September 18, 2019

Diversity in the Desert

For Dr. Jonathan Friedlander, the photography exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History evokes vivid memories of the Sunday morning in 1991 he arrived at the central bus station in Be’er Sheva and discovered a place where worlds collide.

In the photos, soldiers toting Uzis await transportation to army bases in the south. In an open-air market, an Ethiopian Jewish woman in a brightly colored dress heatedly argues over the price of a chicken with a partially veiled Bedouin woman clad in dark robes. Elderly Russian war veterans sell Soviet medals to bargain-hunters; goats and camels are startled by rumbling convoys of flatbed semis hauling battle tanks.

“Transitions: Russians, Ethiopians and Bedouins in Israel’s Negev Desert” captures a unique moment in Israeli history: the year that tens of thousands of newly-arrived Russians and Ethiopians streamed into the desert and struggled to settle on the periphery of Israel’s urban culture. There, they encountered another group in transition: indigenous Bedouins moving from nomadic encampments to towns created for them in the desert.