Ben Oppedijk volunteers at YEDID
Merle Feld’s poem We All Stood Together illustrates a striking reflection between the Jewish people of Biblical Israel and the Jews of Israel today. Feld mourns and condemns the exclusion of women from the Jewish faith. Her fragmented lines give a sense of a voice struggling to be heard. In arguably the greatest Jewish project of the modern day – the state of Israel – many citizens’ voices are repressed despite attempts to construct a progressive and inclusive society. I volunteer with Yedid, a social justice charity headquartered in Jerusalem who state: “Our work to reduce poverty is at the heart of everything we do.” They offer civic and legal advice in areas such as debt management, social security, housing rights and family law while working with and lobbying the government for wider policy change to tackle some of the causes of poverty in Israel. My job has been to research funding bodies abroad and create material to advertise Yedid’s projects with Israeli Arabs.
One group in Israel that offers a particularly poignant example of stifled voices in the Jewish state is the Bedouin. Since before the creation of the state of Israel, these nomadic people have been buffeted by the various empires that have swept through the Mashriq and Arabia. Their cultural needs have been ignored in the attempts by the Israeli state to urbanise them, ignoring their traditions as tribal herders. I visited the largest Bedouin city, Rahat, which is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped cities in the country. The Bedouin who live here have been struggling to reconcile their traditional tribal customs with the difficulties of insertion at the very bottom of Israeli society. In the Knesset right now, a bill is being voted on that addresses the issue of unregistered Bedouin settlements in the Negev, which are both illegal and lack the most basic provisions for living there – many of these settlements are built around Rahat. Bedouin are largely opposed to the proffered solution: demolishing all the unregistered settlements and relocating the families to permanent residences built for them. Many Israelis and certainly very few visitors to Israel have any sense of the distress this enforced change in lifestyle has caused the Bedouin community.
Any form of government is inevitably going to exclude the voice of some of the people it serves, but Israel could do much more to ensure that Bedouin have equal rights in law as well as in practice. Yedid is helping to fill the huge gap between legal right and actual access in Rahat. Its projects there, such as those to help Bedouin women create their own businesses, are starting to right the wrongs of a system that has ignored the true needs of the Bedouin community in Israel. Bedouin women often need to be escorted by a male family member if they even want to leave the house, so the ability to work from home gives them the opportunity to relieve their families from financial difficulties while still honouring their traditions. Hopefully as the people of Rahat become more empowered, they will be able to continue being a dynamic Bedouin community while participating in the Israeli state. I imagine that respecting other parties in Israeli society could be nothing but a positive step in the direction of recreating the holy time that Feld longs for.
This year’s Volunteer & Study program is supported in part by a grant from Repair the World.