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Ships of the Negev, untroubled by human cares

The Negev is beautiful, and Hilary and I greatly enjoyed a tour there last week. If, however, we thought we would escape the politics of the city with a bucolic wander in the countryside, we were mistaken.

One fascinating stop was a visit to a Bedouin women’s weaving collective and store. The organizer with whom we met spoke passionately about how the group had a twofold purpose – to earn money for the women so they could have some independent income, and to educate the women about their rights. Examples she gave included the right to say no to being a second wife, the right to be protected from violence, up to and including honor killings, and the right to attend high school and university. She emphasized how the collective had started from the Bedouin women themselves and how they still take risks to run it – the store has been burned down by men in the community who do not want women to be empowered.

As complex as these women’s struggles are, there is another level of complexity. Our Israeli guide pointed out the nice houses in this Bedouin town, contrasting them to the shacks of the more nomadic Bedouin, though she still critiqued how dirty the town was. While our guide did not mention it, the Israeli government since 1948 has limited the Bedouin to certain areas of the Negev, and has also tried to settle them in towns. Our guide also pointed out an old lady on the road with her donkey and said “this is the lot of Bedouin women” without such an empowerment program. The message was clear: modern, Western society – provided by Israel – is much better for Bedouin women, and Bedouin in general, than traditional society.

I don’t necessarily disagree – in fact, I am frequently nervous about romanticizing the situation of pre-modern peoples. I am, however, suspicious of the motivations of the government. Some quick research turns up a long history of government mistreatment of the Bedouin. During and after the 1948 war, as late as 1959, army patrols broke up Bedouin encampments and forced them across the borders to Jordan or Egypt. The Bedouin were restricted to about 10% of the Negev. We also visited a goat farm (making delicious cheese!) that is part of a program funded by Israel specifically to bring more Jews to the Negev. Our guide did not tell us this; the farmer mentioned it unselfconsciously during our tour. We also visited a pharmaceuticals plant, the largest maker of generic drugs in the world. The plant representatives told us about both the benefit of their medicines and the green nature of their production. A public health physician was also on our tour, however, and told us about the industrial area’s history of polluting the Negev and sharply rising cancer rates among the Bedouin as a result.

We stopped a Bedouin restaurant and campground for lunch, and two of our party recognized it as a place where they (separately) stayed on their Birthright trips to Israel – free trips for Diaspora Jews to learn about Israel. This made me wonder – to what extent were we following a common route meant to communicate a specific view of the Negev?