Cast Out in the Be’er Sheva Desert: Hagar, Ishmael, and the Bedouin of the Negev

The Torah portion that we have just read tells a story about Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, which is both moving and troubling. A number of years earlier, at the suggestion of Sarah, who had reached old age without being able to bear a child, Abraham had a son with Sarah’s servant Hagar. Abraham named this son Yishmael, meaning “G-d will hear.” The beginning of today’s parasha tells how Sarah miraculously gives birth to a son, as G-d had promised. Abraham names this son Yitzhak (or Isaac), from the word for laughter.

Sarah urges Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael, saying, “Cast out this servant woman and her son! For this servant woman’s child shall not inherit with my child, with Isaac!” Abraham reluctantly agrees to this plan, after being reassured by G-d, and the next morning he sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert of Be’er Sheva with nothing but a loaf of bread and a sack of water. They wander in the desert and Ishmael almost dies of thirst, but G-d opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well of water and revives the boy. G-d promises Hagar that Ishmael’s descendents will become a great nation.

The Rabbis disagree about whether Sarah was right or wrong in asking Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael. Some of them thought that Sarah was justified, because Ishmael was wicked and cruel, although there is little in the biblical text to support this view of Ishmael; it simply says that Sarah saw Ishmael “playing”. Others thought Sarah was wrong. Nachmanides, the great medieval Spanish scholar and commentator, refers to this episode as Sarah’s “great sin”. I find myself agreeing with Nachmanides. After all, Sarah did not know how things would turn out when she asked for Hagar and Ishmael to be banished. They could easily have died in the desert.

What makes the Torah such a vibrant and moving part of our lives as Jews is the way that, over the course of thousands of years, we have related its ancient stories and teachings to our own times and situations. Each year, when we read these Torah portions for Rosh Hashanah, we find new meanings and connections. This year, when I again read this story of Hagar and Ishmael, I found myself thinking about the current situation of the Bedouin in the Negev, the desert and semi-arid region in the southern part of Israel.

These Bedouin are the native people of the Negev. While they no longer live a semi-nomadic lifestyle tending their herds of goats and sheep, as they did for centuries, many of them still live – and wish to live – a traditional lifestyle based on tribal communities and an agricultural way of life. However, the government of Israel has been trying to expel them from their tribal villages and force them to move to government-built urban townships. In the townships, each Bedouin family is given a house with electricity and running water. However, the urban townships have no access to agricultural land, no business, industry or economic base, no jobs, and little public transport. They have the highest poverty rates of any towns in Israel. Most of them even lack adequate sewage systems.

About half of the Negev Bedouin already live in these urban townships; the other half live in 45 “unrecognized villages”. Some of these villages are on lands on which the tribe has lived for many generations. Others are on land to which the Israeli government moved them, when it forced those tribes living in the better-watered and more fertile areas west of Be’er Sheva to move to the more barren “Siyag” area, which lies to the south and east of Be’er Sheva. In spite of this, the government of Israel has never recognized these Bedouin villages as legal, and therefore has refused to provide the services that it provides to other villages, including electricity, water, waste treatment, and roads. Worse yet, on the grounds that these villages are “illegal”, the government of Israel has been demolishing entire villages and expelling their residents, forcing them to either move to the urban townships against their will or, like Hagar and Ishmael, to wander homeless in the Be’er Sheva desert.

A little over a year ago, the government of Israel gave the land on which the Al-Arakib Bedouin tribe was living, just north of Be’er Sheva, to the Jewish National Fund to plant a forest there. Huge bulldozers came in and demolished all the houses. But the people of Al-Arakib refused to leave their land. They came back and set up temporary houses. The bulldozers returned and demolished again. Over the past year, the village of Al-Arakib has been rebuilt and demolished over 20 times.

When I was living in Israel, before I became a rabbi, I had the opportunity to live for over a month with the El-Okbi tribe, who invited me to come help them with a preschool they had established for their children. I met some wonderful, smart, warm, extremely hospitable people who cared deeply about their children. They were happy to be Israeli citizens, but unhappy with the enormous disparity between how they were treated and how the Jewish citizens of Israel were treated, in terms of everything from healthcare and education to electricity, water, and roads, to the ability to live on their land without fear of suddenly being expelled.

There is no good reason for Israel to treat its Bedouin population this way. They pose no security risk. Many Bedouin volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. The Negev is the most sparsely settled area in Israel and the lands claimed by the Bedouin comprise less than 5% of the entire Negev. The whole Bedouin population of the Negev is estimated to be 160-180,000, which is not a huge population. There is room in the Negev for both Bedouin and Jewish agricultural settlements. Israel could – and should – recognize the Negev Bedouin villages and help them to develop, as it helps Jewish settlements to develop. It should recognize the historic Bedouin system of land ownership, rather than treating the Bedouin as illegal trespassers on their own land. It should invite full participation by the Bedouin as it works out a plan for the development of the Negev, treating the Bedouin as equal citizens and partners in planning the future of the region. There is no reason to do otherwise, except for a desire for the Jews to own and control every bit of the land.

We Jews understand ourselves to be the descendents of Abraham and Sarah through their son Isaac. The Bedouin understand themselves to be the descendents of Abraham and Hagar through their son Ishmael. We do not need to repeat the sin of Sarah, who wants Isaac to receive every bit of the inheritance from Abraham with nothing left for Ishmael, and who tells Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael so that Ishmael “shall not inherit with my child, with Isaac.” Rather than expelling the Bedouin from their homes and ancestral lands, Israeli Jews can share the Negev with the Bedouin, bringing justice, prosperity, and security to the region. Thus Israel can fulfill the promise found in her Declaration of Independence to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”

Israel is working on a master plan for the development of the Negev, and the fate of the Negev Bedouin is likely to be decided over the course of the next few years. It is not too late for justice to prevail. It is not too late for the government of Israel to change course and end its policy of expulsions and demolitions, and for Jewish and Bedouin citizens to develop the lands of the Negev together, in cooperation and peace.

May the New Year of 5772, which we have just entered, be a year of blessing. And may it bring all of us closer to a world of justice and peace.