Breakfast with Fahim

February 4, 2015Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

Then Joseph said to his brothers and to his father's household…When Pharaoh summons you and asks, "What is your occupation?" You shall answer, "Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers" - so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.

-Genesis 46:31, 33-34

Four years ago I wrote here about a visit to the Bedouin village of Arab al-Naim, located a few miles from Shorashim; from the east side of our community we can see the village on the hillside across the Hilazon Valley. Then, Arab al-Naim consisted of 1,200 people living in corrugated sheet metal shacks, side by side with the pens for their sheep and goats. There was a mosque in one shack; the only solid buildings were several prefab units used for kindergartens and youth activities. Like many Bedouin villages, Arab al-Naim had been battling the bureaucracy for years to get "approved" to exist, so that they could create a town plan, which would allow the residents to get building permits for permanent houses, and to connect to the electric grid.

Recently I went back to the village, and met again with Fahim, a veteran member of the village council. Just approaching the village, the change was obvious: we felt ourselves driving through a large construction site. The bureaucratic logjam had finally been released, and at the moment forty two- and three-story stone houses are under construction all around the village, with the attendant infrastructure work for water, electricity and sewer. A few families have already moved in. Fahim's house is not yet complete, so we sat in his visitor's room - corrugated sheet metal over a two-by-four frame, furnished with the elegant parlor furnishings typical in Arab homes - velvet-upholstered couches, low wooden serving tables, carpets, framed family photos and religious artwork. Over breakfast of labaneh (yoghurt cheese), pita (whole wheat, from the supermarket), fresh vegetables, and olives, I learned that while multiple wives are no longer acceptable among the Galilee Bedouin, the problem of in-marriage is still severe. Young people stay in the village and marry there. So even if they make an effort to avoid marrying cousins, the gene pool is so small that genetic diseases and disorders are unavoidable. Everyone in the village has the same last name (Naim). Interestingly, Fahim feels that the building of houses will help change that, as now young men from the village will be able to bring home brides from other communities - up until now, it was hard to ask a girl who grew up in a proper house to move to a tin shack without basic amenities. Just since the building boom began, there are already a few such "mixed" couples in the community. Fahim looks down on the "primitive" Bedouins of the Negev, who are, in his view, still stuck in their old traditions of polygyny, deliberate in-marriage, and the denial of opportunities for education and careers for women.

About a third of the population of our county, Misgav, in the central/western Galilee, are Bedouins, living in seven villages in various stages of the recognition process. Fahim was pleased to report that there are now Bedouin schools covering grades 1-12 in the area, so his kids are bused to these; previously, the Bedouin children attended school in the nearby Arab city of Sachnin, but the Bedouins felt out of place and unwanted there, looked down upon and humiliated. While the occupational distinction is no longer really relevant, the cultural tension between "the farmers" (fellahin - referring to those Arabs who are not Bedouin) and the "shepherds" (Bedouins) remains strong; Fahim complained that Bedouins also suffer employment discrimination by the other Arabs, and that he and his neighbors have trouble getting hired by Arab managers in local businesses and factories. Even though Sachnin is just a few minutes away, Fahim tries to avoid going there, and does all his shopping in the supermarkets of the Jewish city of Karmiel, about 10 miles away.

On the other hand, while in Fahim's generation up to 90% of the young men in the village volunteered for the IDF, the numbers have fallen to around 40%. This seems to be due both to policies of segregation within the army, and to increasing Bedouin dissatisfaction with their place in Israeli society and hence a strengthening of their Palestinian identity.

No one can say living here is not interesting. The closer you look, the more complicated it gets.

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