Today we spent the day in southern Israel in the Negev Desert region visiting different living communities. The first place we went was Be’er Sheva, one of the area’s main cities. It was very different from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It was much more run down, and much older looking. Stores were also cheaper. You could tell that the people from this area were a bit lower class. There was also a military compound in the city, so there were many soldiers walking around. We walked around and had a brief meeting with a local professor at an LGBTQ center. The professor argued that the southern region was entirely shaped by three qualities he labeled “CDE.” The first “C” was colonization, the second “D” was diversity (meaning different ethnicities of Jews mixed with Arabs) and the third “E” was economic development. We also talked with the center’s staff, who claimed that the greatest difficulty facing LGBTQ people in this region was daily life, which is very different from the much more open and accepting Tel Aviv.
After Be’er Sheva, we drove out to a legal Israeli development township, Yeruham. It was out in the desert, with nothing surrounding it but a small Bedouin village. It started as a town of shacks where Israelis would put darker skinned Eastern Jews in an attempt to spread out the Israeli population from the central cities. It eventually grew into what it is today, a modern suburbia with red tiled roof homes and subsidized apartments. Everything the people need is within the township, including shopping and employment. Many of the people move here to show mild discontent with the settlements in the West Bank. These development townships are built legally in Israeli territory, making them all-Jewish communities without the illegality of settlements. I think it was nice to know that such a community existed, and it gave me a sense of hope. But despite this, I personally couldn’t live there (and I’m sure, along with many others) because it is too rural and disconnected from any sort of city and excitement. I wouldn’t be able to handle such isolation, and I feel that this is what makes it difficult for many people to move here to make the community larger. The area is also trying to grow as a tourist destination, as a local woman told us in a presentation, but I feel that this isolation might make this difficult for tourists as well. It seems that there isn’t much to see but the crater, which was breathtakingly beautiful but easily done in a day.
After we stopped to look at the crater, we drove off to a kibbutz, which is a socialist commune. In total, there are about 380 kibbutzim in Israel, with about 20 of which are in cities. Students go to communal schools and houses are shared and therefore don’t have fenced in yards. Theoretically, all income is shared and distributed evenly. What I found ironic was that we were told we were walking around one of the “nicer” neighborhoods, which would be impossible if everyone and everything is supposed to be equal in the kibbutz. If this were true, every neighborhood would be equally nice. Perhaps it is my personal bias preventing me from understanding the lifestyle, as I grew up with a very anti-communist father who spent a good deal of time in communist eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain. What was also interesting was the dynamic between the Israeli guides. Though talking in Hebrew, they often argued about the truth behind what the guide from the kibbutz was saying and we were still aware of the tension. Sometimes, the other two guides refused to translate what the kibbutz guide was saying. I felt somewhat out of the bubble, and would have loved to hear every word. These arguments showed that there is also a discrepancy between Israelis’ thoughts and what they believe is the best way of living.
After we went to the kibbutz, we drove down the highway and onto a bumpy dirt road to have dinner at an unrecognized Bedouin village. The Bedouins are semi-nomadic Arabs that have been living in the region for 500-600 years. In Israel, they have set up more permanent villages, but the Israeli government refuses to place the villages and townships (some of which reach 50,000+ people) on the map, and therefore refuses to provide them with basic services such as electricity, water, sewage, and roads. They believe that the Arabs stole the land from them. The man who hosted us for dinner (which was delicious) told many stories of human rights abuses by the Israeli government against the Bedouins in his community. The government knocks down newly built houses, including the one our host built for his son (and you could still see the foundation in his yard). They pay exorbitant amounts of money (which could build plenty of new schools) to transport kids to school as a way of refusing to recognize the community. They do not provide adequate healthcare, and in the case of one woman who needed electricity for an asthma treatment, they refused to provide her with the electricity (even though the cables run alongside the village) she needed and therefore, she passed away. The stories went on and on, and the host had many more he did not tell. Hearing these stories was quite sad, especially when the Bedouins had been so welcoming all evening. Afterwards, we all bought some beautiful hand-embroidered crafts made by the women in the community. At first, our Jewish guide (Aron) and the bus driver, did not want to go into the house with the Arabs and would have rather stayed with the bus. They claimed it was because they were concerned about the bus on the dirt roads, but really we all knew it was because he felt uncomfortable and threatened by the Arabs. Throughout the discussion with the Bedouin host, Aron’s body language said it all; he had a grumpy face, crossed legs and arms, and it seemed as if he couldn’t close in on himself any further. At certain points, the bus driver would interject into what the Bedouin was saying in Arabic. Although we couldn’t understand and Ahmed wouldn’t translate, you could tell he was arguing and raising the tension in the room. Again, the dynamic was quite interesting. It was hard not to feel sorry for the Bedouins after hearing all the stories, so it was strange seeing such resentment from the Aron and the bus driver. But we must also remember that this is what they’ve been taught their whole life and they don’t know how not to be racist. In this sense, it is not their fault and it’s hard to remember this when they say certain things and cause certain tension.
Helga’s Question- After visiting the old city of Be’er Sheva, a kibbutz, a development town/township, and an unrecognized village, analyze how the “South” can be an “alternative space” in comparison to the center of the country (i.e. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv). What makes it alternative? How do you understand the differences within and between each of these sites?
This “South” is alternative in the sense that the living communities are extremely different from the modern and religiously liberal Tel Aviv and the diverse and religious Jerusalem. Be’er Sheva was alternative in the sense that it was much less developed and modern. It was much older, and there weren’t many brand new buildings. The people seemed to have a lower income in general, thus the state of the city. It was also much more open; I saw many more Arabs walking alongside Jews and Israeli soldiers. I think this made it the most open city we went to in terms of ethnic diversity, and everyone seemed to be living under the same conditions. The development town reminded me of a typical settlement in the West Bank, especially in terms of appearance, but it was an alternative in the sense that it was perfectly legal under international law. They provided the same all-Jewish community with everything one would need inside the township as would a settlement in the West Bank, but the people themselves were more opposed to the illegality of settlements. The kibbutz was an extreme alternative to the rest of the places we have visited. It wasn’t a modern of built up city, but a open community with lots of open yards and walking paths. It was an alternative in every sense of the word; even the way people work and live is alternative. It was a socialist community, versus the typical capitalist towns and cities we had seen up until that point. In fact, I had never really seen a community like the kibbutz. The unrecognized Bedouin village was also an alternative in every sense of the word. It was very “third world” and lacked all the basic modern amenities because of the Israeli government. The people lived in basic “huts” made out of concrete, corrugated aluminum sheeting, and sometimes even tarps. Their electricity came from solar panels and generators at night. They didn’t even have roads, just dirt paths packed down over time. Of course, there were some houses that were nicer than others, and even an area of the village that lived in a socialist communal way much like the kibbutz. Overall, each community was very different from each other. Some were considered legal (like the Israeli development township, Be’er Sheva, and the kibbutz), while others were considered illegal (like the Bedouin village). Some were more modern and developed (like the township and kibbutz), while others were underdeveloped (Be’er Sheva, in comparison to the northern cities; and the kibbutz). They were all similar in the sense that they were so different from the central cities. Their alternative ways of life is what makes the South one contiguous area.