Israel should freeze Bedouin relocation bill


The writing was on the wall. The Prawer bill to regulate Bedouin settlement in the Negev will not go through quietly. Not because it is a really bad bill, and not because it fails to provide a critical and necessary solution for the regulation of unrecognized Bedouin localities, but mainly because of the attitude and approach taken by its authors and the Israeli establishment toward the Bedouin population.

The Israeli plan to relocate Bedouins cannot be properly discussed before a series of actions to mend the rift between them and Israeli authorities rebuild trust.

This past Saturday, Nov. 30, even before bulldozers fanned out to demolish unrecognized Bedouin localities and Israeli border and municipal police were called in to forcibly remove tens of thousands of Bedouin residents from their homes, the anger and fury had already erupted. 

In a series of demonstrations in various locations throughout Israel, dozens of police officers were injured in arresting scores of Bedouin protesters, who view Israel today as having set itself a goal of forcibly robbing their land.

In an interview I conducted for Al-Monitor on Nov. 26, Atia al-Asam, chairman of the Regional Council of Unrecognized Bedouin Villages, explained that the neglect and discrimination of the Bedouin population are preventing the Bedouins from accepting the principle of regulation put forward by the Prawer bill’s authors and planners. He maintains that the Bedouins have been methodically shunted to the sidelines of Israel, with no distinction made between their recognized and unrecognized localities.

But the rift between Israeli society and the Bedouins is not only the result of neglect and discrimination. Most of the Bedouin population in the Negev does not believe that Israel is truly seeking an appropriate settlement solution because of the daily war of attrition that has been taking place for years in their villages with members of the Green Patrol, Border Police and Israel Police, who arrive to demolish illegal homes. Thus, whole Bedouin clans, whose fathers served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in patrol units and were skilled military trackers, view the Israeli establishment as ungrateful for their service.

Those sent to demolish the illegal homes the Bedouins have built — because Israel for years has put off finding a proper solution, from their perspective — wore official uniforms. The demolitions are called “operations,” during which police and border police suddenly arrive on the scene to carry out their work and clash with local residents, who witness their homes being demolished before their very eyes. Bedouin children and youngsters watch from the sidelines, perceiving the enforcers of law, representatives of the Israeli establishment, as the enemy. They will not be enlisting in the IDF as their fathers or older brothers had. The friendship that had existed since the establishment of the state has turned into hostility. The rift has become a regrettable fact.

On the Israeli side, the dominant terminology is military, concerning the struggle over land. It was in this spirit that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman posted the following on his Facebook page, on Nov. 30: “We are not dealing with a social problem or housing crisis,” the minister declared, “but a struggle over the land, as it was even back in the 19th century upon the establishment of the first [Jewish] communities. … We are fighting for the national lands of the Jewish people, and there are those who are working intently to rob us of them and take control of them by force.”

Lieberman is not alone. Israeli discourse on Bedouin lands in recent years has revolved around “occupation,” “overtaking” and “losing the Negev.” Without official settlement solutions, however, and given the natural growth of the Bedouin population, the Bedouins have been left with no other choice than to build illegally and significantly expand unrecognized settlements.

The unexplained deferral in finding settlement solutions for the Bedouins, who were left outside the seven municipalities built in the 1970s, has created a deep rift with that population as a whole. During the demonstrations last week, protesters shouted, “Settler state,” referring to the attitude shown by the Israeli establishment toward the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and consideration for natural population growth in them, contrasting sharply with its dismissiveness toward the natural growth of the Bedouin population in the southern region of the Negev over the past 20 years.

Thus, social anxiety, a desire to preserve culture and tradition and differences of opinion over compensation and ownership of land have slowly grown into a battle over land — a battle between Bedouin land and Jewish land. The tension and bad blood are turning any solution, no matter how fair, into yet another maneuver in the war of attrition being waged over territory. Given this sentiment, there is no chance that the Prawer bill will pass without incident. Suspicion and hostility have overshadowed all else.

Therefore, before blood is spilled and the rift between the Bedouins and Israeli society becomes a terrible tragedy, everything must be put on hold and reconsidered together with the representatives of the Bedouins. There is no reason to insist on promoting the bill no matter what.

The Prawer Plan is not a bad plan. It may be lacking, because it does not take into account that Bedouins living in unrecognized villages do not believe the government is proposing a plan based on a sincere desire to ease their anguish and improve their future. At the foundation of the plan’s outline, however, some unrecognized villages were supposed to become permanent, recognized settlements that will receive development and infrastructure resources.

To get to the point of voluntary, unforced settlement, the parties need to rebuild trust in one another. This can be done in several ways: freeze promotion of the bill in its second or third reading; stop talking in terms of war over the land and start speaking in terms of peace; include Bedouin representatives — the heads of the councils and villages — in the talks on the details of the law; rezone the land to allow construction of permanent localities; and build trust between the Bedouin population and the Israeli establishment and society as a whole.

The Bedouins’ representatives, without exception, agree that solutions must be found to regulate Bedouin settlement of the Negev and admit that the current situation needs to be changed and addressed. Much work needs to be done, however, even before maps are drawn and compensation payments are calculated.


Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse (al-monitor.com), where a version of this originally appeared. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for his work. Reprinted with permission.

Valley Cities JCC opens doors at new site — a church



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On July 8, when Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC) began operating at its new site a former church in the heart of a heavily Latino area of Van Nuys it did so with little fanfare. Instead, the focus was on making the reception comfortable and warm.

Executive Director Marla Minden and the center’s staff greeted parents with bagels and baked goods as they arrived at the new building with their children for summer camp.

“It wouldn’t ever be the building,” Minden said. “It’s what’s inside the building. They came; they looked. We made it so welcoming.”

The recent relocation to Van Nuys capped a four-year struggle filled with uncertainty for Valley Cities Jewish Community Center, which sought to remain in its mural-adorned building in Sherman Oaks after becoming independent in 2004. Board members from Friends of Valley Cities spent several years negotiating to purchase the property, which the center had called home since 1959, only to have it sold last year to a neighboring school, The Help Group.

With the move to 14701 Friar St. complete, Valley Cities JCC is beginning a new chapter in its nearly 50-year history.

“I’m happy it’s there,” said Stephanie Steinhaus, a preschool parent. “We have a home.”

The 20,000-square-foot property until recently housed a Latino Presbyterian congregation, Centro Cristiano Para La Familia, as well as the Korean People’s Community Church and the International Institute of Los Angeles, which for 29 years helped new immigrants in the Van Nuys area.

The relocation to a non-Jewish neighborhood hasn’t dissuaded its member families or the organizations that rent space from using the center, according to its organizers.

Before the move, Friends of Valley Cities JCC estimated that about 1,000 people used its Sherman Oaks building each week, and the nursery school’s various classes were either wait-listed or at capacity. Minden said the families and the groups followed and that nothing has changed in terms of programming.

“We didn’t lose any families,” she said. “We opened with 60 children in preschool and 60 children in the day camp.”

While parents say driving the additional three miles to the new center just off Victory and Van Nuys boulevards isn’t a problem, the largely Latino area has been an adjustment for some.

“Is it my most favorite neighborhood? No,” parent Kathy Weiss Squires said. “But a neighborhood is what you make it.”

Minden said the center is leasing the property, with an option to buy in five years, but organizers anticipate they will purchase within the first two years. Fundraising by Friends of Valley Cities has provided the center with enough money to cover the first two years, and a capital campaign will begin in September to purchase the property, she said.

Michael Brezner, Friends of Valley Cities president, said the new location was an accidental find. After negotiations for the Burbank Boulevard property fell apart in 2007, board member Ariel Goldstein’s nanny-housekeeper mentioned the church, which was looking for a buyer.

With assistance from Jewish Community Centers Development Corp., which had sold the Burbank Boulevard property, Friends of Valley Cities signed documents for the new property on May 22, Brezner said.

Although the configuration of the center is different from the Sherman Oaks property, the square footage in Van Nuys is the same. The brick buildings a sanctuary on the west side, offices and classrooms to the north and multipurpose rooms on the east side form a courtyard filled with shady trees.

“The whole flow of the building feels better,” Minden said, adding that the courtyard in the front will lend itself well to a Sukkot celebration.

The first round of property improvements included new landscaping, painting, air-conditioning and security gates in the front and surrounding the playground. A second phase will remove the numerous stained glass images of Jesus from the chapel, which seats 500.

While the center isn’t currently using the chapel, Minden said HBO is considering it as a possible shooting location.

Parking at the new center is comparable to the Sherman Oaks location, which had its spaces impacted by the construction of the Orange Line busway. Three lots surrounding the center provide 90 spaces, and a playground behind the property can be converted to provide additional spaces.

Minden, who started with Valley Cities as a parent, said that the Sherman Oaks property, which saw several additions over its nearly 50 years, had a different feel from the new one.

“There’s something that’s very unique about that building, and there’s something incredibly unique about this building,” Minden said. “It’s very warm, very intimate It feels like home already.”

For more information about the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center, call (818) 786-6310.

Check Out the Library’s New Digs


Sally Hyam didn’t mind working on her birthday. A librarian for the last 19 years at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles (JCLLA), Hyam was actually delighted that some 40 visitors were checking out books and videos at the opening reception celebrating the library’s new location in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd.

"You’re the heart and soul of this library," one woman told Hyam.

"This is the best place," Hyam told The Journal. "It’s just one big happy family."

Unfortunately, "family" might be a more apt word for the library than "community," accounting for JCLLA’s annual traffic. The library still occupies a very marginal space in Los Angeles’ Jewish community of 600,000. Only 150-200 items are checked out daily. In the bigger picture, JCLLA serves a relatively small network of academics and individuals — a glorified extended family.

Abigail Yasgur, JCLLA’s executive librarian and driving force, believes that the nearly 60-year-old library has historically suffered from a lack of aggressive marketing. But JCLLA’s supporters are hoping that, at its new location, Los Angeles’ Jews will discover the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles Peter M. Kahn Memorial, which operates under the Bureau of Jewish Education, a Federation department and the library’s new floormate.

The library, with a staff of four, operates on a $100,000 annual budget. Friends of JCLLA, headed by Judy and Nat Gorman, raises an additional $20,000-$30,000 each year. Currently, the library boasts over 25,000 Jewish books, videos, DVDs and CDs and hosts lectures, readings and family-oriented events.

Like Los Angeles itself, JCLLA has always been saddled by impermanence. Over the years, it has moved around with The Federation, starting at its original 590 N. Vermont Ave. headquarters.

For the last four years, JCLLA shared ground-floor space on Museum Row at 6006 Wilshire with fellow Federation-supported entities the Jewish Historical Library of Southern California and Los Angeles Martyrs Museum.

The long-intended move back into 6505 Wilshire comes with perks. The JCLLA’s staff is excited about the new space, which resembles the stacks at an Ivy League university, with its cozy carpeted floors and window nooks. Many believe that JCLLA’s placement will create a new kind of synergy with its Federation neighbors.

"This is where we belong," said Sandy Bernstein, former JCLLA chair.

"We’re delighted to have it near the Children’s Library and the Bureau [of Jewish Education]," said Jewish Federation President John Fishel.

While Federation brass salutes the JCLLA director’s passion and drive, Fishel did not always see eye to eye with Yasgur. In 1999, Yasgur was clearly frustrated with the state of her library, then at 6006 Wilshire. Yasgur had voiced displeasure over the library’s 5,000-square-feet designation, reduced to 2,500 square feet at 6505 Wilshire. She had lamented that one-third of the library’s collection was in storage.

Today, Yasgur does not view The Federation as a taciturn supporter.

"There’s no rift with The Federation," she said. "I don’t expect the library to be a priority over the Jews in Crisis campaign. John Fishel, [Executive Vice President] Jack Klein and [Vice President of Facilities] Cyndie Ayala have worked very diligently. The library looks great."

Space is no longer an issue either. The proximity to the library’s sister facility, the Slavin Family Children’s Library, will prove, according to its director, Amy Muscoplat, mutually beneficial.

"Now we have most of the collection available and for use with the children’s collection downstairs," said Yasgur, who even reserved a room as a community beit midrash (house of study).

Visitors enjoyed the new location. "It was too cramped at the old space," said Al Schoenberg.

"I come here for the [Jewish] music," said Lorette Ben-Nathan. "This place is more specialized [than public libraries]."

But Yasgur said she would love to see benefactors "step up and provide the base for a large, ongoing enterprise." She envisions a prominent $7 million Pico-Robertson area storefront.

Fishel finds such expectations quixotic.

"I would caution letting the dream carry them away," Fishel said. "I don’t believe they would raise that kind of money. It’s not only raising money for the physical facility, it’s a question of operationally, how are you going to finance it and maintain it."

Yasgur holds onto her long-term goal.

"If we build it, they will come," Yasgur said. "Once people find us, they exclaim, ‘Wow, this is a well-kept secret. I never knew there was a Jewish Community Library.’ Everybody will want to use this library if they know about it."