At the last minute I made a decision to join a small group that was journeying into the Negev today 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. Rabbis for Human Rights was founded almost two decades ago by a man I greatly admire, Rabbi David Forman z’l who died just a few years ago. 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.
As some may know, the Bedouin of the Negev, who are Muslim Arabs, 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 Army wanted to bury him in an Army cemetery).
In recent years, the government of Israel has tried to move the Bedouin off their lands into designated cities and have 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 Benny Begin (son of the Prime Minister) would remove 40,000 Bedouin from their homes and relocate them into cities. This recent proposal has resulted in protests by the Bedouin, as well as vocal protest from some Israeli Jews, most notably Theodore Bikel (Tevye) who compares the removal of the Bedouin to the forced removal of the Jews from Anatevka.
Today we met with the Sheik of one village that has been razed to the ground by the I.D.F. 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) that 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, a distressing day and one which challenges us to balance our nationalism with our commitment to our sacred Jewish values of loving and caring for the stranger.