Editor’s note: In May I visited the Negev Desert in central Israel as a guest of Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s Robert H. Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. This article is the second in a series of stories about the Negev’s Bedouin population and the issues they face as they struggle to become equal citizens in the country in which they live.
At the Bet Qrinat elementary school, a newly built facility sitting atop a barren hill in the Abu Basra region of Israel’s Negev Desert, students learn what all of Israel’s public schools teach: computers, Hebrew, English, and Biblical history.
As a school for the area’s young Bedouin population, the curriculum also includes the Koran as a historical document, Arabic language, and their own traditions. As a part of the ORT technical school system, a system of technical schools throughout Israel and other parts of the world, elementary-aged students also have the option to major in scientific subjects: computer science, chemistry or environmental science, with a physics track set to begin in the fall.
When the bell rings to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” the halls flood with students from the mixed-gender classes. Boys go outside through one door for recess while the girls, most wearing scarves to cover their heads, go out on the other side of the building.
This school is important for the girls in the town of Abu Qrinat, a village recognized by Israel’s government in 2005, meaning it is entitled to a government-run school and, eventually, regular utilities such as electricity and running water.
“Before,” says Amram Kolagy, the appointed mayor of Abu Basra, “the dropout rate for girls was 40-50 percent. Now it’s down to zero. One of the reasons for the dropout rate was they had to travel to schools far away, and the fathers would not allow it.”
Such are the issues facing the Negev’s Bedouins, a minority within the Arab-Muslim minority in the Jewish State, and a very poor one at that. The Bedouins as a whole are also wrestling with the traditional culture that has sustained them for centuries while the realities of modern Israeli life draw ever closer around them.
Education, say leaders in the Bedouin communities, is the only way their people will ever hope to rise out of poverty and move out of what is fast becoming a welfare-based economy.
“With the efforts here,” says Kolagy, “we’re trying to create a situation that the students here can stand on their own.”
The key, says Kolagy, an Orthodox Jew who once led Israel’s Ministry of Interior and Israel’s Committee of National Planning, is to create a positive learning environment “when they’re younger and more open to learning — they can have a more holistic education.”
Educating the Bedouins has been a challenge since Israel’s statehood, and it took more than 50 years for their education to be taken seriously. Yosef Al Hawashle, a member of the regional council and principal of the newly established high school in his tribal town of Kasr Alssr, says when he grew up he had to travel about 25 miles to get to high school.
A high school established in 1993, about 10 miles from the village, finally gave girls the opportunity to finish high school, “but they couldn’t continue, partly because of tradition and partly because of the socioeconomic situation,” Al Hawashle says.
With university scholarships and some recognition of the need for education, that has begun to slowly change, though not without some resistance.
“You find people who are ready to eat bread and send their kids to school,” says Alean Al-Krenawi, chair of Ben Gurion University’s Spitzer School of Social Work and former chair of the Center for Bedouin Studies and Development. “But on the opposite side…you talk to fathers, and they say she will go for two or three years, and I’ll invest money, and later on she will get married and she will go away. So she will take this diploma, and she will help her husband, not me.”
The women who complete their higher education almost always return to their villages and in most cases improve the health and economic status of their tribes. Their male counterparts, however, have not progressed as much as the women in recent years.
“We would like to see the men having professions, but they don’t have the motivation like the women,” Al Hawashle says. “They study to become chemical engineers, etc., but they return to the village and the only work to find is as teachers…. Local industry closes their doors to Bedouins for various reasons.”
He cites lack of army training as one reason, though even those Bedouins who do serve in the military also have said they have trouble finding work. What has happened, therefore, Al Hawashle says, is that without the motivation to study, the younger boys go out with their fathers or play soccer in the street. The girls stay home, study and end up doing well in school — but only to a point.
“It’s a problem because men are uneducated and when married they don’t let women continue with education in the university,” says Al Hawashle.
Currently, the Al Hawashle tribe has 30 students enrolled in the university — 26 of them women.
“I think it’s very important that everyone be educated so they can get a job, return to the village and not become a burden on the state,” says Al Hawashle.
Kasr Alssr has an ORT-run school similar to Bet Qrinat’s, which opened in September 2006. It is these two schools that Abu Basra’s mayor Kolagy says are the models to be spread across the Bedouin school system.
“Heretofore, a graduation certificate had no value,” he says, noting that students needed vast amounts of further education to be eligible to enter university. “What we’re trying to do here is have kids work in summers to catch up, but also increase instruction in computers.”
It’s the emphasis on technical instruction that Kolagy believes can make the Bedouins’ future more economically viable, at least for those students who may not continue on to university. It also shows the stark differences between today’s Bedouin children and their parents.
“Parents didn’t go to school, they can’t read or write, and don’t understand the value,” says Sheikh Kamal Abu Heniya, a religious leader in the Bedouin city of Tel Sheva. “People prefer not to be involved because they don’t know how to be involved.”
He sees the poor quality of education in his own town as a serious issue.
“Teachers are not well-qualified,” says Abu Heniya. “You’ll hardly find the right person in the right position.”
Most Bedouin teachers, even in the new schools, come not from their tribal communities, but from Northern Israel, where the Bedouin population has found more success. That’s beginning to change as well.
In the 10 years since Ben Gurion University launched the Center for Bedouin Studies and Development, the number of female Bedouin students has gone from five of 70 to 250 of the 420 enrolled Bedouins for the school year now ending. The number of female graduates, however, declined somewhat for the 2005-2006 school year.
But where getting fathers to approve of their daughters’ attending high school was difficult, convincing them to go onto university has been a bigger challenge.
“At age 15 she’s considered a woman,” says Dr. Riad Agbaria, current director of the Bedouin Center and chair of the university’s department of Pharmacology. “So I went at age 14 and some of them let me [enroll their daughters].”
Allowing women into the university has had some unintended effects, however: two years ago the university had to start a program on conflict resolution.
“A high number of girl students face domestic violence at home from brothers,” says Agbaria. “They have to be subservient to brothers who want them to cook, clean — but they need to study. And in addition, the brother gets no scholarship, and the brother now says, ‘You’re a professor now, so I don’t get my dinner?’”
Scholarships initially meant just for female students are now being opened up to men as well, Agbaria says.
The university and local councils, as well as religious leaders like Abu Heniya, use their positions to promote education, and the statistics of those educated do show marked improvements in standard of living: fewer children than the average of five per mother, a decline in polygamy, lower poverty, and better health awareness.
“Sending them to university is delaying marriage,” says Ben Gurion University’s Al Krenawi. Before, “at age 20 you were married, and you already have two kids. At 25 you have a second wife…. The next generations are going to be different.”
Employment among graduates, most of whom are graduating with degrees in social work or the medical fields, is also jumping dramatically.
“About 80 percent immediately got a job,” says Agbaria. “The majority are involved in non-governmental organizations in the community.”
A survey conducted by social scientists at Ben Gurion University’s Bedouin Center in 1999-2000 bear out those numbers, but also point out that those success stories are few and far between: a mere 6.4 percent were qualified to actually enter the university, and only 16.8 percent of students passed the exams that allowed them to graduate.
“When we look at the young generation, we have 14 Bedouin high schools,” says Al Krenawi, which start with about 5,000 students. “Two thousand students completed high school. The level of dropout is very high…. Ten percent go for higher education.”
The study also noted that even high school graduates without a higher education were unable to find positions as skilled workers. Though Ben Gurion University is likely the most popular destination for university, there are other, smaller colleges in the Negev, and some men travel to Eastern Europe for their education as well. Programs such as a technical course at a Intel plant are also helping to make a small inroad into training local workers.
The high birth rate among the Bedouins makes sending more than one or two family members to university difficult. If “you invest in education, you bring down polygamy,” says Al Krenawi. “Because they have 10 kids, there isn’t enough [money]. So the question is, how do you invest in their education?”
As director of Ben Gurion University’s Bedouin Center from 2001-2004, Al Krenawi convinced former university president Avishay Braverman to provide scholarships and academic support, which had an immediate effect.
“I helped 153 female Bedouins,” he says. “But it’s not enough. If we help with the Bedouins…they have sisters and brothers. They cannot afford it. They cannot afford to send two or three students. It will kill you, it’s very expensive.”
But attending university is not the only way people should become educated, says Sheikh Abu Heniya. He believes that for some, learning how to be positive members of their community can suffice.
“Mohammed never learned to read and write,” he says. “I don’t expect the whole society will be highly educated, but the whole society shouldn’t be ignorant. Even the president needs to go to the barber.”
Coming next: Bedouins and land issues