On a recent trip to Israel, I made a decision to join a small group that was journeying into the Negev to explore the crisis regarding the Israeli Bedouin. Our leader and guide was Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a classmate of mine and director of special projects for Rabbis for Human Rights. RHR is dedicated to the proposition that Jewish values should infuse the actions of the Jewish state, and so they have tirelessly and bravely fought for the rights of minorities in the State of Israel, as well as for underprivileged Jews. In recent years, they have worked tirelessly to advocate for the cause of the Bedouin of the Negev.
The Bedouin of the Negev are Muslim Arabs who were awarded citizenship in the State of Israel following the War of Independence in 1948. Many young Bedouin have served in the Israeli Army, most often as trackers. (Some may remember a shameful incident a few years ago when an Israeli Bedouin soldier, killed in Gaza, was the subject of right-wing Jewish protests when the Israeli Defense Forces wanted to bury him in an army cemetery.)
In recent years, the Israeli government has tried to move the Bedouin off their lands into designated cities and has restricted the ability of the Bedouin to remain on lands that the Bedouin have claimed have belonged to their clans for decades. A recent bill in the Knesset, sponsored by former MK Benny Begin (son of the former prime minister) would remove 40,000 Bedouin from their homes and relocate them into cities. This recent proposal, known as the Prawer Plan in honor of its other main proponent, MK Ehud Prawer, has resulted in protests by the Bedouin, as well as vocal protest from some Israeli Jews, most notably Theodore Bikel, who compares the removal of the Bedouin to the forced removal of the Jews from Anatevka.
On my visit, we met with the sheik of one Bedouin village that has been razed to the ground by the Israel Defense Forces. We met in his Bedouin “tent” (made of tarps and metal) and were served traditional Bedouin coffee while he showed us deeds to the land dating back to the Ottoman Turks. We then visited a Bedouin village located next to chemical plant, which is under threat of being moved due to the expansion of an Israeli army base. We also met with activists from the Bedouin community. Many Israelis see the Bedouin as squatters who are making spurious claims to the land. As a result, the army has demolished Bedouin homes deemed illegally built. (Remember, these are citizens of Israel!)
The Begin bill has had a single reading in the Parliament, and its future is uncertain. All in all, it was a distressing day for me – one that challenges us to balance our nationalism with our commitment to our sacred Jewish values of loving and caring for the stranger.