Ben-Gurion University of the Negev reaches out to Bedouin women


Every morning, Hana’a Abokaf leaves her village on the slopes of the Negev Desert, where electricity is powered by a generator and camels and goats graze near cinderblock and tin houses.

Abokaf, 20, rides the bus to the university where she is a first-year medical student. Just by attending a university, Abokaf is part of a revolution of sorts in her deeply conservative Bedouin community: She is among about 250 Bedouin female students enrolled at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In recent years, the school has made attracting and retaining Bedouin students, many of them female, a top priority.

“I always wanted to be a doctor,” a smiling Abokaf said, her lavender and black headscarf fastened tightly over her hair.

It’s a bold statement, because Bedouin women usually stay at home to raise children. They often are not encouraged to complete their schooling; more than half of Israel’s female Bedouin are illiterate.

Growing up, Abokaf said, she noted the need for Bedouin doctors in her community when her grandmother became ill and found it difficult to communicate with the Hebrew-speaking doctors, who were from a different culture.

Other gaps, some striking, exist between the Bedouin and the rest of Israeli society. Bedouin families tend to be large — 10 children is not uncommon — and are among the country’s poorest and most-neglected populations. In their gradual transition from a nomadic to a more urban lifestyle, they have faced major challenges.

Bedouin communities have high rates of crime and unemployment. They have considerably worse health and education services than fellow Israelis, and their infrastructure can be appalling or even nonexistent, especially in “unrecognized villages,” such as the one in which Abokaf lives.

Unrecognized villages is the term used for Bedouin areas that Israeli authorities do not officially acknowledge. Israel does not provide these areas with basic services. Authorities hope the families in these communities will agree to move to one of the “recognized” Bedouin villages and towns in the Negev.

A friend of Abokaf, Siham Elmour, also is studying medicine. Elmour, 19, considers herself fortunate because her family has supported her decision, despite the years of training.

“My father knows my life will be one of study, but the family also knows it is something that will be helpful in the world,” said Elmour, one of 11 children.

Her family also hopes that she will close some of the gaps between Bedouin society and the rest of Israel. Elmour and three of her sisters — also students at Ben-Gurion — are among the new wave of confident and educated young Bedouin women.

Elmour said she believes that growing up under difficult circumstances may foster the urge to make a difference.

“We are going to try to solve the problems because we come from within the culture,” she said.

The Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben-Gurion helps to coordinate the university experience for the Bedouin students. The center is charged with advancing higher education among the Bedouin and provides scholarships, counseling and special university preparation programs for high school students and graduates.

Established a decade ago with the help of Robert Arnow, a New York City real estate developer and former chairman of the university’s board, the center also aims to promote academic research about Bedouins.

“For an American Jew to be identified with Bedouins in the Negev is very important,” Arnow said at a ceremony this month marking the institute’s 10th birthday. “It has to do with values, Jewish values.”

The university has gone from having almost no Bedouin students two decades ago to 420 male and female Bedouin students today. Before 1990, there was only one female graduate student. Since 2000, many more have gone on to do graduate work.

The university is especially proud of its first female Bedouin student to graduate as a medical doctor. Dr. Rania al-Oqbi graduated last year and is now doing her residency in obstetrics and gynecology, hoping to increase the presence of Bedouin women in the health field.

Most female Bedouin students focus on the humanities and social sciences, though the school is trying to interest male and female students in studying science and technology.

As Bedouin society becomes more integrated into the modern Israeli market, more Bedouin students need to learn scientific fields, said Ismael Abu-Saad, director of the university’s Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. The center also strives to increase the number of Bedouin students preparing for such professions as nursing, physical therapy and social work, much-needed services in Bedouin communities.

Schools in Bedouin areas can be substandard, creating a challenge for students who seek university admission. To help such students, Ben-Gurion University has created yearlong preparatory programs in fields including medicine and social work.

Abokaf said of the preparatory program: “It helped us prove ourselves.”

She and many of her Bedouin peers are often found at the university’s main library using the books and computers — electricity can be scarce in their villages. Some students described having to study by candlelight at home and being asked to help with younger siblings instead of focusing on their studies.

Saffa Algaar, 23, is one of just two female Bedouin students in the geography department. Families have been reluctant to let their daughters major in the subject, because it involves field trips, some of them overnight, to various parts of the country. Algaar said family members have backed her academic choice, though when she travels they remind her that they are only as far as her cellular phone.

“They let me go, but they don’t stop calling, asking, ‘Where are you? What are you doing? When will you be coming home?'” she said.

Yet in talking about her family’s economic plight and the work her mother has done to help fund her studies, Algaar said, “When our economic situation improves, everything else will also improve.”

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Israel confronts shared future with Bedouin citizens


At first glance, Um Batin seems almost familiar. It’s as if you’ve glimpsed something like it before in a TV docudrama, or on the glossy pages of National Geographic or as part of a news clip on CNN. It’s part Middle Eastern, part African. It’s part dust bowl, part fledgling village. It speaks of poverty, though there’s a gentle mood to the place, as if no one there is really complaining about their lot — almost as if they’ve picked it themselves.

And they have, in a way.

Um Batin, deep in the sandy, rocky terrain that is Israel’s Negev Desert, is a Bedouin Arab community of 4,000 people. Up until two years ago, Um Batin (“One Hill”) was considered an unrecognized village in Israel, meaning land claims had not been officially settled with the government, and hence all building was technically illegal and subject to demolition. The village’s status also meant that it was ineligible for basic municipal services, like running water, electricity, garbage removal, sewage systems, paved roads, even a high school.

Yet the Bedouin are full Israeli citizens, comprising about 80,000 people in northern Israel and 180,000 in the south, roughly 25 percent of the entire Negev population. They are entitled to the rights of Israeli Jews — that is if they could just stay put.

A nomadic people, “Bedouin” is the general name for Arabic-speaking tribes in the Middle East and North Africa that originate from the Arabian Peninsula, the Jazirat al-Arab. Before 1948, Bedouin were for generations the only residents of the Negev, a land mass that makes up some 60 percent of present-day Israel but comprises less than 10 percent of the total population.

About 15 million Bedouin live in the Middle East, including North Africa, and they have one of the highest birthrates in the world. Bedouin females, who typically marry before 20, have six to nine children, on average, with polygamy still practiced (Islam allows up to four wives). Two wives are not uncommon, even in Israel in the 21st century. With the husband and resulting children, families of nearly two-dozen members share a lifestyle and often an actual household.

That makes it a force to be reckoned with, according to professor Alean Al-Krenawi, chairman of the Spitzer department of social work, and director of the Regional Research and Development Center for the Bedouin Society at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who provided the statistics.

“My father used to say, ‘You have to walk with the wind,'” Al-Krenawi said. “Well, the Israelis, they were working against the wind. They were working with the Bedouin, and they didn’t understand them. Slowly, they’ve started to change their thinking and adapt Western models to ones that fit the Arab people.”

In the mid-1960s, the government attempted to settle some of the Negev Bedouin. It planned a development project in the south called Tel Sheva — not too far from the Jewish town of Beersheva, now a burgeoning city of nearly 200,000 — and started to build houses and an infrastructure to situate tribes. The problem was that nobody consulted the Bedouin, who didn’t want or ask for the homes. They simply weren’t interested in such a sedentary existence. The place was left empty for quite a while; “it was a big mistake,” said Al-Krenawi, himself Bedouin.

Eventually, the second generation of Israeli Bedouin, those coming of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s, did start to move in to Tel Sheva and six other recognized villages: Rahat (now a city of about 40,000), Segev Shalom, Hura, Lakiya, Kifssa and Arara. Today, about one-half of Negev Bedouin live in these areas. Tel Sheva, the first development, now with more than 12,000 residents, remains the least successful.

The professor explained that there are crucial problems: a dramatic shift from living in tents and caring for land and animals to moving into contemporary abodes, coupled with no economy, few jobs and large families to educate. Many subsist on “social security,” Israel’s name for welfare, which he said is hardly enough to support 12 children.

The Bedouin were “pushed to the margins of society; they were left out,” Al-Krenawi said. “Joblessness is among the highest in Israel. It’s a big welfare population. It’s a disaster.”

The question, he continued, is one of the future: “Where are you taking this portion of society?”

“A Ticking Time Bomb”

Critics say the government has ignored the entire Negev since the founding of Israel in 1948 and is only now starting to realize its potential. It was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who saw possibility in the desert, so much so that when he retired from public office, he and his wife, Paula, moved to Sde Boker, in the central Negev below Beersheva, where they are buried. Ben-Gurion’s words sound surprisingly relevant these days: “The Negev offers the greatest opportunity to accomplish everything from the beginning.”

Signs of Bedouin movement do exist. It is a population that votes. It’s one that serves in the Israeli army and doubles its size every 13 years. It’s one that the average Israeli Jew realizes has been left out of the picture, not because of religion or politics, but because of lifestyle choices and because the Bedouin were never really considered at all.

Nine more recognized villages are in the works at various levels and stages of development. A regional council for this area, the Abu Bazma Council led by the government-appointed Amram Kolagy, has been set up and a modern building constructed to meet its needs. (All new towns in Israel, no matter the ethnicity or religion, get a Jewish mayor appointed by the Interior Ministry for a period of five years. After that, the mayor can be re-elected for another term or the town can choose its own new leader. The idea is for an experienced person to jump-start civic systems and get them up and running before handing them over to local authorities.) New schools, which will incorporate both boys and girls, are being built to accommodate the youth, which make up 60 percent of Negev Bedouin.

Kolagy, who is of Iraqi descent and well-versed in Arab customs, noted that the problems are more severe than first thought. He acknowledged that Israel made mistakes with the Bedouin from the start– “when the government system trickles down, a lot is lost along the way” — but his presence represents a new process, one that is working within the culture to make changes at the grass-roots level.