In February I traveled to Israel for five weeks — I returned mid-March, shortly before stay-at-home orders were enacted in New Jersey — primarily as a volunteer to speak and teach English to Bedouin children living in the Negev. But I was also honored to witness many Bedouin women voting for the first time in the Israeli elections held in March.
My four weeks with Bedouin students were productive and rewarding. I spent one week at an elementary school in Rahat and three weeks at Ahed High School for Science. The Ahed students exhibited intellectual curiosity and have confidence to inspire fellow students to lead and think creatively. They are also poised to contribute meaningfully to society as they are working hard to earn high grades and are committed to public health by studying to become doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, and nurses. Even within the context of the dismal news about the Bedouins’ state of affairs — including high poverty, poor access to education, and high rates of the coronavirus — my meetings with Israeli Bedouin students and their families were truly inspirational.
I’m confident I did my part last year to ask everyone in the Bedouin community to vote in the elections. Judging by their low turnout during the April 2019 election, the overwhelming Negev Bedouin response then to voting was “no.” This time everyone I spoke to said “yes.” For most of my trip I stayed in different villages with Bedouin families, and I was thrilled to witness democracy in action as I watched my host’s mother, a teacher, put her ballot into the box at the polling station in Rahat.
Following a visit to her relative, which included a home-cooked meal, they drove me to Beersheva. There I connected with other members of the Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society, a project of the Jewish Funders Network which is sponsored by over 20 federations, foundations, and individuals, including Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and UJA-Federation of NY. We headed to the village of Segev Shalom to meet Jewish and Bedouin women dedicated to empowering women in their community. At the welcome tent, the headquarters of a Bedouin voter turnout drive, we met Shuli Dichter, a veteran of many Arab-Jewish joint activities. Volunteers on laptops and telephones were organizing the volunteer drivers — all Jewish women — to take women from unrecognized villages where about 90,000 Bedouin live.
We also met with Yeela Raanan from the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, and Hanan Alsanah, a Bedouin activist and lawyer. Raanan and Alsanah told us that historically 80 percent of the women in the unrecognized villages didn’t vote. One reason is because voters in unrecognized villages are assigned to polling places according to their Bedouin tribe, not where they live, and so neighbors are often sent to different locations. Second, unrecognized villages are often a distance from the local highways — as far as 10 miles away, and access to them is by gravel or dirt road. Cars can reach them with difficulty; public transportation doesn’t exist.
Alsanah told us that women needed their husbands to drive them to polling sites, but the men couldn’t afford to take time off from work to drive them to vote and return them home. It can take up to two hours. Election Day is officially a vacation day in Israel, but as Alsanah pointed out, if Bedouin laborers don’t come to work, they needn’t bother coming back the next morning. It is entirely possible that the men are voting in one location while the wives are from a different tribe voting at another polling station. And they can’t take a cab, because there are none in those villages.
Yet here’s why I was so proud and happy: This volunteer effort was shared society in action. It reached thousands of women from the unrecognized villages, and Jewish women used their own cars and gas to drive the Bedouin women to the correct polling sites.
In the evening, Dichter organized a ride for us to a home in one of the unrecognized villages where Bedouin women gathered to be driven to their respective polling stations. Many young children were playing nearby, unaware of this history in the making, and we watched as someone baked bread on an open fire, which lent to the exotic flavor of what I had the privilege to witness.
I talked to a teenage girl through her mother. Though the teen had no computer, no internet access, and no cell phone, she wanted to have an American pen pal. As she asked me if this was possible, I asked myself how young people, in such a high-tech nation, could not have access to basic technology.
Unrecognized villages are located on land that is either state-owned or private, depending on whose story you accept, but no matter what you believe, Bedouin homes are considered illegal as they were built without permits. There is no garbage collection, paved roads, electricity, water supply, or sewers, and they live with the constant threat of home demolitions, a problem exacerbated by the 2017 passage of the “Kaminitz Law,” which increases the penalties for unauthorized construction and expands the state’s powers with regard to demolitions and evictions.
Attia Alasam, head of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages, said that Bedouin voter turnout in March was the highest it had ever been. Out of an estimated voting population of 90,000 in both recognized and unrecognized communities, Alasam said more than 68,000 people voted, and that more than 200 cars drove women back and forth to the polls throughout the day.
Women I spoke to said they were motivated to vote for the sake of their futures and that of their children, and for the Bedouin people that lack proper infrastructure. It was their duty, they told me, to vote in order to defend their homes and land, to cancel the Kaminitz law and the so-called Trump peace plan, which proposes the transfer of Arab towns in Israel’s “Triangle” region, which could include Bedouin villages, to a future Palestinian state.
I’m personally glad to see that no matter who will serve as prime minister, the Arab Joint List will have 15 seats in the Knesset. And I am hopeful that the Knesset will consider the welfare needs of the Bedouin people and work together to provide them with an opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for integration into Israeli society.
Phyllis Bernstein lives in Westfield. A member of the Global Connections committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, she is a founding cochair of its Arab-Israeli committee and serves as co-chair of economic development for Social Venture Fund for Jewish Arab Equality and Shared Society.