Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
Devorah Brous' open letter to the JNF
An Open Letter to the Jewish National Fund
Note: Brous' letter is two-plus years old. While JNF has made some steps towards addressing her concerns, there is much still to be done. Our campaign aims to act as a watchdog and to complete that process. We've moved a copy of the letter onto this site because it appears to be no longer accessible through Bustan.org.
Not long ago, the Baltimore Jewish Times published an advertisement for the Jewish National Fund promoting its Blueprint Negev campaign to “make the desert bloom.” Blueprint Negev aims to bring 500,000 new Jewish residents to settle the Negev in a mere ten-year framework. The JNF advertisement makes mention of the 170,000 Bedouin living in sub-standard conditions in the Negev, and claims that the ‘Blueprint’ will benefit them economically. This is cosmetic.
How will the Bedouin benefit? The campaign aims to draw highly-skilled American, Canadian, and Israeli Jews to populate the Negev. The approach assumes that Western-style modernization is a comprehensive cure-all for the ails of traditional communities, and former Bedouin shepherds will thankful for temporary job opportunities in constructing the 25 new Jewish communities.
With all the investment flooding the desert in the coming years, we must continue to challenge the Blueprint (and all other projects) to apply principles of sustainability, both environmentally and socially, as called for in the platform of the Green Zionist Alliance.
To ‘redeem the Negev,’ the government extended Bedouin citizens promises of equality with their fellow Israelis, and in the 1960s began the process of constructing urban towns to girdle tens of thousands of Bedouin and halt what the law refers to as their “intruding” on State land. Government measures have since severely restricted the traditional Bedouin way of life, curtailed their access to land, and denied them the most basic services due to every citizen.
Today, the Bedouin live inside an area referred to as the Siyag (fence) and share some 2.5% of the Negev with Israel's nuclear reactors, 19 agro and petrochemical factories, an oil terminal, closed military zones, quarries, a toxic waste incinerator, multiple cell towers, industrial zones, dump sites, an electric power plant, several airports, a prison, and 2 rivers of raw sewage. Due to constant exposure to toxicity and radiation, the risk of cancer for residents in this area is an astonishing 65%, according to the Israeli government’s Ministry of Health (2004).
A deep cleavage already exists in the Negev, and the impact of forming 25 new Jewish communities (replete with shopping malls, parks, and swimming pools) that flank decrepit Jewish development towns and Bedouin villages will likely exacerbate this cleavage. Consider the contrast between Omer, a Jewish suburb in the desert and the Bedouin town nearby, Tel Sheva. It’s a far cry from the abundance in Omer, replete with grassy lawns and gardens; Tel Sheva’s roads are unpaved and the sun bakes grassless, gravel-filled lots. At the start of the new millennium, Tel Sheva ranked 3rd lowest in the government’s official ranking of the socio-economic status of towns in Israel. The Jewish town of Omer ranked the 3rd wealthiest town in Israel. By all indications, Omer should be the most livable town in Israel, yet it has the highest rate of car theft in the country. As a result of stark inequality, tensions between the dry and dusty Bedouin towns and the lush Jewish suburbs around them have increased. Many fear that this Blueprint Plan will perpetuate a dynamic where pockets of wealth neighbor pockets of severe poverty.
Since the seven Bedouin towns built by the Israeli government were planned without business districts, the drug trade and theft represent viable economic opportunity for Bedouin youth. As a result, Bedouin living outside the government-built towns have chosen to remain in villages unrecognized by the Israeli government to avoid the crime-riddled towns. Although Bedouin citizens in unrecognized villages are denied access to basic municipal services (including water, electricity, sewage, and health care) over half the Bedouin population still prefers living in the desert’s open space, than packing into congested towns, relinquishing their land claims and their livestock for a house with toilets that occasionally flush.
The JNF is an exceptional organization - doing vital, unparalleled work. Certain aspects of the Blueprint focus on strengthening the periphery, other aspects convey flagrant disregard for the people and the desert by making only cosmetic contributions to Bedouin, Ethiopian, and Russian Jewish communities. We believe these challenges can be met, and call on the JNF to expand the breadth of vision to one that is inclusive, and sustainable.
Our Jewish tradition - steeped in social justice - challenges us to prevent profound social and economic discrimination in our cities, and in our desert. We must make certain that funds raised for the Blueprint will serve the future of the whole Negev, not just the sum of its Jewish parts, by helping to counteract sources of disease, poverty, drug abuse, and alienation so rampant in the region. Only by addressing these very real problems can a major health crisis, and potential civil conflict, be averted. Collaboration with advocates of sustainable and equitable initiatives will lead to a stronger Negev, and a stronger Israel. One such advocate is Bustan, an organization of Jews and Bedouin working for many years for a more sustainable future in the Negev. The Negev will only bloom when all of its stakeholders are included as its stewards.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006