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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

A Day in the Desert

August 26, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

An excursion to the Beersheba area, organized as an inservice day for a few tour-educators associated with our seminar center, to learn about Arab-Jewish relations in the south..

9:30 meet with J., a Beduin junior high teacher whose BA is in physics, an activist in the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Negev Arab Villages. He is very articulate, and gives us a comprehensive overview: in 1949 there were 10,000 Beduins in the Negev; they have the highest rate of natural increase of any population in the world; today they number 135,000, half of whom live in "unrecognized" villages, meaning that they are not part of the regional master plan, so they cannot obtain building permits, nor can they be linked to the water, electric, sewer, or road grids. The government's attempts to relocate Beduins into towns built for them have only succeeded in disrupting their traditional culture without substituting a new value system, resulting in instant slums with severe problems of crime, drugs, dysfunctional families, and no agriculture to compensate for the high rate of unemployment.

11:00 J. takes us to visit one of the unrecognized villages, where the local dignitaries, hearing that we are educators, mistakenly assume we represent the Ministry of Education, so they pour out their complaints about having to send their kindergarteners 10 miles over dirt roads to the nearest school. Except for a cinderblock mosque and council building, all the other structures in the village are made of corrugated metal or tent fabric. Water is brought by tank trailer; electricity comes from portable generators. They argue that Beduin nomadism is largely a fiction - that they have always lived in permanent villages, only sending the flocks and those who tend them to temporary seasonal camps. Today, these villages cover the landscape to the horizon, along all the highways leading from Beersheba into the Negev.

2:00 We drive to one of the "recognized" Beduin towns to meet A., a doctoral student in science education, who lectures widely in her own community on genetic disorders and in-marriage: 50% of Beduin marriages are between first cousins... Her family's home (she is the second of 10 children) is a spacious two-story house, faced with stone and comfortably furnished; her younger siblings are watching Israeli cartoons in a room adjacent to the formal parlor. She is modest and soft spoken; it is mind-boggling to imagine what it must have been like for her as one of the only two Beduin girls in her class at Tel Aviv University.

4:00 A short drive to Omer, an upscale suburb of Beersheba, to meet with H., a planner who is active in volunteer organizations fostering Arab-Jewish dialogue and fair treatment for the Beduins. She fills us in on some of the complexities of the problem: not only the conflicts of east and west, modern and premodern, Israel and Palestine, Jew and Moslem, urban and rural are at play here, but also a whole world of internal alliances and power struggles within the Beduin population, between tribes, political affiliations, economic and educational levels. Our heads are beginning to spin.

6:30 On to Metar, another gated Jewish community in the desert, to the home of L., a regional public health nurse, where we are bombarded with two hours of tables and charts and anecdotes, the statistics of the overwhelming task of the the public health services in meeting the needs of the diverse populations of the Negev - not only the 25% of the citizens who are Beduins. In-marriage, recessive disorders, high infant death rates, home accidents and poisonings, polygyny, malnutrition, family violence... L. is amazingly well-informed, insightful, and caring; the challenge of dealing with this exploding need, using already scarce resources, is daunting.

It is an easy three hour drive back to the Galilee, but it feels as though we have returned from another country.


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