Israeli Life: Integration in the Desert
The ancient city of Beersheba once served as the crossroads to different cultures. Today, it is home to diverse communities of Arabs and Jews.
Sarab Abu-Rabia-Queder, 30, lives on the 16th floor of a marble-lobbied apartment building in the upscale Beersheba neighborhood of Neve Ze’ev with her husband, Hassan, and their children: Mohammed, 3, and Yazan, 18 months. a Around the same time that Abu-Rabia-Queder gave birth to Yazan, one of her sisters-in-law, who lives in the Bedouin village of Abu-Queder in the Negev Desert with her extended family, also gave birth. “For the first 40 days, everybody took care of her,” Abu-Rabia-Queder said. “They took care of all the cooking and cleaning and child care. All she had to do was rest and breastfeed.” Meanwhile, Abu- Rabia-Queder, who has a Ph.D. in education, had to juggle work—she is turning her doctoral thesis into a book—and family responsibilities without the benefit of the traditional tribal support systems.
But she would have it no other way. The daughter of one of the first Arab families to move into the predominantly Jewish city, Abu-Rabia-Queder grew up in Beersheba and she intends to raise her children there.
Abu-Rabia-Queder and her family are part of the growing upper-middleclass Arab minority in the modern Negev city of Beersheba. There are no official figures, but community activists estimate there are 6,000 to 7,000 Arabs scattered throughout the area out of a total population of around 185,000. The vast majority of the Arabs are Muslim (this includes a small Bedouin community). There are also a few Christian Arabs.
Most families have homes in the better neighborhoods— Neve Ze’ev and Neve Noy, with their stylish, new apartment buildings reminiscent of wealthy north Tel Aviv, or in the Beverly Hills-style villas in Ramot. Virtually all of the Arab working population are educated professionals—doctors, lawyers, university professors, teachers and businesspeople— who moved from northern and central Israel in search of a better life. And on the surface most of them seem to comfortably fit into the city’s social fabric.
“They are integrated into the schools, workplaces and community,” said Meital Zuckerman, a city spokeswoman. “They are part of the population just like any other residents.”
“Relations here are so tolerant, more than anywhere else in Israel,” said Thabet Abu Ras, 52, a lecturer in geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a social activist for the New Israel Fund and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Abu Ras came to the city in 1975 from the village of Qalansawa in central Israel to attend university, and returned to it after a long stay in the United States. “In national elections, 80 to 85 percent of Beersheba votes for right-wing and religious parties out of traditional, not extremist, motives,” he said. “But when you go to the [local] market you hear Umm Kulthum [a celebrated performer of classic Arabic music]. The stall owners are Jews with Arab culture. There is much less racism in Beersheba than in liberal Tel Aviv. My Moroccan neighbors who vote for Shas invited me to their Passover Seder.”
Sigal Shaban, 34, grew up next door to a number of Arab families. “We liked having Arab neighbors, they were good families,” said Shaban, who is working on her master’s degree in philosophy at Ben-Gurion University. “It didn’t matter that they were Arabs.”
Yet the integration and convivial relationships may be only surface level. “Once I wanted to rent an apartment with two Jewish roommates,” recalled Amny Athamny, 26, an Arab graduate student at Ben-Gurion University, “but the owner said he wouldn’t rent it to us because I am an Arab. I was hurt.”
According to Abu Ras, city officials know little about the Arab residents and their needs. (When she was interviewed, Zuckerman initially referred to Arabs as “the Bedouins,” although the latter comprises less than a quarter of the city’s Arab population). There are no local state-supported Arab schools and most of the Arabs in Beersheba send their children to Jewish schools.
However, that situation is about to change: The first Jewish-Arab preschool and kindergarten are scheduled to open in the city in September, offering instruction in both Hebrew and Arabic. The Ministry of Education and the municipality have agreed to open two classes, each with up to 36 students, half Jewish and half Arab, affiliated with the Hand-in-Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. The plan is for the kindergarten classes to evolve into an elementary school.
“We plan to establish a bilingual school and cultural center where we hope everyone, regardless of ethnic and national identity, will find a place and get to know each other as equals,” said Anwar al-Hajaj, head of Hagar, the local association running the school.
Abu-Rabia-Queder’s son Mohammed is one of the first children to be enrolled in the preschool. “This is an opportunity for Arab children to study in their language and learn about their culture, religion and identity,” said Abu- Rabia-Queder.
Safa Abu-Rabia, 28, Abu-Rabia-Queder’s younger sister, said the bilingual school could be an ideal option for her 1-year-old daughter, Nasam, when the time comes. She wishes Beersheba offered more services for its Arab population, but she believes that even if the situation improves, there will still be conflicts because the Hebrew language and Jewish religion prevail.
There are, however, a number of organizations that focus on improving various aspects of Arab life.
In one high-profile campaign, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, petitioned the municipality to open the city’s only mosque to the Arab community; it has been closed to worshipers since 1948. From 1953 to 1991, it served as a museum of the Negev and has been unused and neglected since. The city refuses to open it to worship for security reasons. Adalah was willing to compromise and use the mosque as a cultural, not religious, center, but officials have rejected that offer, too. The case is still pending.
Abu Ras said he put his name on the Adalah petition because the city’s Muslims need religious services, but thinks education is a much bigger issue. “Muslims can pray anywhere,” he said, “but the damage to their children from going to Jewish schools is irreversible.”
As a Muslim in a Jewish culture, added Abu Ras, “you feel like a lot of things don’t belong to you.”
Abu-Rabia believes the Arab identity she is emphasizing at home will protect her daughter from outside influences. Her confidence comes from her own experience as a child.
Abu-Rabia and Abu-Rabia-Queder are the oldest of the five children of Dr. Yunis Abu-Rabia, the first Israeli- trained Bedouin physician, and Jihan, a Palestinian from Nazareth. Jihan’s family fled the village of Luba near Tiberias in 1948; Luba was replaced by Kibbutz Lavi.
Growing up, the girls were very conscious that their parents’ decision to raise them among Jews came at a price: They could go to a Jewish high school, but no parties, no overnight trips and no boyfriends. “We grew up to be proud of ourselves as conservative women,” said Abu-Rabia.
And even though the education they received literally opened the world to them—Abu-Rabia-Queder is the first Bedouin woman to earn a Ph.D., Abu- Rabia is working toward hers—all the siblings decided to become activists on behalf of their people. Abu-Rabia- Queder’s doctoral thesis is about the conflicts educated Bedouin women face when they wish to marry outside tribal limits—a personal and very painful topic.
“Our home was very political, and Arab culture was very strong in it,” said Abu-Rabia. Both sisters are proud of their mixed Bedouin and Palestinian heritage yet also claim they feel comfortable living among Jews.
With her blond-streaked hair, red nail-polished toes and Israeli accent, Abu-Rabia looks like a typical Israeli Jew. She says many of her Jewish friends are bemused when her Arab identity comes out—such as in the traditional Arabic name she gave her daughter and the fact she speaks to her in Arabic.
Hila Shvayfel, 26, one of Abu-Rabia’s Jewish neighbors, has a baby girl a few months younger than Nasam. She and her husband befriended Abu-Rabia and her husband, Salim. “They are neighbors like everyone else and there is no difference,” Shvayfel said. “Safa is Israeli in every sense, and she is a charming person, as is Salim. I’m on maternity leave and dying of boredom so I go to her for coffee a lot. She is my closest friend in the building.”
However, Shvayfel, who is familiar with Arabic from her Egyptianborn grandmother, has experienced some secondhand anti-Arab prejudice. “Once, I was going in the elevator and a neighbor started talking to me,” she recalled. “She asked me who I know in the building. I told her ‘Salim and Safa,’ and she said, ‘What, Safa and Salim? They’re Arabs!’ And that response really bothered me. I said, ‘So what?’ She said, ‘No, I didn’t mean it, God forbid, I don’t have a problem with it.’”
Beersheba, known as the capital of the Negev, has a varied and ancient history. The city itself dates to biblical times—it is the place where Abraham made a pact with the Philistine king, Abimelech. Over the centuries, it functioned as a commercial crossroads. In 1900, it was officially reestablished by the Turks as an administrative center for the Bedouin tribes of the Negev and subsequently furnished with a mosque and a train station.
According to the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, Beersheba was supposed to be part of an Arab entity. The Egyptian Army set up headquarters there, but in 1948 Israel captured the city and drove out most of its inhabitants. Israel turned it into a Jewish city, repopulating it with immigrants in several waves, although Beersheba’s Arab past is evident in the stone buildings and architecture of its Old City.
The Arab wave of return started in the mid- to late-20th century. Some arrived as students and stayed, others came to work as teachers in the outlying Bedouin villages. There was a wave of Christian businesspeople in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and additional professionals started moving in over the last decade.
Today, about one-third of the Jewish population is Ashkenazic, a third are of Middle Eastern origin and fewer than a third are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. There is also a contingent of 8,000 Ethiopians. The city gives commercial, administrative, health and cultural services to a surrounding population of some 300,000, a majority of whom are Bedouin.
Beersheba ranks a little lower on the socioeconomic scale than the national average, a fact reflected in its dingy, poorer neighborhoods with rows of gray apartment buildings. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics puts it in the 5th socioeconomic cluster out of 10 (1 is the poorest), higher than Jerusalem, which is in the 4th, and well below Tel Aviv, which is in the 8th cluster. But since virtually all of Israel’s Arab localities are concentrated in the bottom three clusters, it has become a choice location for upwardly mobile, modern Arabs.
Abu Ras points out that poverty and neglect are driving thousands of Arabs into Jewish cities. And he predicts the trend is only going to get stronger. “When I sit with government officials,” he said, “I tell them, ‘If you do not do something about developing the Arab villages in the north, within a few years, most of the cities in Israel are going to be mixed. If that is what you want, fine. But don’t forget, these are educated, middle- class people who know their rights.’”
While in Israel as a whole Arabs occupy the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, the professionals who live in Beersheba belong to the upper crust of the city’s society and are just starting to make demands.
Despite problems during the Lebanon conflict last summer, Jewish and Arab friends supported each other. Abu-Rabia helped a friend whose husband was called up for service— “After I finished teasing her about his killing Arabs,” she recalled—and received concerned calls from Jewish friends when missiles fell on Nazareth, where Abu-Rabia has family.
“We are all women and mothers and have difficulties,” she said. “Maybe we don’t live the communal life of a tribe, but I have the support of my Jewish and Arab friends.”
But these Arab citizens of Beersheba appreciate their city. “Feel the breeze,” said Abu-Rabia, speaking on the spacious veranda of her apartment on a scorching September day. “It is so pleasant and comfortable here. We love Beersheba.”