Uff, this has been a long day and it hasn’t ended yet, though the cold is really catching up with me and I am seriously considering taking a couple of days off sick to recuperate before plunging back into work. The weather is very much the same from what I tried to escape by moving away from London, i.e. it’s cold, rainy, foggy and everyone look depressed and sleep in all possible positions, especially me, which reminds me of shortbreads, wheat-based hot beverages, mulled wine and falling asleep in front of my computer at work. But, as in life, it is always a trade off – something for something and in this case I traded these things for trying the life in Israel.
Our group trip today started with visiting the Chatzerim Air Force Base. For me that meant an instantaneous excitement, due to the fact that I was always a tomboy and loved everything that any boy would love, which on this occasion was slightly, but not for long, cooled by the announcement that we could not take any pictures. I mean, of course we couldn’t, but I am just not used to not pushing for what I want… However, on this occasion I enjoyed looking at things almost as much as physically experiencing them, i.e. we were not allowed to sit in their combat planes, again for obvious reasons, but also because they were “on call”, i.e. in layman’s terms, if the siren went off they had to be in the air in five minutes and we would have to be escorted out. The exact reason why they were “on call” was understandably not given. We were initially met by Y, who very kindly showed us a short movie and explained the differences between various types of bombs and missiles that the Israeli Air Force uses, what sort of planes they used over the years and we watched one of their recorded trainings. I was also pleased to find out that politically some countries may not openly support Israel, but they are certainly supporting this beloved state of mine militarily. The fact that Poland allows Israeli Air Force to train on their land was very surprising for me, in more than positive sense since so far I have not had a terribly good opinion with regard to their approach toward the Jews, in this case Israeli Jews, but it really looks like slowly, but surely things are changing slightly even though these things are not mentioned in commonly-read headlines. Apart from seeing the latest Air Force planes, checking which missile goes where and learning that if we stand too close to the plane while it takes off we would be sucked into the engine… Y told us how he and his companions felt with regards to the military campaign Protective Edge that ended in the second half of August this year, which was exactly one day before I landed.
They said that their role felt almost “weird” and unusual because they were asked often to fire a missile into a hill of sand, just to make noise, or under the assumption that there were weapons. They would target empty buildings when there was confirmed information that weapons were stored there, but when they were targeting buildings giving shelter to weapons and terrorists, they called beforehand warning them that the target had been secured and they should clear the building of civilians. Hamas would do something completely opposite by dragging civilians into the building and placing them on roofs knowing that the Israelis would not fire missiles if that would cause casualties in civilians. This is of course nothing that I haven’t heard before, but hearing this from the inside was a completely different experience from reading about this in newspapers or hearing about it from friends involved in combat. Israeli Army, as any army, makes mistakes, but the truth is that it does keep its morals very high and treats human life with outmost respect.
Our second stop was one of the seven recognised Bedouin villages in the triangle between Dimona, Arad and Beersheva, Lakia. We were met by Jamal, a Bedouin who was born and raised in one of these villages. The story of Jamal has been an engrossing tale, at least for me, since I have always admired people, who aren’t afraid to stand up to a challenge and be the person, who at the right time and place isn’t intimidated by others, takes a stand and changes the situation of their people. Jamal was brought up as the fourth of seven children in the family that was moved from the Dead Sea to Rachat, one of the previously mentioned villages. I think I need to paint a background picture here, otherwise what I am about to say will not make much sense.
In a nutshell, there are officially 200,000 registered Bedouins living in the Negev. By registered I mean those living in the seven registered villages, but considering how many non-registered villages are surrounding them the number can be and probably is higher. Until 1966 the population of Bedouins was much lower, around 10,000, but this has changed when the Israeli Government made a shift from a military regime to more what we know now. Since around 1977 the politics toward Bedouins changed dramatically as the Government felt the need to organise their living arrangements in a more socially controllable way to ensure that the required infrastructure was introduced and, in my opinion as any government, it wanted to have slightly more control over where people built villages and towns. Thus, the Government gathered many sheiks and promising a better life moved them into villages, securing their loans so they could build towns for themselves. As Jamal recalls, the Bedouins did not possess such skills and lived instead in tents not utilising the loans properly. The Government clearly made a mistake of not overseeing the utilisation of loans, perhaps they should have build houses for them and not rely on their skills in that field, but what was done, had been done and soon the Bedouins’ lives in new villages were not really much better and certainly the nation of nomads had found itself in unfamiliar conditions not knowing what to do. Over the time the Government’s attitude toward the Bedouins changed for the better, but they often felt that they were forgotten outside the organised and recognised villages. With regards to gathering Bedouins into organised villages, following the move their communities experienced a baby-boom, which contributed to an already deepening inequality between the young and elderly, created more socio-economic strain on the local community, highlighted the lack of successful cooperation between the Central Government and the local Bedouin local council leading to further deterioration in the standard of facilities, and in non-recognised villages their apparent scarcity. There has been clearly mistrust from Bedouin authorities in terms of cooperating with Israeli Government and sadly this has only added to the suffering of the local Bedouin community. The Central Government basically wants them to live in a more centralised way in villages and towns, whereas they, due to their nomadic nature, do not want to change their way of life and choose to stay in their lands, which again brings us down to the problem of funding for settlements that are not recognised. Certainly one very good and healthy thing about the relationship between the Central Government and the Bedouin local council (by healthy I mean there is a thorough understanding) is that only Jews are obliged to go to the Army, not the Arab Muslims and not the Bedouins. However the Bedouins, who largely hold Israeli citizenship and enjoy full rights, happily volunteer. The Army has created an actual Bedouin unit, because no one, like the Bedouins, is that good in knowing the desert.
So back to Jamal’s story, he said that he was the only short-sighted boy in his school, with huge glasses and always felt singled out by teachers because of his “disability”. He was therefore a very introverted person and did not speak much. Then in his early teens his school had a visit from a group of children learning in a school in Rechovot. He recalled the whole school preparing for that visit for a month. Who was to say what, how much more they could possibly clean the school and who was going to host which child from Rechovot for lunch in their homes. He recalled that he, along with his peers, was lined up and waited in silence for the arrival of the children from Rechovot. When they arrived they made so much noise upon alighting the bus and were so comfortable with chatting with each other that he thought to himself that perhaps also he should not remain silent, and approached one boy telling him that he will be having a lunch with him at his house. Confronted by teachers upon his un-regulatory behaviour, he ignored what was said and in broken Hebrew talked to Noah over the meal. Noah told him that he was the head of Student Council at his school and that he had a lot of influence in changing the reality of his school. He fed Jamal with all the information that was needed and Jamal decided to contact the centre in Beersheva. He introduced himself as a head of Student Council at his school even though no one elected him and was met with a reply that the Learning Centre was thrilled that finally someone from the Bedouin community wanted to speak with them and hopefully make some long-term positive changes. This is how his road started, he was involved in many negotiations despite his young age and with the help of the Learning Centre managed to introduce changes where he lived. He ignored the voices both from school and home that he shouldn’t get too much involved, rather focus on his grades, but as he said that “being active from early age will always contribute to good grades”. He managed to successfully complete his education and, consequently, he understood what challenges the Bedouins are facing when, for example, they want to study at the Ben Gurion University in the Negev. He tirelessly stresses the importance of learning Hebrew and actively encourages students to mix with Israeli Jews.
In many respects I found his story fascinating. For me it rang on a very personal level. I was brought up in Poland as the only, at that time, mix-raced kid. Then when I moved to Britain I was the only mix-raced Polish Jewess and the same in Israel. Some people, like Jamal, always stand out and we can either consider it a weakness, or strength. He considered his short-sightedness and extra attention at school first embarrassing, but soon he drew strength from his uniqueness. I have been doing the same thing ever since I learned how to fight boys (around the age of 12-13) and I stopped caring what people think about me. You don’t like us, the way we look, speak or behave – don’t talk to us, simple. Period.
This brings me to our last meeting for today with a lady, whose name I really can’t remember, sounds a little like Chen, but considering she was a Bedouin woman, it was probably something different. She runs the Lakia Women Association. The aim of this NGO is to empower Bedouin women to learn, work and stop abuse in their homes. It was not a new thing for me that women in Bedouin communities do not have the same rights as men and that their fate is decided by either their fathers, brothers or husbands. The situation was the same up until the end of Victorian times in Britain, where women did not exist legally and had no rights either to their lives, bodies or children. The Association encourages women to learn Hebrew, Arabic and English, master the operation of computers, teaches them compulsory knowledge to facilitate independence and encourages them to utilise their embroidery skills so they can bring a little more income into their homes. It was fascinating to hear how they have organised their own local library using a donkey and a cart (Bedouin women are not allowed to drive vehicles) and they put pressure also on their children to learn more and to see and understand that the world is bigger than just the Arad-Dimona-Beersheva triangle.
It was certainly a lot for one day. Everything between the Leadership Training we had in Jerusalem last week and the general situation of women despite the worldwide emancipation movement has evoked again dozens of questions I have against the system we are living in and what, and how it can be changed. Unfortunately to change the system we need to become part of the system. On a micro level, both Jamal and the Women’s Association have proven that it is possible, but on the macro scale even the smallest decisions while facing big challenges show our true humanity and the levels of our compassion. And this, I believe, is what makes a true change.