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Jewish Journal

Odd couple works to aid Israel’s Bedouins

by Tom Tugend

December 6, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Amal Elsana Alh'jooj (left) and Vivian Silver are working to empower Bedouin women in the Negev. Photo courtesy Ameinu

Amal Elsana Alh'jooj (left) and Vivian Silver are working to empower Bedouin women in the Negev. Photo courtesy Ameinu

When the two women travel overseas together, one passes routinely through airport security checks; the other is invariably pulled aside for lengthy questioning.

At home, one is rarely asked for her ID; the other is stopped frequently.

The one who passes easily is an immigrant and speaks Hebrew with a foreign accent. The suspect one is native-born and speaks Hebrew flawlessly.

The older of the two is Vivian Silver, born in Canada, who made aliyah in 1974 to work on a kibbutz.

Her traveling companion is Amal Elsana Alh'jooj, an Arab Bedouin born in the Negev, who wears the traditional headscarf and long, flowing dress.

What unites the two colleagues and friends is their struggle for the social and economic empowerment of Israel's 170,000 Bedouins, especially the women.

The Bedouins, concentrated largely in the Negev, are a minority among Israel's Arab minority and "the most disadvantaged segment of the population" in the social, economic and educational spheres, said Elsana during a recent visit with Silver to Los Angeles.

There is some irony in this status, because many young Bedouins fought alongside Israelis during the 1948-49 War of Independence, where they were highly prized as trackers and scouts, and they continue to serve in the state's defense forces.

Such loyalty to a country's rulers is ingrained in the Bedouin tribal tradition. "They served in the Turkish army during the Ottoman Empire and with the British army during the mandate period," Elsana said.

Part of the Bedouins' problem lies in integrating a traditionally nomadic, pastoral, conservative and tribal society within a modern, largely urbanized state.

However, Israeli administrators over the decades, while sometimes trying to alleviate the problems, have frequently worsened the situation, according to Israeli civil rights groups and some government investigations.

"On the formal level, Bedouins are equal Israeli citizens, but in practice, government policy has repressed the Bedouins or treated them in a paternalistic, 'We know what's best for you' manner," Silver said.

In 1998, Dr. Yehuda Paz, a New York-born educator, decided to address the problem through private initiatives and founded the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (NISPED). His first hire was Silver, now the institute's executive director overseeing four major departments, of which the most visible is the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation (AJEEC). Elsana is the director of AJEEC, an acronym that means "I am coming toward you" in Arabic.

Working at the grass-roots level and with support from Israeli agencies, AJEEC's projects are aimed mainly at raising the economic and educational standards of Bedouin women. Many of the projects consist of leadership and volunteerism programs familiar in other countries, but some have a distinctive local touch.

A first-time course has trained Bedouin women as DJs to organize entertainment at weddings in the women's tents, which are off limits to men. Similarly, 24 other women have graduated as still and video photographers, who apply their skills to take pictures of female participants at community and family events, something prohibited for men.

In other programs, women have been helped to establish their own hairdressing and jewelry-design businesses, train as sports counselors and form partnerships with Jewish businesswomen.

Both visitors said they were encouraged by signs of progress in their work. One indicator is the growing number of Bedouin project volunteers, which has risen in recent years from 47 to 350, who in turn work with some 10,000 children.

In addition, "more women are getting higher education and more Israel government ministries are willing to help," Elsana said.

Just as interesting as the projects are the two women, who come from wildly disparate backgrounds but are united by a common goal.

Elsana learned about the uncertainties of life early on. She was born in Tel Arad, a Bedouin village in the northern Negev. Its inhabitants, she said, were expelled from Israel to Jordan in 1953, were rejected by the Jordanians and lived in a kind of limbo for a decade, until the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that they had to be re-admitted. However, it took another decade until the original Tel Arad residents were allowed to resettle on their own land.

At home, there were problems, too. Elsana was the fifth girl in a row born to her parents, and the disappointed father let it be known that he might look for a second wife who could bear him a son. The parents named their fifth daughter Amal, which means "hope" in Arabic, and the strategy worked. The next five children were all boys, followed by two more girls.

Her father was an extraordinary man, a shepherd and later a building contractor, who insisted that his daughters, as well as his sons, be educated. He paid for this breach of tribal custom when his own relatives set fire to his truck and other men shunned him. Nevertheless, all 12 children have attended college through a family chain, in which each sibling supported the schooling of the next younger one in line.

Elsana earned a degree in social work at Ben-Gurion University and became the first Bedouin woman to live in a student housing project away from home. She went on to receive a master's degree in community development from McGill University in Montreal.

She is also blessed with an understanding husband, a lawyer, who, contrary to tradition, takes care of the couple's 5-year-old twins during his wife's frequent travels, conferences and lectures.

Silver grew up in a "Conservadox" home in Winnipeg, early on became active in the Jewish feminist movement and recalled battling pro-Palestinian students at the University of Manitoba. In 1974, she joined fellow Habonim members in making aliyah and re-establishing Kibbutz Gezer, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. During the next 16 years, she rose to become Gezer's building manager and secretary general.

Though the work was fulfilling, Silver, who now lives in Kibbutz Beeri near the Gaza border, abandoned two convictions she had cherished in the Diaspora."In Israel, I lost my religion, as well as the myth that the kibbutz practiced equality between men and women," she said.

But Silver became increasingly disturbed by the widening gap in the treatment of Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens. "I am driven by the moral injustice of this inequality, but even from a practical perspective, this is not good for the Jews and it is not good for the Arabs," she said.

Silver and her lawyer husband have two sons, ages 20 and 19. One is in the army, and the other performs alternate national service.

In her present job, Silver deals with the Bedouin projects and also with three other major NISDEP programs focusing, respectively, on conflict resolution, promotion of small and medium enterprises and development of cooperatives internationally.

NISPED's annual budget comes to $2.8 million, of which 20 percent is provided by the Israeli government; 20 percent by foreign embassies, including the United States, Britain, Holland and Japan, and 60 percent from private donors and foundations, among them the Joint Distribution Committee, New Israel Fund and Ameinu, formerly the American Labor Zionist Alliance.

The two women's visit to Los Angeles was sponsored by the regional Ameinu chapter, Progressive Jewish Alliance and Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

At this time, support in the Los Angeles area comes primarily from the Rosalind and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, but the two visitors also met with officials of the Jewish Community Foundation to seek financial support.



For more information, visit www.nisped.org.il.

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