Why Beer Sheva isn’t Zichron Yaakov

The roiling waters are clear as glass as we swim in the sea below Zichron Yaakov. Later, we hike and jog back up to that white city on a hill, we shower the salt from our skin, and as the sun vanishes over the ocean horizon, we head out in search of dinner.

The streets are quiet and tree-lined, and each yard is planted with flowers. There are no dumpsters overflowing with garbage and rangy cats, as there are in Beer Sheva. Parents speak gently to their children in Hebrew as they push them down the streets in their strollers. Signs over businesses and historical sites reference the Baron Rothchild, the original founder and patron of this town, a hundred or so years ago.

My friend keeps asking, why couldn’t Beer Sheva be more like Zichron?

Because, I think, of the quiet current of money and privilege that run through this town. Can’t you feel it, smell it, taste it, behind the well-paved streets, the collected garbage, the pretty single-family homes, all surrounded by vineyards on a bluff above the mediterranean?

Beer Sheva, like the river named after it, is made from what washes up when it has nowhere left to go, and it peters out here. The Beer Sheva river was running two weeks ago, a muddy slurry of whatever garbage and pollution has collected between the Hebron hills and here. It never reaches the sea.

A Bedouin man once told me the Bedouin like to say that the strongest tribes chose the wildness of the desert, and the weaker ones settled in the fertile valleys, but he believed the opposite was true: the most vulnerably tribes were pushed into the wastelands, the harshest places.

That’s still what’s happening. Waves after waves of Jewish immigrants were settled here when they had no resources to go elsewhere. First the Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, then later the immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia.

Beer Sheva, and the Negev, is the story of Nanu, who cleans floors at the hospital, and proudly moved her family from the absorption center by the railroad tracks, to schuna tet, a newer neighborhood. She insists on washing the mugs I used for tea and coffee working late on my Autism research project, even though that’s not her job. She lost half of her family on the long march from Ethiopia to Sudan to come here.

It’s the story of Sara and Jazi, and their daughters, how their grandfather was exiled to Jordan in 1948 by the Israelis and never allowed to return. It’s the story of how their family has worked to improve the education in their village, culminating in many students coming in on Saturdays, their only free day, for extra english lessons.

It’s the story of a medical resident stumbling through her morning report after a sleepless night, her headscarf pinned tightly over her scrubs, struggling with the Hebrew words that usually flow so easily, and it’s the story of her Russian and American attending physicians, carefully listening to the story of an old woman admitted to the hospital for pneumonia.

This place grows on you.



Outside the prison camp
Issa’s name becomes my password
my secret handshake.
I don’t know these men. I reach out
shake hands, my name is Sarah.
Yael adds “she took care of Issa,
the Issa who was shot
crossing the border.”
They shake my hand again, as friends.
(If anyone took care of him
it was Yael.) They all know Issa,
or at least who Issa is
except one man, confused
who knows a few too many men
shot crossing the border,
not that far from here.

Dress Rehearsal (posted at our English in Umm Batin blog)

As on most Saturday mornings where I have somewhere to be at 9:30, I woke up this morning regretting having agreed to come.  But it was the last week of the English-teaching program that my classmates and I do in the village of Umm Batin, just a few minutes’ drive outside of Beer Sheva.  Around five of nine I finally got out of bed, ate a quick breakfast, and headed for the parking lot where we get picked up.  Two of my classmates coordinate the teaching, but it’s a pretty informal program- the girls, and its almost always girls who come, have a pretty good English teacher; what we provide is a chance to hear fluent English and practice speaking it.  Today, it turned out that most of them were performing in a play tomorrow . . .

Click through for the rest (and undignified pictures!), and then stick around and check out what our girls have written.

Yes to recognition, no to uprooting the Bedouin villages

I am frantically coloring in letters, and double-checking my spelling via google, because my ability to spell in Hebrew is atrocious, when my friend Lauren calls me, asking if I know where the protest against the Prawer plan is. I guess I’m not the only one late- she is at the correct intersection, and a moment later she says that a group with banners and a megaphone just showed up.  I finish coloring in my poster, which read “Yes to recognition, no to uprooting, no to Prawer.”  (It sounds better in Hebrew, I promise.)

Look at all that nice spelling. (translation: "yes to recognition, no to uprooting, no to the Prawer plan")
Look at all that nice spelling. (translation above”)

It’s a small crowd when we get there, and it never really gets bigger, so I’m extra glad to be there, and to see Lauren and Dave.  Most of the protesters are Bedouin, and then there are a few stalwarts from the Negev Coexistence Forum, as well as a few English speakers.    A little boy runs up to me and gives me a big sticker that says “we are all al-Arakib”, in three languages, referring to a Bedouin village not far from here that has been demolished 49 times, and rebuilt 48 times.  I sound out the Arabic letters, but just for practice- I already know what it says “kulna al-araqib”. It helps when the Hebrew and Arabic words are almost the same.

Someone is passing out postcards to sign and mail in.  We look them over.  We’re sending these to Netanyahu, observes Lauren.  I try to read it over; I like to know what I’m signing.  It’s pretty straightforward, calling on him to oppose the Prawer-Begin plan, and I sign it.  I sign it for the same reason that I’m here, because there is legislation before Parliament, expected to pass, that will give official recognition (and the niceties that come with it, like water, electricity, roads, and maybe a school) to about half of the currently unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, and will demolish the other half, evicting their residents and moving them into development towns.

Yeah, I’m against that.  Because I can’t imagine it ending well for anyone in this region, not in three years, not in ten years, not in fifty years, because when you lay the seeds of inequality this deeply, we will all pay the price.  Because maybe a lot of countries treat the Bedouin poorly but the Egyptian government (both Mubarak and Morsi) is not my ethical standard.  Because I don’t care how messy people’s legal claims are, if their great-grandparents didn’t register their land properly under the Turks, or if they were displaced more recently by the Israeli military, or by being on the wrong side of conflicts or judgments by tribal leaders, there are better solutions that taking away from the country’s most vulnerable citizens what little they have.

It’s easy to imagine how this will end.  There will be only a slight outcry, and minimal attention, it’s not for nothing that this blog is named “In the Periphery.”  The Prawer-Begin plan will become law, the police and bulldozer operators are already used to their roles from the steady trickle of demolitions and evictions that have been going on for years.  The 35 villages slated for demolition will be a memory, a story parents tell their children, a few ghostly traces visible in satellite images.

And then I imagine, what if next week’s protest (Monday, 5 PM, the corner of Metzada and Rager, next to merkaz morim, and steps from the second bus stop in the city for any bus coming from the north) is a little bigger, and the week after, there is a bigger one still?  Maybe there will be an outcry.  This past Thursday, eight houses in the village of Atir, outside of Hura, which is itself not far from Beer Sheva.  Merav Michaeli, one of the higher-profile members of the Labor party in the Knesset, was there with the villagers during and after the demolitions.  Maybe we’re not that far off the radar, maybe something can still be done.

I find protests a bit of an awkward thing, and I’m glad Lauren and Dave are here.  I keep wishing there were more people, especially more Jewish Israelis, here in solidarity.  The youngest boy is now sitting in the grass playing with the stickers, a slightly older boy is hamming it up on the sidewalk passing out Negev Coexistence Fliers to people walking by; I want these kids to know, whatever happens, that there were people who stood by their side.

Being Chicken, and Refugees

Chicken (and Refugees)
I am a big chicken. My friend reminded me recently that during the “hostilities” last November, after the first night of rockets, I gchatted her that “the last rocket sounded really close” and convinced her (and myself, I suppose) to head for Tel Aviv. No one seems to know what to call what happened last November, hostilities doesn’t convey much, but it wasn’t quite a war. Let’s settle for “the lobbing of explosives towards places filled with fragile and unique human bodies, too successfully by the Israelis in that 158 people were killed, which is 158 too many, and less successfully, but still too successfully by Gaza, because six people dead is six too many.”
But I want to talk about leaving Beer Sheva. As I said before, I am a big chicken. One night of sirens, and running for the corner of the house away from windows, and I packed a small bag and headed for the train. It was actually a good time to leave, my friends who left later than me had to duck for cover multiple times while trying to get to the train station.
From Tel Aviv, I went to Nazereth for a weekend, and from Nazereth I went to Afula, where my school had already assigned me for Family medicine. When patients heard where I was from, they would say “You ran away from the rockets,” but with a smile, because they had relatives sleeping on their couches, and I would insist that I was just in the north for school, but they were more or less right.
There is something very primal, very human, about the urge to run away from violence. It’s an instinct in all of us, and generally a good one.
My journey out of Beer Sheva made me think about journeys others had made. I went to Tel Aviv because I had friends there and because it is where most of the buses and trains go to from Beer Sheva. I had read once that before Israel’s independence, Gaza City was the transportation hub for the south. When a lot of people fled the violence around Beer Sheva in 1948, they ended up in Gaza.
But unlike them, I was able to go back.

With the Girls in Umm Batin

One of the girls in Umm Batin, let’s call her Yusra, told me today that she doesn’t like learning Hebrew, because it’s Jewish, and she doesn’t like Jewish.

I was out there with four of my classmates, as part of a long-ish standing relationship between students at my school and the village of Umm Batin to teach their students English on Saturday mornings. The teaching is as informal as it gets: the girls study English grammar and vocabulary in school but have little opportunities to have to speak it, or hear it spoken by native speakers.

It was a sunny, springy day, the breeze was brisk and the sky was blue and strewn with clouds and I was happy to be out there, even though it had meant setting an alarm clock on the only morning that I could theoretically sleep in (and I had woken up in a panic, certain that I had overslept my exam, which was actually yesterday and I did not oversleep).

When we got there, we were told that the girls were planning a surprise for us, and it involved food, but it wasn’t ready yet. The students coordinating the program didn’t have a lesson planned due to the surprise, so we improvised and started a game of basketball. These girls take basketball pretty seriously, despite jackets and headscarfs, shoes with heels, and barefeet, and despite some strange variations on the rules. As one of my classmates put it, “there are more people on your team, but on the other hand, two girls on my team keep grabbing the ball and running with it like it were a football.” Despite my own lack of coordination, I did occasionally manage not to drop the ball, and even once, to my own surprise, got it into the basket.

Towards the end of the game, my ankle started to hurt a bit insistently, and I excused myself to where two of my classmates were speaking with a group of the girls. They were passing around a CD, that Yusra was excited about. I looked at the CD- it was labeled FODfest: Friends of Daniel Pearl. On the cover, was Daniel Pearl and another guy, presumably the friend Todd, jamming with their violins.

Yusra explained that they had had a field trip to Arad, where they had met with a man named Todd, who was doing a project in honor of his friend who had been killed. There, she and her classmates, together with a group of Jewish children, had written a song together called Shalom, Salaam, (or maybe the other way around), and she promised to bring in the final product when Todd sent it to them.

Another girl passed around a journal filled with Justin Bieber stickers, setting of a debate between the lovers and haters of Bieber. Yusra was outspoken against him, she told us she prefers Avril Lavigne and Adam Lampert.

We then asked the girls to show us around, and they decided to take us around the elementary school. In general Yusra’s English stood out among the other students, as well as her eagerness to speak it. So I started asking her questions. Why was it almost always girls who came to the English program? She explained the boys are allowed to be lazy at home, but when the girls are at home, they have to help their mothers all the time, so they would rather come here and be with their friends. I tried to sound out the Arabic, but got a bit lost towards the end and Yusra helped me with it.

She explained that she wasn’t technically from Umm Batin, but from Al-Sayyid, a tribe right nearby, and her father drove her to the school so she could learn English, and she couldn’t wait to get her drivers’ license next year and be able to drive herself.

I asked her if it was tough to be learning so many languages. And she said, she liked learning Arabic, because it was a language used all over the world, and she liked learning English for the same reason, but Hebrew didn’t seem so useful. All fair enough points, I’ve heard similar complaints from my non-Jewish classmates. And then she went on to say that that she hated Hebrew because it was Jewish and she hated Jewish.

I wish I could say that I had asked her to elaborate on what she meant, listened to her, and then, gently responded with telling her that I was Jewish, and that her words made me a bit sad. Which was true. But I fumbled for words, and didn’t say anything at all in the end, an awkward silence stretching out.

Later, as we played circle games, Yusra introduced one that seemed to be inspired by laughter yoga- everyone takes a turn doing a crazy laugh, and the rest of the circle has to imitate them. (It’s a good practice for those who spent too much time worrying about med school and/or Israeli/Palestine). Yusra told me that she had learned the game from a teacher at the school named Patrice, who was Jewish. At some belated point I mentioned to her that I was Jewish, but again an awkward silence stretched out, and I wasn’t even sure if she had understood what I said.

We finished the circle games, and went to the barbeque that the girls had prepared for us. Yusra was telling us about foods that she hated, including salt. I laughed and told her that I loved salt. David, a classmate, interjected that in English, you can say “don’t like” instead of “hate” for feelings that are not so strong. He explained that saying “hate” all the time can make you sound a little . . . crazy. She laughed – “maybe I am a little crazy.”

I like Yusra. I like her strong opinions, how much she’s thinking about things, how she isn’t afraid to speak and practice her English. I was speaking with a classmate about it on the way home, and we think she must hear this sort of thing at home. She cares about the big picture around her, and is trying to figure things out. I don’t quite remember all my views from when I was fifteen, but I think I wouldn’t want them held against me.

I thought about the story of Daniel Pearl, and how in the video before he was murdered he declared that he was Jewish and his father was Jewish. If I don’t make an effort not to, I sometimes “pass” as standard American, but I’m in Israel as Jew and I don’t want to pass as anything else.

I’ve occasionally envied some of my classmates who aren’t Jewish, because they come here without as much emotional baggage. Among the other students whose views are pretty left, politically, only a few of us are Jewish. It’s a hard place to stand, to feel torn between my people and what I believe is right. But it’s not a perspective I would trade.

But ultimately, to make the point that there are good Jews is not why I go to Umm Batin. I go because I like the girls, I like getting out of the city, I like the games we play, and because I do not like that the educational system here is not preparing these girls for a future, and I want to be a tiny part of the solution. I hope that that is the sort of thing that in the end, means something here.