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Israeli Bedouin and the limits of tolerating intolerance

The debate over relocating Bedouin settlements in Israel raises the issue of how far a liberal, multicultural society should go in tolerating the values of different communities when those values are destructive to the communities.
The sandals of a Palestinian bedouin lie in a tent south of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Mishor Adumim in the Judean Desert August 19, 2009. Many bedouins living in Israel and the occupied West Bank retain a traditional and nomadic way of life, raising livestock and farming arid land.  REUTERS/Ammar Awad (WEST BANK POLITICS SOCIETY) - RTR26VZK

The long-standing legal disputes between the state of Israel and the Muslim Arab Bedouin minority regarding landownership in the southern Negev Desert seems to be the usual story of David and Goliath in majority and minority relations in the Middle East. The relationship between Israel and its Bedouin community, however, is more universal and also more particular than most cases. It is universal because it touches on the difficult interactions between a modern welfare state and a patriarchal traditional society that insists on retaining its traditions, and particular because it has to do with very specific Bedouin nomadic tribal traditions of landownership.

The universal idea of liberal multiculturalism speaks to the equal value of traditions and the need to respect them, even when they are vastly different from those of the majority. What should a country do, however, when its laws clash with the traditions of some of its inhabitants? Where should lines be drawn?

Israel, like all countries, has laws regulating proof of ownership for dwellings. The Bedouin, nomadic tribes, have developed their own oral traditions of recording “landownership.” The lands in question were never officially registered or recognized as privately owned during the Ottoman Empire or the British mandate, which controlled the area before the establishment of Israel. They, therefore, were not recognized by Israeli law as privately owned lands after the creation of the state.

Israel has, for decades, tried to negotiate with the Bedouin to reconcile tribes' oral claims of landownership into a recognized modern framework. I, myself, can attest to the impossible complexity of the issue. As a member of the Knesset, serving on its Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, I was often approached by Bedouin constituents to appeal to the state on their behalf. Over the last three years, against the backdrop of the Goldberg report, on the Bedouin land issue, and as the Prawer-Begin bill moved forward in addressing the relocation of Bedouin settlements, I sat with Bedouin in their villages, pouring over maps and trying to understand how to help their cause. The more questions I asked, the more complicated I recognized the situation to be. 

The tribal traditions of landownership are nearly impossible, if not truly impossible, to untangle. Even though a village might sit on a vast expanse of land, and within the village itself there might be large swaths of empty land, no villager would agree to allocate certain tracts for public purposes, such as schools or community centers, for the Bedouin communities. The reason is because in their oral tradition, which is not recorded by hand, these tracts are known to belong to another part of the tribe. If it were to be allocated for public purposes, a blood feud would erupt.

In my experience, the only thing the different Bedouin leaders could agree on is that the state of Israel should allocate public lands from its own inventory to them. Not only could they not agree on what areas to allocate, and where services were actually needed, Bedouin leaders were also unable to reach consensus on the building of roads, electricity grids, and other public infrastructure that required allocations of land. Thus, the question remains: How far should a modern state tolerate local traditions? At what point should the state say, enough is enough, and use its coercive powers to override traditions, in this case so Bedouin villages get schools, electricity, water and other services? How far should the state go in accepting undocumented claims of landownership based on local traditions, when no other citizen can claim private ownership on the same basis?

Another example of such a dilemma is the tradition of polygamy among the Bedouin tribes. As in other developed countries, polygamy is outlawed in Israel, but the Bedouin have found ways to circumvent the law and continue their polygamous tradition. One such maneuver is to get married and then divorced. A Bedouin man will marry a very young woman, and she will bear several children. He will then divorce her. Since there is no law forbidding ex-spouses from living next to (or with) each other or doing whatever they want with each other, the ex-wife will continue to live next to her former husband and bear even more children with him. Moreover, now that she's a single mother, she will receive welfare support for herself and the children. Her ex-husband will then marry a new woman and have children with her, only to divorce her later, and so on. All of this is perfectly legal and in addition to perpetuating polygamy, puts the Israeli state, health services and the liberal ideology of multiculturalism in the position of aiding and abetting it.

Before passing judgment, one must ask how far a liberal multicultural society should go in tolerating values of different communities and traditions when those values are intolerant and destructive to the communities. The question is not simple. Just as all married women deserve to live in an equal union, children are deserving of nearby schools, and mothers and fathers are deserving of nearby clinics and places of work. After decades of legal disputes, the state of Israel, through the Prawer-Begin Plan, is trying to finally put the Bedouin communities on a path of state-recognized landownership that would allow them to live properly and own assets that they can then use toward their own development. The plan is far from perfect, but it is far reaching. No modern state can fully and completely accept the local traditions of its minorities, especially when it is detrimental to the welfare of the community. At some point, a limit has to be set.