The Bedouins in Israel

Rawia Abu-Rabia is a sociology graduate of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, a law graduate of Ono Academic College, and currently working on a graduate law degree at The American University in Washington.  She is also a Bedouin from Israel.

She spoke today at a lunchtime meeting at the Library of Congress on the challenges facing the Bedouin community in Israel today.  She is clearly very bright and dedicated, and an excellent public speaker.

She describes the Israeli Bedouin community as in a crisis of transition from a traditional community to a more modern community, with pressures within the community to move more quickly, and to retreat to its more traditional past.  Prior to the formation of the State of Israel, the Bedouins were semi-nomadic, tending sheep and practicing agriculture in the Negev Desert.  From the foundation of the state until about 1966, the policy of the Israeli government was to move the Bedouins from the land and resettle them in seven designated townships.  Although this appears no longer to be the policy, today about half of the community lives in these townships and the other half (each have is about 90,000) lives in 45 “illegal” villages (in effect, squatter  villages, where the state provides no water or electricity or other municipal services).  There has recently been a commission formed by the Israeli government which is apparently about to recommend that these 45 communities be legitimized, and services provided.

Many more Bedouins than before are now attending university, particularly BGU, where they have to struggle with language deficiencies and culture shock.  But many are graduating, are seeing the world with much broader vision, and upon graduation face the even more difficult test of fitting in with the communities from which they have come.

Thirty percent of Bedouin men, and eighty percent of Bedouin women are currently unemployed.  Those who live in the townships lack the skills necessary for jobs, and no longer are involved in their agricultural or pastoral pursuits.  They have the lowest income of any group in Israel.  A full 35% of Bedouin men are married to more than one woman.  They are governed by tribal/family loyalties, and expected to marry within the tribe.  None of this works well for the new educated Bedouin youth.

Ben Gurion University’s Arnoff Bedouin Center has several programs to help the Bedouin community, and provides scholarships covering tuition at BGU.  Several NGOs, some Bedouin-controlled, and other joint Jewish-Bedouin controlled, also run programs to improve the lives of community members.

It is Rawia’s hope that these efforts will continue and expand.   She sees this as a real possibility, understanding that transition is always very difficult for communities and in fact there is no way to predict what will happen next.

There was a nice crowd at the session.  She is going to be speaking in several other places over the course of the academic year, and I would suggest you hear her if you have the opportunity.

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