Israel’s Bedouin population is in the hearts and minds of American Jewish clergy this week, as 780 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinical and cantorial students have signed a letter demanding that the government of Israel withdraw the Prawer-Begin plan. Under the proposed legislation, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouin would be displaced from their homes in the Negev.
“It is precisely because of our deep commitment to the State of Israel and the prophetic values of liberty and justice on which it was founded, that we, as rabbis, are so distressed by the potential for the use of force to resettle Bedouin and destroy their villages,” said Rabbi S. Ayelet Cohen, vice chair of T’ruah, in a press release.
Other North American Jewish groups have issued similar calls, including the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. In recent days, Ameinu, on whose board I sit, has also jumped into the fray: “as Zionists who never forget the eternal bond between our people and the land of Israel, we are extremely sensitive to Bedouin Israelis’ ties to their traditional villages,” its call to action states.
As if adding insult to injury, this week Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran are awaiting a decision by Israel’s Supreme Court to see whether they will be forced to relocate to make way for a Jewish religious community to be established in its place.
Clearly, the situation among the Bedouin citizens in the Negev is troubling on many levels. The community suffers from significant illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, and crime. Violence against women is widespread. And despite Bedouin children being better hydrated than Jewish-Israeli children, add to this unusual ailments like brucellosis (from drinking unpasteurized camel milk), and tragedies like accidental scalding burns among children being much higher among Bedouin children than in the general population, and there is cause for concern, both about the community’s well-being, and negative perceptions of the Bedouin held by fellow Israelis.
But does the solution lie with the Prawer-Begin bill?
A position paper jointly authored by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel demonstrates an inherent contradiction in the assumptions underlying the bill. The Prawer-Begin bill implies that the Bedouins in these unrecognized villages are squatters. But, as the position paper points out, many of these citizens were asked to move to the area (what’s known as the siyag zone of the Negev) by the state, in the years following 1948. Most importantly, they argue, the bill undermines proper constitutional procedures, the rule of law, and the principle of equality under the law.
For these reasons, ACRI stresses that the solution should lie in recognizing the currently 36 unrecognized Bedouin villages dotting the Negev.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken a rearguard action on its website, stating that “There have been attempts to attack the Begin Plan (which its detractors deliberately misname the Prawer Plan in order to associate it with an outdated proposal). Many of those acting in the international arena against Israel's plan for the Bedouin belong to the camp which seizes upon any opportunity to harm Israel's reputation. Others have purer motives, but have based their opposition on false information distributed by Israel's opponents.” Instead, the ministry communiqué argues, “This new policy constitutes a major step forward towards integrating the Bedouin more fully into Israel's multicultural society, while still preserving their unique culture and heritage.”
There are a couple of intriguing points worth noting here. The first is the almost poignant recognition that policy debate in Israel has now become self-consciously wrapped up in image-burnishing and accusations of motive. The political has become very personal.
The second point is that the Israeli government’s use of the term “multicultural” should give us pause. Despite the fact of many cultures (or sectors, in Israeli parlance) coexisting within the mosaic of Israeli society, is Israel actually a multicultural state in the conventional use of the term? Multiculturalism implies a parallel commitment to the furthering of all the nation’s constituent cultures. Canada is a prime example. Some Israel supporters have argued, though, that to apply multiculturalism standards to Israel is to miss the point of what it means to be a Jewish State. In this view, Israel’s primary purpose is to further the aims and identity of one nation: the Jewish one.
The Bedouins who are facing imminent dislocation don’t have the luxury of parsing these academic debates, perhaps. But once this particular issue is settled—hopefully in a way that is satisfactory to the Bedouins themselves—we might just want to devote some more thought to what Israel’s overall mission is—on either side of the Green Line, for that matter.