Monday, September 30, 2013

Israel’s Other Land Grab, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Moment, Sept-Oct, 2013


In August, despite the fragility of the newly resurrected peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government announced plans to build 1,187 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This came hard on the heels of the 1,096 new units promoted by the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] Civil Administration and the 91 settlements the government recently added to the “national priority list,” presumably rendering them non-negotiable.

With the eyes of the world focused on this defiant expansion of Israeli “facts on the ground,” few were paying attention to a simultaneous land grab taking place in the Negev: Israel’s systematic expropriation of areas that for generations have been inhabited by Bedouins.

On my first trip to Israel 37 years ago, I was hosted for dinner in a Bedouin tent in the desert. Our delegation of eight or ten American media types sat on beautiful hand-loomed rugs. We ate with our hands.  We heard about Bedouin culture and traditions.  The men who sat with us in that tent (the women were behind a curtain, though we saw one peeking out) were warm, welcoming and responsive to our questions. Only later did it occur to me that our travel agent or the Israel tourism authority was paying the Bedouins to exhibit their “native” ways to visiting foreigners. And while other stops on our itinerary—Masada, Mea Shearim, Rachel’s Tomb—were introduced with extensive background information, the Bedouins were presented as ethnic exotica, a people without a history. Only later did I wonder how they really felt about these encounters.

Since then, the Jewish state seems to have become markedly less appreciative of Bedouin culture and traditions. Hundreds of times over the last few years, Bedouin homes and villages have been summarily demolished by IDF and Jewish National Fund (JNF) bulldozers.

Media sources and advocacy groups such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice in Israel and the New Israel Fund report that Bedouins have been beaten, shot and forcibly evacuated from their ancestral lands so that this fertile area can be developed for Jewish agricultural development, JNF forests and Jewish habitation.

In 2007, the government appointed the Goldberg Commission to address the Bedouin “problem.” (Needless to say, there were no Bedouins on the commission.) Their findings led to the Prawer Plan, a proposed law that would relocate up to 40,000 semi-nomadic Bedouins, concentrating them in seven “officially recognized” urban townships that rank at the bottom of every Israeli socioeconomic measure, with an infant mortality rate four times worse than that of any Jewish Israeli community. Last June, the Prawer Plan passed its first Knesset reading by a slim majority. The final two readings needed in order for the Knesset bill to pass are expected in October.

Somehow, it’s unthinkable to evacuate thousands of Jews from their West Bank settlements in the interests of Israeli-Palestinian peace. But expelling 40,000 Arab Israeli citizens from their homes for the sake of Jewish development is considered a great idea. Moreover, Israel presents its transfer policy in a benevolent light, as if by trashing Bedouin dwellings, the IDF is expelling these noble savages from their “primitive” habitats for their own good.

Mind you, I’m not romanticizing the Bedouins. They don’t just keep their women behind a curtain, they keep them uneducated, isolated and cut off from modern health care. And though they are not responsible for their extreme impoverishment and rampant unemployment, these conditions have spawned alarming rates of criminal behavior and drug use.  Altogether, it’s not a pretty picture.

Likewise, I’m mindful of the legal complexities of the land use issue. The Bedouins don’t hold title; their system of land acquisition and ownership recognition is based on oral agreements that date back to the Ottoman Empire. Expecting them to produce airtight proof of ownership of territory they’ve inhabited for centuries would be like asking American Indians, who believe the earth cannot be owned, to produce a deed from Christopher Columbus, or asking the Australian Aborigines, who mark territorial borders by transmitting “songlines” known only to the indigenous tribes, to produce transmittal documents signed by the British.

The bottom line is that Bedouin Arabs are citizens of the state of Israel. Some of their elders fought with the Palmach. Many Bedouin men have volunteered for the IDF, serving as trackers and defending the country’s borders. Yet these peaceful, loyal citizens are being targeted for internal dislocation on the basis of their ethnicity, race, religion and normative social arrangements.  And Israel shows little respect for their historic ties to the land.

Rather than herd them into the seven ghetto-like “recognized” villages with inadequate services, pathetic infrastructure and few jobs, Israel should improve the conditions of everyday life for Bedouins in the 35 “unrecognized” villages. The government should invest in Bedouin roads, schools, job creation and health care and connect these villages to the Israeli water, sewage and electricity systems.

Likewise, rather than turn a blind eye to the ongoing injustice of forcible Bedouin dislocation, American Jews should think twice before buying a tree from the JNF in a forest that may have been created on the ruins of Bedouin homes.

And we should insist that our communal organizations address both the moral and political dimensions of this issue. Israel cannot claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” if it continues uprooting thousands of its citizens against their will.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s latest book is How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick. She is currently working on a novel.

Published here in Moment magazine, Sept-Oct 2013

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Every Jew should see the Bedouin issue as test of Israel's moral values, by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, Ha’aretz

Why have the relocations and demolitions of Negev Bedouin homes, an issue not related to Israel’s security or vexed questions such as "Who is a Jew?", aroused such strong feelings amongst Diaspora Jews actively engaged with Israel?

Should the Begin-Prawer plan become law, it will have an enormous effect on Israel’s Bedouin, with tens of villages destroyed and tens of thousands of people removed from their homes into poverty-stricken townships. This will be extremely painful for Israel's supporters in the Diaspora to observe.

That is why the progress of the bill through the Knesset is making such an impact well beyond the Negev, in Israel and abroad. In Britain, sixty-five rabbis from across the denominations, supporting the courageous lead of Israel’s Rabbis for Human Rights, signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior ministers, asking them to re-consider their proposals. In the U.S., the Religious Action Centre of the Reform Movement, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and thousands of individual rabbis and Jews have written in a similar vein.

Why should this issue, which does not threaten Israel’s immediate security and has no influence over the vexed questions of ‘Who is a Jew?’ with its obvious Diaspora dimensions, have aroused such strong feelings amongst Jews actively engaged with Israel?

The matter goes to the heart of how we identify with Israel, and of the nature of Israel as a society. Living abroad, rightly or wrongly, we don’t experience Israel through the everyday realities of its traffic jams, cafes, and hamsins. We identify with Israel because we are family. We identify via those hyper-sensitive antennae which quadruple our anxiety the moment we hear Israel mentioned on the news. Primarily, we identify with Israel as Jews.

To some the slogan is ‘Israel, right or wrong’. To a few it is, sadly and unjustly, ‘Israel, usually wrong’. But for most of us, in spite of all the fears and frustrations, Israel remains the country where our Jewish values are, should and shall be realized. We still hope for and believe in the Israel whose founders, less than three years after the Holocaust, presented to the world the remarkable vision of a country which "will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or gender; will guarantee full freedom of worship, conscience, culture and education" and live and legislate according to "the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Prophets of Israel."

We know that, for all the daily difficulties the country encounters, this Israel is not just the stuff of dreams. Countless Israelis put into practice in their daily lives the values of justice and compassion. ‘That’s only a bubble’, someone recently told me. If so, it’s a big bubble or many bubbles. One has only to think of Israel’s extraordinary number of chesed organisations. To the outsider it can be hard to credit how many groups work across the painful divisions between Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian and continue to affirm in spite of all the conflicts the core Jewish value of universal human dignity in the image of God.

That is why so many of us care when Israel threatens to pass a law so deeply at odds with its own principles. "So long as Israel claims to be a Jewish state, it must act according to Jewish moral values," commented Gidon Remba, Director of the U.S.-based Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice. "The way a country treats its most disadvantaged citizens defines its moral character, and so too its Jewish character as a bearer of the Jewish moral tradition."

It’s not just that Diaspora Jews are pained by the prospect of watching on their national television Israeli bulldozers flattening villages and forcing thousands of men, women and children from their homes, actions which the Begin-Prawer plan could indeed entail. The matter goes deeper than the damage that would be done to Israel’s international reputation.

It relates to a profound moral instinct that Israel’s safety depends not only on military superiority and the skill and courage of its armed forces, but is connected in some unquantifiable way to its faithfulness to the age-old Jewish values of justice and human dignity.

It connects to those historical experiences of exile and persecution which Jews carry subliminally in their souls. As Theodore Bikel, who played Tevye in countless productions of Fiddler on the Roof, said, "What hurts is the fact that the very people who are telling them [the Bedouin] to “Get out” are the descendents of the people of Anatevka. My people."

I’ve been to El Arakib, demolished fifty times, spoken with its leaders and seen footage of its destruction. It was a shocking experience. "You mustn’t believe everything the Bedouin claim", I was told. Yet Bedouin land ownership was honoured by the Ottomans and the British, and pre-State aerial photographs document extensive Bedouin agriculture. There is much misinformation. A recent poll conducted by Panelresearch showed that 70% of Israelis thought on average that the Bedouin wanted forty per cent of the Negev. In fact, they are asking for just 5.4% of the area. When told this fact most Israelis felt the Bedouin claims were reasonable.

It’s beyond dispute that the situation of Israel’s Bedouin requires legislation. Their villages can’t remain unrecognised, without the provision of electricity and hygiene services other Israelis take for granted. After all, the Bedouin are full citizens and many have traditionally served in the IDF. What the thousands of voices from abroad and within Israel are asking for is a proper partnership between Israel and the Bedouin leadership in agreeing a solution. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah writes, "Demolishing homes, forcing people off their land, and denying basic government services contradict the moral values…on which the State of Israel was founded."

Surely the Knesset, and the Jewish community around the world, will not allow that to happen.

Jonathan Wittenberg is a rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and has strong family, communal and charitable connections with Israel.