to cultivate land, but they were given plenty of space to pasture their flocks and herds, and of course, in addition to being able to raise cattle and other animals, they had a highly respected and sacred role in ancient Israelite society.

I then thought about the Bedouin who have a special role in the IDF.  Because of skills which have been passed down through generations, necessary for keeping track of sheep and goats, many of the Bedouin who volunteer in the IDF serve as trackers, preventing terrorists, illegal immigrants and drug smugglers from entering Israel.  When I inquired about the Bedouin who serve in the IDF, I was told that very few actually do.  According to Wikipedia 5-10% of Bedouin join the IDF, and since 2000, the numbers are down.  According to the men I spoke with, there are more Palestinians from the North serving in the IDF than Bedouin.  (I don’t know if this is true, but the message was that they are not proud or enthusiastic about their people serving in the IDF).

I asked the older men to be honest, “Have the Bedouin gained anything since the State of Israel was established?”  Their response was an emphatic “no.”  When I shared my impression that there was a huge increase in literacy and many Bedouin studying at Ben Gurion University, I was informed that their schools are terrible and that there is a de facto — if not an official – quota for higher education.  One elder told me that his son went to study in Italy and his daughter in Jordan, and that Israel was depriving itself of a precious human resource and creating hostility amongst loyal citizens by making it so difficult for the Bedouin to prosper here.

God willing, with continued legal support and public pressure, the Goldberg Commission’s November 2008 recommendations will be implemented.  That is, the 39-45 unrecognized Negev Bedouin villages will be recognized, they will receive municipal services, their homes will be legalized, and their traditional lands will be legally recognized.

The Bedouin are not interested in becoming the urban proletariat that Moshe Dayan hoped to turn them into in the 60s.  They are not interested in being an army of cleaning staff and construction workers.  I realize the comparison is a stretch, but like the Levites, they would be happy to live in certain areas – not the undevelopment towns that Israel assigns them, but the areas of the Negev they have lived in for generations, and at the very least, the 39-45 unrecognized villages, including land for farming and pasturing.

Davar completely Acher

In skimming the 42 masa’im (journeys and encampments) at the beginning of this parasha, I thought about how we remember our journeys as the Jewish People:  “This pogrom, that expulsion.”  And since the establishment of the State of Israel: “This war, that intifada; this peace agreement, that failed set of negotiations.”  Since I returned to live in Israel on July 3, 2009, I am grateful to be able to mark my time by “the light in the face of ‘Id, the Gandhi-esque activist whom I met in the South Hebron Hills, that Sulha celebration with the transformative Listening Circles, the IPCRI gathering with the inspiring young people I met from Gaza, and that Israeli-Palestinian Women’s healing circle where we communicated tremendous love without words.”

May we as a Nation instead be blessed to mark more of our journeys together as “this legal victory for our oppressed citizens, that sharing of success and prosperity with our Bedouin, and this successful collaboration with our Palestinian cousins.”

Shabbat Shalom


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