Israel needs to find a proper solution for the Bedouin

By Sylvia Rothschild, January 17, 2014
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The Hebrew Bible speaks many times of the importance of how we treat others, speaking of equality under a shared law, of the humanity of all peoples. Leviticus tells us "If a stranger sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. They shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Eternal your God; and "you shall have one manner of law, for the stranger as for the home-born; for I am the Eternal your God".

So how can we, who love Israel, stand by silently when we see her breaking a founding principle from her Declaration of Independence that "[Israel] will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex and guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture"?

On these pages, Geoffrey Alderman recently likened the situation in the Negev to that of living in the path of the proposed high-speed rail link in the UK. His unfortunate analogy ignores the sensitive and complex factors around the historical treatment of the Negev Bedouin. He asserts that the outrage surrounding the Prawer-Begin plan is "completely artificial, pseudo-sentimental, a pollution of rancid hot air" - and he is wrong on all counts.

Certainly many Bedouin did not register ownership of land under Ottoman, British or Israeli law, but that does not mean that they did not have their own traditional system of communal and individual ownership. When the JNF bought from them before Israel's establishment, they clearly thought the Bedouin owned land.

The JNF bought land freely from the Bedouin

In the early years of the state, forced to move to a condensed area between Dimona, Arad and Beersheva, many moved into urban townships and had to give up all land claims. But some did not, and found themselves living in unrecognised settlements, with no supportive infrastructure of water, sanitation, electricity. Perceived as criminals, they are unable lawfully to develop the land on which they live.

The Negev Bedouin are among the poorest Israelis with few opportunities to improve their lot and limited access to education or to health care. Clearly the situation must be addressed, and I congratulate the government of Israel for trying to solve an issue that has festered for so long.

But how does one begin to create a different future? Not by imposing a unilateral "solution". Not by stereotyping people as rootless and wandering with no place called home, or by discounting ownership claims. And certainly not by not consulting the people involved and treating them as primitives who cannot know their own best interests.

"If a stranger sojourn with you in your land you shall not do him wrong" says Scripture.

It matters that the majority of Negev Bedouin are living under the poverty line; it matters that the process of urbanisation has dislocated the Bedouin from their traditional lifestyle of agriculture and animal husbandry. It matters that there is high unemployment, delinquency and crime rates in the townships.

We have to find a mutually agreeable solution to the benefit of both the state and her Bedouin citizens. The measure of a society is found in how it treats the most vulnerable citizens.

The Hebrew word, nadiv, bespeaks generosity of resource with nobility of leadership. Bimkom, a group of architects and planners, has worked with the Negev Bedouin to create an alternative plan, based on the existing settlements and providing a basis for viable development of the whole region, while maintaining the principles of equality, recognition and justice.

A different future can be created if we return to our founding texts of Bible and state - "One law for the stranger and for the Israelite"; "Doing no wrong to people who live alongside us".

We need only the political will to behave with nadivut, the moral clarity of our traditions to guide our actions.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild is minister of Wimbledon Reform Synagogue

    Last updated: 6:27pm, January 17 2014