By Rabbi Jonathan WITTENBERG, Senior Rabbi, Masorti Judaism

‘It makes one weep’, said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, head of Israeli organisation Rabbis for Human Rights, whose passionate Zionism has led him to engage in the most challenging moral issues facing the country.

Jonathan Wittenberg cropped

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

He was referring to the Praver-Begin plan for Israel’s Bedouin population, which is currently making its way through the Knesset.

The preamble to the bill sounds noble enough: “The development of the Negev for the benefit of all its citizens is a national objective of the highest order…The Bedouin are citizens of the Land of Israel with equal rights and as such deserve a socio-economic framework which will enable them to realise the opportunities to flourish available to all citizens.”

But the reality behind it threatens to be very different. It could mean the removal of as many as 40, 000 Bedouin to cities, the forfeit of much of their ancestral land and the loss of their accustomed way of life. There is no doubt that the question of the status of Bedouin villages needs to be settled.

It has remained unresolved since the foundation of the State of Israel. Anyone who has visited an unrecognised village, as I did last year, can see the urgency of the matter. With no running water and no electricity, such places make a dismal contrast to the Jewish farms and communities of the region.

A bill which resolves matters is therefore to be welcomed.  But this bill has aroused international protest among Jewish organisations. In Britain, more than 60 rabbis from across the denominations sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Israel and leading members of the Knesset, begging the government to rethink.

Similar messages have been sent from the States. British youth movements also presented a strong letter to the Israeli Ambassador. In Israel, the Association for Civil Rights (ACRI) warned that if the bill became law, it would “cause the displacement and forced eviction of dozens of villages and tens of thousands of Bedouin residents…destroying the social fabric of their communities, and sealing the fate of thousands of families into poverty and unemployment”.

Those protesting the bill are asking for true consultation and cooperation with Bedouin leadership, legal recognition for Bedouin villages in accord with their ancestral presence on the land, the provision of the same services to which other Israeli citizens are entitled, and due respect for the Bedouin way of life with its strong agrarian tradition, as indeed earlier governmental commissions have recommended.

They also recognise that the issues are intricate and complex. Part of the opposition to the Begin bill is pragmatic. Previous resettlement of Bedouin people in cities like Rahat has proved largely disastrous, causing high unemployment and profound alienation. To repeat such a population transfer when the head of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy has just presented a report revealing the huge price Israel pays socially and economically for the differential in opportunities between its Arab and its Jewish citizens makes no sense. But the essence of the opposition goes deeper.

Less than three years after the Shoah, Israel’s founders presented to the world the courageous and inspiring vision of a country which “will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture”, values “based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets”.

It is the fear of the imminent betrayal of these values, which lie at the core not only of the Israeli but of the Jewish vision of the world, which makes Rabbi Ascherman and those like him want to weep. A memory goes through my mind. I’m back at the Bedouin village of Al Arakib. It has been demolished repeatedly. The Sheikh explains that the village has papers from the Ottoman, Mandate and Israeli authorities. Then I’m shown video footage of the destruction.

Houses are crushed, trees ploughed up, ducks waddle disconsolately by, children pick at remnants of their homes. What seeds are being sown in their young hearts? How can this lead to anything good? Security is not at stake here. There must be better ways of managing matters. “Judaism is about justice,” says my friend to the Sheikh.

It’s up to us all to prove it.