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The Bedouin, human rights, and ‘legitimacy’: A final word to Gerald Steinberg

by Rabbi Jill Jacobs

December 19, 2013 | 4:55 pm

A boy in the Bedouin village of Bir Mshash in Israel's southern Negev on Dec. 10. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

A boy in the Bedouin village of Bir Mshash in Israel's southern Negev on Dec. 10. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Gerald Steinberg has asked that I respond to the specific charges he levies against human rights organizations, my colleague Rabbi John Rosove, and me regarding our involvement in protecting the rights of some 30-40,000 Bedouin to avoid forced expulsion from their homes. At the risk of prolonging our back-and-forth, I will reply one last time before returning to the more pressing work of engaging T’ruah’s 1800 rabbis and their communities in human rights.

In his response to Rabbi Rosove and me, Steinberg perpetuates the myth that the Bedouin settled in their current homes illegally, and without regard for zoning or environmental regulations. On Twitter, representatives of his organization have even used the word “squatting.”

This accusation against the Bedouin is a cruel one. As I indicated in my initial response, the Bedouin are living where the Israeli government moved them in the 1950s. Following the War of Independence, the new Israeli government used martial law to move the Bedouin who remained in the Negev into an area known as the Siyyag (fence), comprising a pocket of land between Beersheva, Arad, Dimona, and Yeruham. Bedouin property outside of this area was confiscated as state land.

This situation might have been sustainable if master zoning plans in the 1960s had not failed to acknowledge the presence of the Bedouin towns in the Siyyag. The villages disappeared from official maps, and all land within the Siyyag became zoned for industrial, military, or Jewish agricultural purposes. Thus, the Bedouin found themselves in a catch-22, forced to live in a place where they could not build legally, and where they were demonized as squatters. Furthermore, without official status, the “unrecognized” villages could not receive health services, schools, or other basic governmental services. No wonder that these are some of the poorest areas in Israel. Imagine what might have happened if the Israeli government had invested in building schools for Bedouin children, teaching sustainable agriculture, and providing medical services.

Tragically, the absence of the Bedouin towns from official maps allowed Israel to build a hazardous waste facility and chemical plants right next to the village of Wadi Na’am. Blaming residents of this village for“squatting in a toxic waste dump,” as one article NGO Monitor tweeted at me did is simply cruel.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Israel set up seven Bedouin townships and relocated approximately half the Bedouin populations there. By all accounts, these towns have been a failure. Separated from their traditional ways of life and their communal structures, most Bedouin have not thrived in these townships. This should be no surprise to any of us Americans who have seen what happens when low-income populations find themselves in cramped urban areas with subpar educational opportunities and few job prospects. Moving tens of thousands more Bedouin into these townships against their will promises to exacerbate the problem.

Are there problems within Bedouin communities? Yes, of course. I won’t excuse crime, mistreatment of women, or any of the other issues that those purporting to help the Bedouin often highlight. But this is not a zero sum game. Despite what Steinberg and often the Israeli government suggest, the choices are not either to allow the Bedouin to languish in their poverty or to move them against their will into townships. The most reasonable option is to build schools, health centers, and other social services in Bedouin villages, and to give these populations the tools they need to flourish. In some cases, as with Wadi Na’am, residents are willing to move, but want to have a say in where they move, rather than being shoved against their will into urban areas. It’s simply not fair to refuse social services to a population, and then argue that the population must move because they have no social services.

Nor is the question of building Jewish communities in the Negev versus sustaining Bedouin communities a zero sum game. The Bedouin claim only five percent of the Negev. There is plenty of room for new Jewish communities to flourish.

Steinberg argues that campaigns to support the Bedouin “erase 4000 years of Jewish history in the Negev (from the arrival of Abraham in Beersheva).” May I remind him that Abraham himself understood the need to share land, as he did with his nephew Lot. Each took land for his own family, lest there be squabbling among them. Furthermore, the Bedouin see themselves as descendants of Abraham and Hagar, and therefore also lay claim to a long history in the region. If we are to demand that others take seriously our own stories about ourselves, we must also pay respect to the stories of other peoples.

As for Steinberg’s claim that we or our Bedouin partners wish to delegitimize Israel, nothing could be further from the truth. What’s missing from his discussion is that the Bedouin are Israeli citizens, who are not trying to give up their citizenship, to question the right of Jews to live in the Negev, or otherwise to delegitimize the state. In fact, the Bedouin are claiming the rights of citizens within a sovereign western state to avoid forced displacement.

Finally, a word about rhetoric. In order to accuse me of a “harsh attack,” Steinberg puts words in my mouth, and then attacks these words. For example, he writes that I claim “that the issues I raised were nothing more than an effort ‘to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition.’ Nothing more? Surely, the head of an organization that proclaims Jewish moral values and promotes tolerance might avoid such dismissive and immoral language.”

Actually, “nothing more” are Steinberg’s words, and do not appear in my piece. He further suggests that I do not respond at all to the specifics on the Bedouin dispute, without acknowledging that my piece does, in fact, include a condensed version of what appears above.

As for Steinberg’s accusation of “the soft-power warfare led by NGOs that exploit the language of human rights. (See the latest round of discriminatory academic boycotts.).” He fails here to distinguish between the demand that Israel live up to internationally-accepted human rights standards, which include protection from forced displacement, and specific tactics that some organizations choose to pursue. Neither I nor the organization I represent supports boycotting Israel as a tactic for holding Israel accountable to its human rights obligations. But the fact that some others do use this tactic does not render the human rights complaint itself any less legitimate. I will not attempt here to speak on behalf of other organizations that have not appointed me as their spokesperson.

This whole conversation leaves my wondering: What is Steinberg so afraid of? The question of the future of the Negev Bedouin is a complex, but not intractable problem. It is not an issue of national security, borders, or international diplomacy. There is a happy ending available—one in which the Israeli government does right by its Bedouin citizens, and in which these citizens build a sustainable life in the Negev, alongside their Jewish neighbors. Surely, the right and the left can come together to build this dream.


THE BEDOUIN CONVERSATION, A TIMELINE: 


Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1800 rabbis and cantors and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied territories.

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