By Ben Sousa, Yahel Social Change Program
I love the Negev. I love the colors of the rocks, I love the geological history of the Arava valley and the Makteshim and every unique rock feature that can be found in that relatively small area. I love how open it feels, when you stare out and see mountains to climb or rolling hills of gravel and sand. I spent a good month and a half wandering in that desert over the course of my life, and so I understand why there would be a conflict over it; why people can uproot their lives and move out to lone farms and why Bedouin are so tied to it. It is a special place.
With that said…let me tell you about our seminar in the Negev.
Our seminar in the north was primarily focused on community and learning the history of different communities in Israel (traditional and urban kibbutzim, living with others of different denominations, non-Jewish communities in the north, etc). This recent seminar in the south had its focus on the land and issues springing from it. Land in the Negev is disputed between the Bedouin and the Israeli government, and they are still far from reaching a settlement. In many places, the Bedouin have established villages or have had villages there for many years, but the Israeli government does not legally recognize them. This means that the villages do not appear on the map and water and electricity is not provided. I am simplifying it, but I really do recommend that if you are interested, to look into the issue. It was very fascinating to learn about and part of the reason I wanted to write about our trip.
There were times when I would stand out at the edge of Sde Boker (where we stayed for most of our seminar and where Ben Gurion retired later in life) and look out across the rocks and cliffs and just think. There is so much complexity to an area that could almost be mistaken for a wasteland. The Negev comprises more than half of the state of Israel. It was part of the dream of Ben Gurion that pioneers would settle in the Negev, advancing the sciences and other lofty goals in what most people considered no-man’s land. He believed in this vision so much that he moved down to the Negev himself in his retirement…but not many people followed.
I love the Negev. I said that before. I understand why people choose to live there, but I could never imagine myself moving to such an empty region. I doubt I would have been one of those who followed Ben Gurion into the desert. One of our stops over the seminar was a lone farm, owned and operated by a husband and wife pair. They were restaurant owners in Tel Aviv before they decided to uproot themselves from their old lives and move to the desert, given nothing but an address. They built themselves a house, installed what utilities they needed, and built their own infrastructure. They chose to go out in the middle of nowhere and build a farm because they felt such a strong connection to the land.
The Bedouin feel that connection, too. They stay in the villages where they have little rather than move. Whether they have the options to leave or not, that is not as important as the sentiment they hold. They want to live there, in what they see as their land. When asked if he would move if he was offered land somewhere else, one of our hosts adamantly claimed that it was not just land, but his land that he desired.
While we spent most of our nights in Sde Boker, we spent that last night in the unrecognized village of Qasr-a-Sir. We slept in what I would almost consider ‘outside’. It had a light on a pole, three walls and a fourth that you could pull down, and a roof. It was shelter, but it was not what I think of as a home. The real reason I say it was outside for me are the dogs and roosters crowing at all hours that kept me up all night. This is a recurring event, whenever I sleep outside in Israel. Every time we’ve done it as far as I can remember, there has been some rooster crowing in the middle of the night that wakes me up. I would suggest a ban on all roosters but I don’t think that would go far in the Knesset.
There is so much that I’m leaving out, so much that I cannot adequately describe. For such a small geographic region, the Negev has such scope that I cannot help but get swept away in it. I sometimes imagine myself just wandering about the wilderness and taking it all in, but that is just a dream. At the end of the day, I could never live in the desert forever. But it is important to remember that people DO live in the desert today. They don’t only exist in the past.
The Negev is a place that is full of potential. By the end of the seminar, I could almost see what Ben Gurion imagined and how far we are from reaching it. They could build something fantastic with Bedouin and Jews. But first, they need to resolve the land issues so that they can actually build.