Before she became a resident of Beersheva, Israel, a Dartmouth College student from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida started spending summers and school breaks in the Jewish state. Israel. Ft. Lauderdale was “a great place to grow up,” Menucha Saitowitz told inFOCUS, but “I decided to spend a year [in Israel] to see if I could make aliyah.”
She could. She met her husband, “an American who’d also come to Israel onhis own.” They both were observant Jews who “fell in love with the country.”That was 11 years and four children – ages 9, 8, 5 and 3 – ago.
With a desire “to make a difference in building the country,” Saitowitz worked for several Israeli non-profit organizations. “The government makes grants to non-profits working in social reform areas,” including inter-group relations, she notes. “But sometimes it takes two years to pay. … Meanwhile, the organizations have to raise funds to keep the doors open.”
A former senior Israeli diplomat, also speaking to inFOCUS last summer as Israel headed to its fifth election in three years, indirectly explained such delays: “The country functions in spite of its government.”
Now at an organization called Desert Stars, Menucha Saitowitz works to “tohelp empower young Bedouin, through leadership, education, and integration into wider Israeli society.” Bedouin comprise nearly 300,000 of Israel’s estimated 9.5 million people. Most, but by no means all, live in the Negev Desert region, of which Beersheva, with approximately 210,000 residents, is the largest city and de facto capital.
Occasional visitors to Israel may remember the Bedouin town of Rahat as a relatively small concentration of tin-roofed buildings and tents not far off the main highway into Beersheva. They would be stunned by today’s Rahat, a close-to-the-ground city of 80,000 people that sprawls far across the northernNegev’s low hills.
“Desert Stars operates a high school in [nearby] Lahav,” Saitowitz said. “It enrolls Bedouin students from tribes and towns all across the Negev. It employs both Arab and Jewish staff, and one-third of classes are taught in Hebrew to ensure students graduate with strong command of the language.”
Only a few generations ago, many Bedouin were, if not nomadic then semi-nomadic. They often relied on sheep herding. Today, Saitowitz said “some Bedouin are quite prosperous. There are doctors, lawyers, university professors” at Beersheva’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
But there are complications. For example, “In one Bedouin town, there are two tribes with a long standing blood feud. Within the town, they cannot go to the same school or interact in any way. However, both families send students to our school. We send two different buses, one for each family, to get around this issue.”
Israel is a high-tech power,” Saitowitz said, “but some areas lack internet connections.” During the Covid-19 crisis when students needed to study at home, Desert Stars provided them with computers and internet sticks so they could connect to online Zoom meetings and continue learning. Many Bedouin families lack computers, instead relying on their smartphones for internet. “However, you can’t write an essay or research paper on your phone,” she said.
Desert Stars describes its mission as “building a generation of Bedouin leaders to promote a thriving Bedouin community and a strong Israeli society. We empower mission-driven young people to realize their individual and collective potential as change-making leaders.”
Its leadership and academic programs for youth and young adults from Bedouin clans across the Negev, include: Forsan Al Sahra – Youth Movement (ages 12-18); Desert Stars Leadership High School (14-18); Rawafed Empowerment Center (14-18); Incubator for Leadership and Entrepreneurship (18-19); Raidat Leadership Program for Women (20 and older); and Desert Stars Alumni Program (20 and older).
Stories about high crime rates in Bedouin neighborhoods, and disregard for the state itself, have made news in Israel, but these incidents represent a miniscule segment of Bedouin society, Saitowitz asserts. She points out that in March, 2022 “when an Israeli Bedouin killed four people [in Beersheva]during ‘the knives intifada,’ it was shocking. We never had that type of violence before. Bedouin leaders, including family members of the terrorist, immediately repudiated his action. They said, ‘This is not us. These are not our values.’ ”
Saitowitz said that President Isaac Herzog and Knesset member Mansour Abbas spoke at the opening of a new cultural center in Rahat in February 2022. Abbas, who participated in the 2021-2022 coalition government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister/Prime Minister Yair Lapid, heads the Southern Branch of Israel’s Muslim fundamentalist Islamic Movement. According to Saitowitz, Abbas encouraged those in attendance, mainly Desert Stars participants, to explore and embrace their multi-layered identity as Muslim, Arab citizens of Israel. He advocated participation in Israeli society and working with state institutions to achieve much-needed advancement for Arab citizens. The Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement is not considered as rejectionist of the state of Israel as the Northern Branch, she added.
“I think Bennett did a good job in trying to promote the integration of minority groups into Israeli society,” said Saitowitz, who describes her own politics as,“personally, right-wing. … I think helping Bedouin integrate and advance is a way to strengthen Israel.”
Promoting better integration of Bedouin into Israeli society is Saitowitz’s day job. In addition to that and being a wife and mother of four children under 10, she is a Beersheva booster. With her husband she was part of a small group “who worked to make Beersheva attractive” to more young families. “With housing costs impossible in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv … there is now a core group” promoting the desert capital as the ideal home for young families – fellow immigrants and ‘standard’ Israeli families alike.
“And the mayor [Ruvik Danilovich] is terrific,” Saitowitz says. “We have new parks and playgrounds … and there is a staffer dedicated to assisting new English-speakers in dealing with the bureaucracy” when it comes to settling in Beersheva.
The nearby Tel Beer Sheva (“Well of the Oaths” or “Well of the Seven” ) archaeological site, open to the public was first settled around 4,000 B.C.E. The Torah relates that it played a key role in the lives of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Regardless, a few decades ago modern Beersheva was a sleepy, dusty desert outpost.
Now, still dusty, it’s not sleepy. Construction cranes cross the horizon, like they do in much of Israel, the city hosts a concert hall in the center ofdowntown and, says Saitowitz, more shopping malls (Israelis call them canyons – pronounced cań•yons) per capita than any where else in the country.
In addition to the Beersheva River Park built in cooperation with the Jewish National Fund on reclaimed wasteland, with its lake and athletic fields, the city offers “all these new malls” and “dining out in new, nice restaurants and cafes.” Like the rest of Israel, “it’s not cheap, and if you’re not in technology, salaries are not high,” Saitowitz says.
Regardless, she notes, it’s a wonderful place to live, and helps fufill the dream of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, of settling the Negev.
Eric Rozenman is communications consultant for the Jewish Policy Center.