As a rabbi and a Jewish community leader who cares deeply for Israel and its people, I have a moral obligation to speak out against an Israeli government plan to forcibly relocate and resettle 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel because they are a non-Jewish minority.
Bedouin communities trace their historical connection to the Negev for centuries. By the 20th century, most Bedouin settled in permanent areas, used their own system of land ownership recognized by the Ottoman Empire and later by the British Mandate and engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry.
The Bedouin who remained in the Negev after Israel’s War of Independence were forced to live within an arid zone known as the Siyag under martial law. The government then confiscated most Bedouin land outside of this area as state land.
In the 1960s, the government’s master plans failed to acknowledge Bedouin residential areas in the Siyag and zoned the land in the area for industrial, military or Jewish agricultural purposes. These measures essentially wiped Bedouin villages off of maps and made every existing and future Bedouin structures “illegal.”
At the end of the martial-law era, the government began relocating Bedouin into seven urban townships, which remain at the bottom of every economic and social indicator to this day. The approximately 90,000 Bedouin who remain in villages unrecognized by Israel do not receive even basic services from their government, including electricity, water, plumbing, health care and education.
Legislation currently before the Knesset, known as the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev or the Prawer-Begin Plan Bill, perpetuates Israel’s legacy of unjust treatment of its Bedouin citizens. The plan threatens to uproot the residents of as many as 25 villages, demolish their homes, resettle most of them in highly concentrated urban areas and impose a one-sided solution to longstanding land disputes between the state and its Bedouin citizens.
That is why I and more than 780 of my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues have joined with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Rabbis for Human Rights urging the Israeli government to set aside the Prawer-Begin Plan.
I have had the joy of visiting several Bedouin villages. The people I met are proud people. They want to maintain their way of life while coping with the modern world around them. And they want to maintain their community structures and places of residence.
The government’s plan is costly and unnecessary. It is causing friction and instability in the Negev. An alternative plan produced by Bedouin communities, along with the Israeli NGOs Bimkom and ACRI, allows for recognition of 35 unrecognized villages and meets professional planning standards.
One of the most important moral principles in Judaism is proper treatment of the poor and the stranger. The Bedouin are poor, but they are not strangers. They are part of the polyglot of people who make the modern democracy of Israel so vibrant. I believe the Begin-Prawer Plan violates those Jewish values and the democratic principles that make Israel what it supposed to stand for.
View full list of rabbinic signatures >>
See related article, “Prawer Must Be Stopped.”
Rabbi Floyd L. Herman is the rabbi emeritus of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore.