An Arab Israeli woman votes during parliamentary election in the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom or Shaqib al-Salam near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on March 2, 2020. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

Democracy in the Desert

Helping Bedouin women vote In Israel.

The Bedouin are a minority ethnic group in Israel who are not Jewish. Most Israelis often don’t engage with Bedouin society, as Bedouins are somewhat isolated from Israeli society, especially the Bedouin women. As a result, an Israeli organization, Zazim, took action to provide opportunities for women living in unrecognized Bedouin villages to vote in the final round of the Israeli elections. When the efforts of the organization failed due to opposition from the Likud party, some Israeli citizens stepped in privately to take over the task. Among them, my relative Rachel Kessel drove a group of Bedouin women to polling stations.

“It’s already been two days since the election, and I [feel like I am] sleepwalking, as if I’ve returned from another planet,” Kessel began in a Facebook post (translated from the original Hebrew) referring to her experience in the Bedouin area. “Not because of the results, but because I spent the day in the unrecognized Bedouin villages in the South. And it is truly another planet.”

In a phone interview, Kessel described the surprisingly transformative experience. These villages were a world apart from her own. There were no street signs, streetlights or even streets, she drove along dirt roads into the desert. The women she took to the polling stations didn’t receive ballots in the mail, if they received mail at all. They could not drive, even if vehicles were available to them.

The great lengths to which the Israeli female drivers and other event coordinators went in order to help Bedouin vote were truly inspiring. Kessel explained, “It shows faith in the democratic system, because you wouldn’t go to all that effort if you weren’t at least fairly certain that it would have some influence on what was happening in the country. I think that’s a positive message.” Meeting these determined Bedouin women inspired great faith in humanity and in women in particular. Here were women who believed so deeply in the power of democracy that they were willing to face huge obstacles in order to vote.

These brave women, both the Bedouins and the drivers, wanted to make an impact. Kessel sees this as part of a growing trend where Arabs become more involved in Israeli politics. She explained that this is a positive development that will help them feel more integrated into Israeli society and like they are truly a part of the democracy, not just watching from the sidelines. 

The Bedouin live in a patriarchal society. Often each man has several wives and they have many children. Bedouins generally don’t have much of an education, most of them can’t drive and they don’t usually know Hebrew. The Bedouin have been offered other places to live where they might have more access to certain facilities. Though they have declined some of these offers, Kessel said that the important thing is to realize that this is not a simple, one-sided issue, and we have to accept the complexity of perspectives different from our own. When we see people struggling, we have to help them in a way they can accept if it is possible for us to do so, even if we feel like their problems should be solved another way or aren’t ours to deal with. That’s not a distinction we should make: if someone needs help, they need help.

Now, with the COVID-19 putting different areas all over the world in various stages of lockdown, it’s important to reach out to and help each other, just as Kessel did with the Bedouin. In the face of a pandemic, we must stand united, even if virtually. Hopefully, once after this is all over, we will retain that connection and work together to make the world a better place.

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Rena Max is a junior at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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