This blog post is written by Samara Kohn, a Yahel Social Change fellow living and working in Rishon LeZion
: the perimeter of a circle or other closed curve also : the perimeter of a polygon
: the external boundary or surface of a body
: the outward bounds of something as distinguished from its internal regions or center : CONFINES
: an area lying beyond the strict limits of a thing
Merriam Webster Dictionary.
As we stayed in Sde Boker, Israel, the place where Ben Gurion and his wife retired after he served in office, we learned about his vision to “make the desert bloom” and the reality of the Negev region. Ben Gurion’s vision to populate the Negev and make it a booming enterprise did not completely fail, as there are some cities, developing towns, and groups of people living in the desert. However, Yahel’s Negev seminar illuminated how living on the periphery of Israel has kept the region from blossoming the way Ben Gurion dreamed it would.
As our seminar began, the Yahel fellows met with a few speakers representing the Bedouin community, or tribes of Arabic people who are indigenous to both Israel and the surrounding area. Despite their long history of living in the land of Israel and sacrifices for the country, such as sending many of their young men to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, the Bedouin community finds themselves struggling on the periphery of society.
Traditionally a nomadic or semi-nomadic group, the Bedouin community now finds themselves unable to live exactly where they want. Based on Israeli law, land that is not privately owned belongs to the state. Because such a small percentage of land in the country is privately owned, the state can use the land as it sees fit. This law, however, causes a great deal of strife within the Bedouin community as many do not have written documentation that they owned and lived on certain areas of land due to their nomadic lifestyle. Many Bedouins understandably would like to live on land they find historically significant, but find that this causes the Israeli government to step in and demolish their properties. Though the State of Israel has built several townships to rehouse Bedouins who have been kicked off their property, this action has not solved the problem. If anything, the problem continues to worsen as the Bedouin youth is becoming increasingly more anti-Israel and the Israeli media represents Bedouins as criminals only interested in drugs, violence, and causing disturbances. Though it is certainly true that the highest crime rate in Israel occurs in Bedouin communities, their representation in the media is extremely biased and works to keep them on the periphery of Israeli society.
Being on the periphery of society does not only come through the social, ethnic, or racial group one belongs to, but also based on one's physical location. As our seminar continued, we learned this while visiting the beautiful town of Mitzpe Ramon. Founded in the 1950s, Mitzpe Ramon is sometimes only known as the place people stop in the desert as they make their way to Eilat. If one looks deeper, however, they will find a town with a strong community, a flourishing art scene, and some of the most beautiful nature in the state of Israel. When speaking with the residents of Mitzpe Ramon, all of them expressed a deep love for the town and no desire to return to the Tel Aviv area. They did, however, discuss a few ways that living on the periphery of the country makes their lives harder.
Because of the distance from Tel Aviv, Mitzpe Ramon and other populated areas of the Negev suffer from a lack of infrastructure. Though they have access to trains and roads, it is not uncommon for trains to completely pass by stations and leave people stranded. Likewise, the roads in the Negev are not repaired as often as they should be, leaving many unable to get to where they need to go. In fact, one of the speakers we had planned to meet with could not come because the rainy weather made the roads untravellable! Another way that living on the periphery can affect your life is access to resources. Growing up in the Chicago area, I often take for granted that I have several amazing hospitals to choose from if something bad were to happen. In Mitzpe Ramon, however, there is only one hospital used for emergencies and it is about an hour away by car. From one of our speakers, we also learned that there is only one grocery store in all of Mitzpe Ramon. Unfortunately, this means that the store has a monopoly in the area, making the prices for simple foods higher than anywhere else in Israel.
From my experience in the Negev, it is clear that the area has great historical and personal significance to many different groups. I, like Ben Gurion, would like to see the Negev bloom. However, my definition of bloom is different from his. Instead of a highly populated area, I see no problem with leaving the Negev a quiet, secluded, and beautiful place. To make the area bloom, Israel needs to respect the people there and their needs just as much as those living in Tel Aviv. After all, Israel can only be as strong as its weakest communities and infrastructure.