JERUSALEM: Culture, hobbies, dreams, religion, politics, sports, discrimination, music, women s role in society – these were only some of the issues discussed by about 140 young adults during a three day seminar, A Dialogue of Identities, held in Ksaife, a Bedouin town in southern Israel.
The conference painted a colorful picture of vastly differing identities. The program included some 70 Bedouin young adults, residents of Ksaife, participants in the local Excellence Promotion program, as well as some 70 Jewish-American young adults.
The seminar introduced the young Jewish-Americans to those living conditions which usually go unnoticed in Israel. Over the three day program, the American youths were hosted by families in the Bedouin village, where they toured sites and frequented the local mosque.
The morning hours were dedicated to discussing the composition of group identities. Jewish participants stressed their attachment to the land, while Bedouin participants, as Muslim-Arabs, pointed to their connection to the State of Israel and their ties with the Palestinian people and their struggle for self-determination.
Bedouin ties with the Palestinians are often seen by Jews as an expression of Bedouin disloyalty to the State of Israel. However, Bedouins, feel a common bond with the Palestinian people through religious, cultural, and social connections.
Half of the 180,000 Bedouin in the Negev live in villages that are unrecognized by the State, meaning they receive few essential state services and are cut off from Israel s infrastructure. According to Israel s Central Bureau of Statistics, the Bedouin population is at the bottom of Israel s socioeconomic curve.
Many polls suggest that Bedouin youth in the Negev strongly resent the State of Israel, a feeling that has led many to disapprove of Bedouins serving in the military, and has helped cultivate support of the Palestinian cause.
The Jewish participants, for the most part, came to the seminar with a romanticized image of the Bedouins: desert dwellers who are proud to be part of the Israel. These youth experienced a shocking reality check, and some even questioned the prospects of successful dialogue. But the seminar attempted to challenge this dichotomous conception of identity, which views support of Israel and the Palestinian cause as mutually exclusive.
A watershed moment occurred on the second day during a joint visit to the unrecognized village of al-Furah, near the Israeli city of Arad. Participants were confronted first-hand with the conditions of life in the village. Mohamed, a local schoolteacher, shared his own personal life story as an example of the internal conflict that characterizes Bedouin society: on the one hand, he is an Arab and a Muslim, and many of his relatives reside in Gaza and the West Bank, and on the other hand, he wishes to be an Israeli citizen and to enjoy equal rights. Mohamed s story opened a door for understanding and sympathy among the Jewish participants, some of whom feel like a minority in American society.
As a Jewish girl living in the United States in a city with few Jews, I came to see the similarities between my experiences and the experiences of Huda, a resident of Ksaife, as a member of the Bedouin minority in Israel, said Rachel, a participant in the conference. For Habbas, the principal of the elementary school in al-Furah, the main significance of the visit was the opportunity for local residents to gain recognition and enjoy some sympathy as fellow people and citizens of the State of Israel.
Life in Israel is wrought with conflicts. For Israel s Bedouin population, the conflict commences when a person is forced to reconcile very different components of his or her identity. Israeli citizenship has implanted Western values in Bedouin society, which include self-realization, higher education, and gender equality. Many of the young adults in the Bedouin village study at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. Nevertheless, the fact that they feel subject to injustice and discrimination prevents them from fully integrating into the State. Analysts agree that an uprising of the Bedouin population in the Negev is only a matter of time. The Jewish majority in Israel must understand that the only way to live together is to engage in dialogue, reach compromises and resolve disagreements.
Encounters of this kind do give prominence to the difficulties and conflicts that abound in Israeli society, but they also force young adults to take action. Amy, a participant from the United States, concluded the following: I found the whole experience to be very challenging. It was difficult for me to hear certain things, but it showed me how important it was to meet one another. Mutual understanding and the ability to see each other as fellow human beings and not enemies is the only hope for peace.
When the seminar ended, the participants found it difficult to part ways. They formed friendships despite the differences, as well as because of them – proving the significant common ground between these young adults, and the importance of learning from our differences.
Dror Rubinholds a Master’s degree in Conflict Management and Resolution. He works as a mediator in a number educational, social and community programmes and he leads dialogue groups in Europe and Israel. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).