Samy Ashwi looks like a typical Israeli millennial. He wears a closely cropped beard, has thick brown eyebrows and wears fitted, European-cut clothes. At an April 30 event, he mingled comfortably over wine and cheese with fellow Israelis at a sprawling, modern estate in Los Altos Hills.
But Ashwi’s journey has been anything but typical.
Rather, it’s been aided by an ambitious Israeli nonprofit seeking to address one of Israel’s great challenges: chronic poverty, disenfranchisement and high unemployment rates in the Negev Bedouin community — and the discrimination that flourishes as a result.
Ashwi, 21, is from Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in the Negev, with a population of about 66,000. His father, one of 31 siblings, died when Ashwi was young, and his mother died recently, making him the custodian of three younger siblings.
Ashwi works as a staffer for Rahat’s mayor, and has ambitions for holding political office himself (indeed, his ability to captivate a roomful of machers bodes well for a political future). He attributes his life trajectory, in part, to Desert Stars — a nongovernmental program in Israel aimed largely at Bedouin young people ages 17 to 23.
“I wanted to develop myself,” Ashwi said of his decision to join Desert Stars, which saw him tackle group leadership challenges like a trek to the top of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. He also met fellow members of what he called the “Israeli community” — namely secular Jews, religious Jews (haredim), Druze and even Bedouins from other tribes — that he would never have met otherwise.
“You learn about who you are when you spend time with people who are different from you,” he said.
Desert Stars was founded six years ago by Matan Yaffe, 34, a former officer in the Israel Defense Forces, outdoorsman and fifth-generation Zionist, and Muhammad Al-Nabari, a Bedouin community leader.
What began as a leadership training program for adolescent Bedouin boys has since blossomed into a network of educational programs for young Bedouin, including a 200-student high school, certified and supported by the Israeli government, about 20 miles northeast of Beersheva.
Historically nomadic peoples, the Bedouin number about 210,000 in the Negev, or about one-third of the desert region’s total population, according to Israeli government figures from 2013. Their towns and villages experience high levels of unemployment and poverty, and cycles of discrimination and bias. Thousands live in government-regulated townships, while others have faced displacement by Israeli authorities for living in “illegal” settlements. The 2011 Begin-Prawer Plan to develop the Negev called for the relocation of tens of thousands of Bedouin, spurring plans for a “Day of Rage” protests in 2013 before the plan was scrapped for lack of support in the Knesset.
“A Jewish child and a Bedouin child are born in the same hospital in Beersheva, [but] by the age of 3, each one will go to such different realities,” Yaffe said. “This is a failure of the market, something that we have to solve.”
We don’t have an existential threat to Israel that is external. All our existential threats are internal.
The mission of Desert Stars, Yaffe said, is to create a network of young leaders who will return to their communities “and assume key and influential positions” – and help lead Bedouin into “the success story that we call Israeli society.”
On their first overseas networking trip together — and Ashwi’s first trip out of Israel — the duo visited the home of Oren Zeev, a tech entrepreneur, and his wife, Hagit, who are both supporters of the Desert Stars program. The Los Altos Hills stop, to explain the program and to court potential new funders, was part of a whirlwind tour that took them to the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York City.
Hagit Zeev, a marriage and family psychotherapist, explained why she and her husband partnered with Desert Stars three years ago. “My husband always invests in a person,” she said. “When he met Matan, he said, ‘He’s an entrepreneur. You don’t see that so often in NGOs.’”
Like his Zionist forebears, Yaffe appears consumed by an admixture of idealism, proactive zeal and a sense of personal ownership over his country’s fate. And yet his version of Zionism, he says, is fit for 2019, not 1948.
“Our challenges today are different. We don’t have an existential threat to Israel that is external. All our existential threats are internal,” he said. “Our generation’s mission — yours and mine — is to create a much more stable Israeli society that understands strength in diversity.”
As Desert Stars approaches its seventh anniversary, Yaffe has embarked on his is most ambitious plan yet: He wants to raise $80 million to build a youth village with dormitories, classrooms, soccer fields, a health center and staff housing. He said he has secured 15 acres from the Israeli government in the northern Negev and has raised $21 million so far, including $10 million from a single donor. He said $19 million more is needed to begin construction.
The campus, he added, will be called the Jusidman Campus for Bedouin Leadership, for Daniel Jusidman, the Mexican tools and hardware magnate who donated $10 million. The vision is for a boarding school for 600 girls and boys in grades 7 to 12, a “leadership incubator” for 100 high school graduates, and programs for alumni of the school.
“Program participants will live alongside diverse staff, classmates and older students who serve as mentors and role models,” the brochure says. At the current Desert Stars Leadership High School, about two-thirds of the teachers are Arab and one-third Jewish.
After the campus is built, the Israeli government will fund up to 70 percent of the youth village’s annual budget, Yaffe said.
After the meeting in Los Altos Hills, Ashwi and Yaffe headed out to fly to New York City that same night. Before this trip, Ashwi had never been on a plane, but he is used to telling the Desert Stars story, as he does it often in Israel.
He said his ultimate goal is to better himself so that he can bring skills back to Rahat, to improve the lives of his fellow Bedouins. Eventually, he’d like to become a member of the Knesset. “If I want to make a change in my community, I have to be one of the decision makers,” he said.