The Baal Shem Tov, or Besht —  the founder of Chasidism — 
met the soul of the Messiah during an ascent to heaven. 
The Besht asked him, "When will the Master come?" 
The Messiah answered, "When your wellsprings break forth to the outside!" 
(from a letter written by the Besht to his brother-in-law about one of his soul ascents) 

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Talking to the Goldberg Commission

In December 2008, the Commission for the Resolution of Arab Settlement in the Negev chaired by retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg ("the Goldberg Commission") released its findings. Here's what the Goldberg Commission on Israel's Bedouin policies recommended, as reported by You can read the model letter we encouraged people to send to them below. The Commission made several critically important statements -- some of them unprecedented.

The Commission recognizes that Israel's official policies toward Bedouin citizens in the Negev have been inappropriate, and it recognizes them as Arab citizens dwelling on their historic lands or on lands allocated to them by the State. They are recognized as residents of the Negev and not "trespassers". The Commission recommends that the State recognize existing Bedouin villages and legalize construction within them -- construction that occurred without permits for lack of an alternative.

Despite these promising statements, the Commission's practical recommendations could very well maintain the very injustices it acknowledges. The Commission's report fails to say unequivocally how to go about recognizing specific Bedouin villages. On the contrary, it presents a number of impediments that could indefinitely delay or even halt the recognition process for individual villages. For example, the report recommends that recognition of villages be conditional upon their alignment with current regional plans,although the current master plan ignores the existence of many of these villages. Furthermore, the report fails to provide clear recommendations for implementing a joint planning process or concrete guidelines to guarantee basic services and infrastructure and to spur economic development.

The government accepted the Goldberg Commission recommendations and established a committee to oversee its implementation under Ehud Prawer, head of policy planning in the Office of the Prime Minister. The Prawer committee's recommendations have not yet been released, but if the previous handling of the unrecognized settlements and the Negev Bedouin is any indicator, even the positive conclusions of the Goldberg Commission may very well result in more authorities, committees and official bodies issuing decisions that go nowhere, rather than implementing any real change.

In fall 2007, the government of Israel established the Goldberg Commission to make recommendations on Bedouin policy. Click here to read the Commission's call for public comments along with the Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages recommendations. Below is a model letter we presented for people to send to the commission coordinator, Ms. Sharon Nikolitch, Ministry of Housing and Construction.

To the members of the Goldberg Commission:

As the State of Israel prepares to develop a region which is both ecologically very sensitive and which includes the greatest stretches of undeveloped land that still exist in the state, we urge you to set policies that will protect the Bedouin minority and their culture while also protecting the ecosystem of the desert, upon which Bedouin culture depends so completely. Current development plans for the Negev claim to green the desert, help the Bedouin, and allow the Jewish people to fulfill the next stage of Zionist state building, but they are directly related to the government's negative policies on the Bedouin.

The advocates of these development plans characterize traditional Bedouin villages as environmentally hazardous sprawl, and concern themseles with overcoming the "demographic threat" even though the Bedouin are a minority loyal to the state. Such depiction of the Bedouin is a textbook example of what is called environmental racism.

The contrary is more true: Israel needs policies to limit Negev development projects, which will consume tremendous resources to create suburbs of single-family homes with green lawns, which will be an unsustainable burden on the desert ecosystem. These settlements, like the single family ranches that came before them, will impact the Bedouin in multiple ways. They will lock up precious land and water resources away from Bedouin families which derive their livelihood through subsistence farming and herding. They will exclude Bedouin people from residency. And they will deepen the economic and political stratification between Bedouin and Jewish residents of the Negev.

Because these projects create potential conflict over resources, they are being used to justify destruction of Bedouin villages and the Bedouin way of life. For example, the planned villages of Hiran and Yatir were used as excuses to demolish the unrecognized Bedouin villages of A-tir and Um al-Hiran, even though there is enough space in the Negev and in that region to site new settlements where they won't require the demolition of currently inhabited villages.

Many of these "unrecognized" villages were founded over 50 years ago when the Israel Defense Force relocated various Bedouin tribes to these sites from other parts of the Negev. At the same time, the Bedouin serve in the Israel Defense Force and have remained loyal to the Jewish state. How can a state 60 years old be unable for almost its entire existence to bring fairness to the Bedouin as a fundamental principle or policy?

Negev development could require the demolition of more Bedouin villages, potentially forcing thousands of Bedouin off the land and threatening the existence of their way of life. From moral, historical and Jewish perspectives, there can be no justification for the destruction of Bedouin villages on the basis of their being "illegal".

We believe that the existence of a thriving Bedouin culture, not under pressure from the government, is in the best interests of the State of Israel, Zionism, and the cause of co-existence, as well as being in the interests of the Bedouin. Traditional Bedouin culture is a precious resource of indigenous knowledge that can only be tapped if it is strong enough to grow and evolve. Efforts to settle the Bedouin in urban townships are not only misguided given the high unemployment and crime in these townships, but the impossibility of maintaining a traditional way of life there makes moving to the townships an act of cultural suicide.

While there is room to debate the way Israel can best help the Bedouin, no actions which destroy Bedouin culture or which force the Bedouin to move off the land against their will can be considered helping them. Bedouin culture, which survives in the "unrecognized" villages, is already compromised by pressure from the government by means of exclusion from the benefits of development and the denial of basic human services.

None of these things should be happening in a Jewish state. Fairness towards non-Jews is an essential principle of Jewish tradition (ki gerim atem) and a foundation of the state of Israel, enshrined in Israel's Declaration of Independence, which states that "The State of Israel...will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants...; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture." Judaism equally enjoins us to honor and respect the land, and attacking those who subsist from the land is nothing short of an attack on the land itself.

Any policy or development plan for the Negev should strengthen the best aspects of Bedouin culture and create infrastructure that will support the traditional Bedouin way of life for those who choose it. Any plan that would help develop the Bedouin townships without bringing infrastructure and services to the unrecognized villages is essentially coercing Bedouin people to give up their culture.

We urge you to categorically reject resolving any disputes over the unrecognized villages through forcible evictions or demolitions. We urge you to categorically reject the use of Negev development to justify the planned demolition of Bedouin homes and villages, whether or not those villages are legally "recognized" by Israel's government.

We call on you to propose policies which will:

1. Create a clear path to recognition for all the unrecognized villages.

2. Bring all Negev developments plans under review for their impact on the Bedouin and on the ability of the Bedouin to sustain their way of life.

3. Prevent any Jewish settlement which is sited so as to require the destruction of any Bedouin village or home.

4. Make the Bedouin tribes and villages full partners in the development of Bedouin policy and planning in both townships and currently unrecognized communities.

5. Ensure the health of the Negev and all the communities and ethnic groups within it for the foreseeable future.

T'nuat Or frequently quotes David Ben Gurion as saying, "In the Negev the people of Israel shall be tested." Please heed Ben Gurion's advice by helping Israel establish policies that will pass the tests of transparency, sustainability, democracy and equity.



really important campaign -- the injustice is so obvious and callous -- let's hope we can reach enough caring people to make a difference

Posted by: Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom at February 14, 2008 12:56 PM


Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006