Supporting the Bedouins in Israel

Last month, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, circulated the important letter below, supporting the rights of Bedouins in Israel.  This week, Haaretz included this update.

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism whose nearly 900 congregations encompass more than 1.3 million Reform Jews across North America and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents more than 2,000 Reform rabbis, we write to express our concern about legislation currently pending in the Knesset commonly known as the “Begin Plan,” which will move large numbers of Bedouin from unrecognized villages to recognized ones.

While the plan would hereto recognize certain unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev and address longstanding land ownership disputes between the Bedouin and the state, the bill has generated a great deal of controversy, focused largely on the displacement of at least 30,000 Bedouin in approximately two dozen communities. The amount of compensation provided to those who are being moved from their homes to new recognized villages is also a source of controversy.

We understand the state’s desire to resolve the ongoing land disputes with the Bedouin and ensure the well-being of those currently living in areas without regular access to water, electricity and other services and we believe that regulation is needed in the Negev. However, adopting the Begin Plan at this point is premature. It is clear that more research is necessary to investigate the possible consequences of this plan and its implementation.

While the living conditions in many existing and unrecognized Bedouin communities are below those standards available in surrounding recognized villages, it is imperative that we remember that these areas remain home to those who live within them. Any plan to resettle members of the Bedouin community must be developed with leaders of that community rather than be forced upon them. The sense of displacement, along with potential for increased poverty and violence, that will accompany the dismantling of unrecognized villages is very real and must be treated with the utmost sensitivity.

In 2001, the Central Conference of American Rabbis called upon rabbis and congregations to “address the issue of social justice in Israel for…Bedouin” and encouraged “the North American Jewish community to work with the Israeli government in addressing these issues.” And in a 2009 resolution, the Union for Reform Judaism declared support for “the Israeli government in addressing the issues of unrecognized Bedouin villages, equal rights for Bedouin citizens, and needed infrastructure in the form of health, education, and other essential services.” In addition to securing fair compensation for those members of the Bedouin community who will be displaced, it is imperative that the government take great care to extend services to those Bedouin who are resettled in recognized villages to protect their quality of life.

We urge you to suspend the plan currently under discussion and allow for greater exploration of its implications and impact, particularly the displacement of existing Bedouin communities.

Rabbi David Saperstein