Last summer, when I was in Israel for my son’s wedding, I took some time to go with several other rabbis to two Bedouin villages in the northern Negev. The residents of these villages, Al-Arakib and Wadi el-Naam, are among the 30,000-40,000 Israeli citizens the government wants to relocate and concentrate in more urbanized townships as part of the “Prawer-Begin Plan.”
In total, there are approximately 200,000 Bedouin in the Negev. Some 70,000 live in villages not officially recognized by the state of Israel and, therefore, these citizens are denied utilities and access to other essential services in their communities, like education and health care.
The government argues that its plan is aimed at “improving their economic, social and living conditions, as well as resolving long-standing land issues.” The Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, hotly contested legislation that passed its first reading in the Knesset in June and is currently being debated in the Knesset’s Interior Committee, seeks to formalize compensation formulas for both Bedouin with and without long-standing land claims.
The government has not waited for the passage of the law to demolish the Bedouin village of Al-Arakib. It was first leveled in July 2010 to make way for a Jewish National Fund Forest. A cycle continues to repeat itself dozens of times over: Residents attempt to rebuild; the government bulldozes the resident’s temporary structures.
More demolitions are on the horizon. Last week, the Cabinet approved the destruction of Atir and Um Al-Hiram, two Bedouin villages which are slated to be replaced with brand new religious Jewish communities, Hiran and Kassif.
The situation in Wadi el-Naam is slightly different. Their 15,000 people are not necessarily opposed to relocation. The community faces serious environmental health hazards from a toxic waste dump the government established in close proximity to the village. In addition, almost no one in Wadi el-Naam has historical land claims there. The village was formed by internally displaced Bedouin whom the Israeli government forced out of the Western Negev and into the siyag (Hebrew for fence) under martial law in Israel’s post-independence era. Despite government public statements that “those that move will be offered their choice of joining rural, agricultural, communal, suburban or urban communities,” Wadi el-Naam community members report the government has rejected their multiple relocation proposals, and say that the government has only offered them housing in the Segev Shalom township.
I am one of nearly 800 rabbinic leaders who have united together with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Rabbis for Human Rights to publicly express concern about the government’s plans. The people in Al Arakib, Atir, Um Al-Hiram and Wadi el-Naam are at risk of having their homes and villages destroyed and forced to move with little say in the process, as are the tens of thousands Bedouin facing a similar fate.
Our “Clergy United Against Bedouin Dispossession” letter speaks with a rabbinic voice saying that imposed displacement runs contrary to the Jewish values on which the state of Israel was founded and would be disastrous for Israel’s public image. We believe that demolishing villages and dispossessing people of their land builds animosity among the Bedouin towards the state. Forcing more Bedouin into impoverished urban settings with high unemployment and few economic opportunities will further entrench cycles of poverty.
How can our people do this to another people? How can Israel do this to its own citizens? If the Israeli government is allowed to carry out this plan, it will seriously jeopardize the peace process and the security of Israel as a whole. More and more Bedouin are becoming vocal and radicalized because of false promises and a denial of their rights.
As our rabbinic letter says: “As Jews, we are commanded not to oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of the stranger, having ourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. As a people who know too well the pain of homelessness and oppression, Israel has a moral obligation to protect its most vulnerable within its midst.”
Rabbi David Shneyer is the Washington, D.C., based spiritual leader of Kehlla Chadasha and Am Kolel and the past president of Ohalah, the Rabbinic Association of Renewal Rabbis.