Letter from a Bedouin Village

In the Bedouin tents, villages and towns of Israel’s northern Negev, the phrase “my sister” sets the gold standard of relationships. On a sizzling day last June, in an open-air tent in the Bedouin town of Rahat, a most unlikely pair of “sisters”— Amal Elsana Alh’jooj and Vivian Silver — were awarded the Victor J. Goldberg IIE Prize for Peace in the Middle East, the first time two women shared this prestigious prize.

Amal, the fifth daughter in a patriarchal Bedouin family, was given her name (“Hope”) to reflect her parent’s fervent desire that their next child would be male. Eventually her family numbered 13 siblings. The first generation of their family not born in tents, they were brought up in a stone house in the village of Lakiya, not far from Beersheba.

Amal established her activist credentials as a 17-year-old, creating the first Arab Bedouin women’s organization in the Negev. At a time when only a handful of Bedouin girls completed high school, she graduated from Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and went on for a Master’s degree in community development at McGill University. She returned to Israel determined to improve the conditions of the country’s Arab minority, and particularly that of the Bedouin women of the Negev.

Vivian Silver, from Winnipeg, attended Yiddish day school and a Jewish youth movement and summer camps. Relocated to New York City in the early 1970’s, she was among the leaders of the “Jewish student revolution” demanding gender parity, quality Jewish education and raised social consciousness in Jewish communities. She immigrated to Israel in 1974 as a founding member of the re-established Kibbutz Gezer, which elected her its first secretary-general. Her efforts to improve the status of Israeli women led her, in 1981, to create the Department to Advance Gender Equality in the United Kibbutz Movement.

In 1999, Vivian became director of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (NISPED), a non-profit focused on societies in transformation and, in Israel, on bringing together Israelis and Palestinians in sustainable, peace-building processes. That same year, Amal joined Vivian to run NISPED leadership programs in Gaza and the West Bank. Within a short time, Amal founded the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation (AJEEC) as a division of NISPED.

The day before receiving the Goldberg Prize for Peace, Vivian and Amal accompany a group of visiting Americans to some NISPED projects. In the colorful courtyard of AJEEC’s Volunteer Center in Beersheba, draped with hand-woven Arab rugs, young Bedouin women in traditional garb chat with each other or their computer screens. They are among the hundreds of participants in the Bedouin Volunteer Tent, a program that gives them training and supervision as they carry out enrichment projects in the underserved Bedouin communities of the Negev.

“Volunteerism is a traditional value for the Bedouin,” Amal explains. “When my mother used to need help weaving a tent, she would call on the women of her tribe. But this value got lost in the crisis caused by the transition to urban life. Today, my sister needs help teaching her kids chess or guitar, not weaving a tent. So we are redesigning and remodeling the concept of volunteerism.”

A multitude of challenges face the residents of the Negev, where the Bedouin third of the population lives segregated from the Jewish majority, in separate villages with separate services and separate schools, all unequal to mainstream Jewish ones. Arab pupils who don’t drop out of the educational system — despite substandard facilities, lack of transportation and inadequate staff — study the standard Israeli curriculum, including Bible, Jewish history and Hebrew literature, but they learn nothing about Islam or their own past. Jewish Israelis, for their part, can spend a lifetime in the Negev without having a single meaningful interaction with the Bedouin.

“Painful compromises are needed,” Vivian tells her visitors, “in order to reach peace and stability wherever there are populations in conflict. In such cases, those in the periphery have been marginalized. They have to move from poverty to economic independence, from passivity to taking control of their lives.”

Amal continues, “Community development, what we do, is about changing people’s attitudes to their realities. This is a process that empowers people, makes them independent. It works for new immigrants, for women, for any disadvantaged community.”

In the course of a long day in the desert, the process becomes clear. Down a rocky, unpaved road, we visit the early childhood day-care program of Abu Kaf village, run by young Bedouin paraprofessionals trained in NISPED-AJEEC courses. “As a result of our lobbying,” Vivian notes, “the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor has recently recognized this program, and now it subsidizes each child who attends.”

In this unyielding environment, where 60% of the population lives in dire poverty, 80% of women are unemployed, and the birth rate is the highest in Israel, families pay an annual fee of $50 to belong to the pre-school project, sometimes waiting months or years till they’re admitted. The mothers themselves — some of whom have never been outside the village — take turns bringing hot cooked lunches for the kids.

Of all the Bedouin settlements in the Negev, Lakiya has the highest ratio of educated men and women. “The women’s movement started here when we founded the Association for the Improvement of Women’s Status in 1984,” Amal points out, “so the part that women have played in the village is very clear.” Her sister Nama Elsana directs the association’s Desert Embroidery Center in Lakiya.

In order to get paid for their home-sewn embroideries, the center’s 90 participants must attend lectures on subjects ranging from psychology and early childhood training to family planning. “Fifteen years ago,” she says, “families here had 13 or 15 kids. Today 90% of the women use birth control and have ‘only’ four to eight children.”

Like Amal, Nama believes that women’s liberation comes not through revolution, but through process. “Today, the tribal sheikh has lost his importance; we have a mayor and a city council. Now young women stitch the symbol for the woman, not the sheikh, at the center of their embroideries.”

Amal offers further insight into local politics. “Until 2002, when I decided to be an official observer at the polls,” she recalls, “Bedouin men told their women who to vote for, or just took their wives’ ID cards and voted for them.” Yet, she notes regretfully, the tribe remains the determining force in Bedouin politics: When she herself flouted tradition by campaigning against a member of her own tribe in a recent election, her father’s crops were burned in retaliation.

Nevertheless, in the city hall of nearby Rahat — the only Bedouin city in the Negev — Mayor Faiz Abu Shiban pays his respect to “Amal, my sister” before officially welcoming his American visitors. Though he acknowledges, a bit reluctantly, the benefits of feminism, he adds that “the education of women poses an immense new social problem.” While more and more Bedouin girls are going to study beyond high school, the mayor explains, their male peers often drop out in 11th or 12th grade to go to work. Better educated young women, not interested in marrying men without high school diplomas, are consequently finding themselves without marriageable partners.

In Rahat’s huge Peace Tent the next day, a beaming crowd applauds as Victor Goldberg, creator of the Prize for Peace in the Middle East, grants the award to Vivian and Amal. “They are breaking down the barriers to ‘the other,’” he declares, “and they are inspiring others in the Middle East to follow their example. And most of all, they have been crucial in changing the role of women as they work for peace.”

“Amal and I,” Vivian concludes, “are a microcosm of what our two peoples could be — open to each other’s cultures, respectful of our differences. We have learned how not to agree and still work together towards our shared goal.”