Jamal Alkirnawi remembers the day a group of Jewish Israeli teens visited him and his fellow students at school in his hometown of Rahat, a Bedouin village in the Negev.
On that day he recognized the extent of the educational and social gaps between the two groups. The realization led him to discover the drive within himself that would lead to his founding a grassroots organization whose aim is to develop leadership among and provide skills and cultural competency training to Bedouin youth.
A New Dawn in the Negev (NDN) is a joint Jewish-Bedouin initiative launched 10 years ago by Alkirnawi that is bringing together Arabs and Jews and helping to integrate Bedouins into Israeli society.
On May 22, the United Nations Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) recommended that the Economic and Social Council grant NDN special consultative status.
Alkirnawi spoke July 16 at Temple Beth El of Somerset about how he created the organization and its important work.
“Our Israeli society is still divided,” he told the gathering of 35 people. “We live in our own villages and our own towns, and there is no exchange between us.”
Bedouins, who are Muslim and traditionally nomadic, are “a minority within a minority of Arabs,” said Alkirnawi. NDN’s website states there are up to 140,000 Bedouins living in the Negev. Although not required, many, like Alkirnawi, volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Alkirnawi holds a master’s degree in social work from McGill University and a Mandel Social Leadership MBA from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), where he later worked for seven years as an academic counselor for Arab students.
According to Alkirnawi, the unemployment rate for Bedouins is 60 percent for men and 22 percent for women. They have a 35 percent high school dropout rate, and only 5 percent qualify for entrance to universities. Bored and frustrated with school, young people, especially males, often turn to crime and drugs.
He said many of those students are hindered by their fear of not being able to fit into the system and by their deficiency in Hebrew.
The diverse NDN staff is working to remove those obstacles, including raising the Bedouins’ proficiency in Hebrew. The language is now taught by Jewish Israelis who can more easily transmit its nuances than Arab teachers, for whom it is not a native tongue.
Alkirnawi said he started NDN “to make a better future and provide employment” for young Bedouins. “In the 21st century there cannot be illiteracy.”
But NDN’s focus goes beyond academics; its stated goal “is not just creating better opportunity for the next generation of youth, but to create strong and genuine friendships within the fractured segments of Israeli society.”
To that end, said Alkirnawi, NDN “offers music, English studies, sports; as an NGO, we have the power to change the system.”
Its “flagship” program, Sarab Strings of Change, offers classical music training to promote creativity and self-confidence, to increase exposure to a wider cultural world, and to create a vibrant link to Israeli society. It also offers programs in adult entrepreneurship, educational tourism to highlight the Bedouins’ cultural traditions, volunteer initiatives and collaborative forums, and international exchange programs. Through NDN, Bedouins, with Israeli partners, are operating the first Arab-language hotline for Negev residents to discuss personal and social issues.
Robert Weisman of Bridgewater first met Alkirnawi at BGU, helping him translate papers. The 26-year-old, whose family made aliyah when he was 13 but has since moved back, later worked at NDN for several years.
Alkirnawi “created something from nothing,” said Weisman, who attended the Somerset program. “With not a lot of resources, he managed to scrape something together.” With no formal managerial training, “Jamal has done something … no one else in Israel has done to bring Bedouins into the educational system.”
Alkirnawi talked about the day the Israeli teens visited his school. When they arrived, he did something out of character for a Bedouin youth: He stepped forward, without being asked by a teacher, walked up to a boy who, like him, was wearing glasses, and invited him to lunch at his house. Despite his limited Hebrew, he learned the Israeli boy was head of his school’s student council. Alkirnawi had never heard of such a group and immediately became fascinated with the concept.
The Israeli boy suggested his new friend contact the Israeli Ministry of Education to say he had an interest in forming a student council at his school. He received a quick response from the ministry’s local inspector, inviting Alkirnawi to meet with her in Beersheva.
He accepted the invitation — although, he said, he “had never been out of my neighborhood.” The inspector told him that for years she had been looking for someone to represent Alkirnawi’s community on Israel’s National Student and Youth Council.
As a council member, Alkirnawi had encounters with Jewish students in places like Tel Aviv and Herzliya. He saw a stark difference between them and Bedouin youth: Jewish young people felt free to express their opinions to teachers and parents and often spoke out about the rights of students.
“From that point, I learned to stand up in front of parents and other teens,” he said.
With the ministry covering expenses, Alkirnawi spent his high school years traveling to seminars and to the Knesset in Jerusalem — being “nomadic like a Bedouin should be.” He became, he said, “an observant listener, with my eyes wide open.” He would go on to establish his school’s student council.
“I was a witness to the power of youth,” he said. “I believe in the power of teenagers. I met people who are now in the forefront of Israeli society.”