In December 1947, just months before Israel’s founding, its first president, Chaim Weizmann said, “I am certain the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs.”
Today those words continue to ring true. Despite the wide array of contributions Israel makes to the world, the media and other forms of public attention inevitably focus on the country’s shortcomings and on the situation faced by its Arab minority.
Israeli Arabs make up 20.6 percent of the Israeli population, but they contribute only 8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to Israel’s Authority of Economic Development of Minorities Sector. Some 51.4 percent of Arab families live below the poverty line (compared with 15 percent of Jewish families). Each year, only 63 percent of Arab youngsters reach 12th grade, compared with 93 percent of their Jewish peers.
Among Israeli Arabs, the Bedouin number 250,000 and experience the highest unemployment rate. Bedouin society lacks a strong educational system, supports forced marriages of underage girls and places cultural restrictions on women working outside the home.
At the same time, there are programs like the Center for Bedouin Studies and Development at Ben-Gurion University that are beginning to change Bedouin lives for the better. When the center was founded in 1997, there were no Bedouin women studying at Ben-Gurion.
“If you saw a person fall, wouldn’t you help them get up?” asked Robert H. Arnow, who helped found the center. “That’s how I pictured the Bedouin community. Someone needed to help them.”
Over the years, Arnow has invested significantly in scholarships and support services for Bedouin students, with an emphasis on women. Today, more than 60 percent of the 268 Bedouin students seeking their first degree at Ben-Gurion are women.
Similarly, the Arab Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Coopera-tion–Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development runs programs that meet real-time needs while leveraging existing resources. The organization offers training programs for Bedouin women, combining assertiveness training with entrepreneurship and vocational training, said Vivian Silver, its former co-executive director and now an active volunteer.
One of the organization’s greatest successes was the transformation of the hot lunch program in the Bedouin village of Hura from an Israel-run and Jewish-contracted program into one that employs 17 Bedouin women. Daily, the program makes 6,000 hot lunches and runs a professional and immaculate kitchen.
In another instance, the center trained a number of Bedouin women from several villages to be photographers, videographers who could record celebrations such as weddings. It also trained hairdressers.
“I think most women want to change. … They want an education, they want opportunities, they want freedom of movement — and slowly, it is happening,” Silver said.
Dr. Rania Okby, the first female Bedouin physician in the world, agrees. Okby represents the convergence of two worlds: ancient Bedouin tradition and modern Israeli society. She was able to graduate in 2004, thanks to the outreach program offered by Ben-Gurion. But her journey was not without challenges.
During her studies, Okby moved back and forth between her home and the university. “It was the most difficult thing,” she said. “From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., I was in the Western world and from 4 p.m. until the next day, the traditional world. It creates a lot of conflict.”
Okby recalled feeling immense pressure to succeed, believing that if she failed during her first years of study, perhaps no other Bedouin woman would have the courage to accomplish what she ultimately did.
She chose to go into maternal fetal medicine because she fell in love with the “beautiful cycle of pregnancy to birth” during her first year as a medical student. At Ben-Gurion, even first-year students get a white lab coat. In this role, however, she has found other benefits, including the ability to influence her society. Okby said that she serves as a psychologist, sociologist, counselor and social worker, and that her Bedouin patients feel comfortable opening up about their marital issues and other concerns because they trust her.
“I have a very important role. When I talk with [my patients], I bring examples from our tradition, and then they listen to me more. For example, if a Jewish doctor says, ‘You shouldn’t have any more children,’ they think she says this because of the demographic threat. When I say it, they think, ‘She really cares about my life and my health,’” Okby said.
She noted that the birth rate in the Bedouin community averages six children per woman, and many have their children too close together for the healthiest outcome.
Rafi Rone, director of Jewish and Israel Initiatives at the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, said there is a strong correlation between having positive role models and success among women. According to a recent study by the National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology and Science, female students who had four to six female professors were more likely to report having an educational or career role model (55.8 percent), compared with those who had only one to three female professors (50.7 percent) or no female professors (46.0 percent). The fields of these professors affected the students’ career choices.
“I hear a lot of women saying, ‘I want my girls to become like you.’ They are proud and happy to have me as their doctor,” said Okby.
Since change won’t happen overnight, and it needs to come not solely from the outside but also from within, programs like Silver’s and role models like Okby are particularly important, said Rone.
“When you talk about Israel today, you need to talk about Israel as a country of all of its citizens,” he said. “The stronger Israel is economically and educationally, the better off it will be in the long run. That means creating centers of excellence in education, workforce development and access.”
Jamal Alkirnawi — founder and chairman of the nonprofit A New Dawn, whose stated mission is “to promote equality, coexistence and peace among all residents of the Negev” — seconded Rone’s sentiments. He said that as Israel turns 66, it is time to invest in and focus on Bedouin society and education.
“I feel very connected to Israel. I feel responsible for making it a better place,” Alkirnawi said. “We need to invest in stronger connections between Jewish Israelis and Bedouin people, to bring these peoples together. We live in this area, in Israel, together. And we should make it better together.”