The chronically tense relations between the Israeli government and Bedouins in the Negev—where unrecognized villages are built, razed, and built again—are certain to grow even more tense with the Israeli Cabinet's recent approval of a plan that will recognize about half these villages but demolish the other half, sending their 30,000 residents to existing Bedouin towns.
But if the Bedouins were to vanish, magically replaced in the Negev by the Irish Travelers (Gypsies) who were recently evicted from their unauthorized settlement at Dale Farm in the United Kingdom, Israeli authorities could be forgiven for failing to see any material difference.
In the 1980's, the Council of Basildon let a few Travelers pitch caravans at nearby Dale Farm when they were not on the road; but the Council denied permission for further settlement in what is part of England's "Green Belt." Last month, after years of lawsuits, the Council got permission to clear 86 families from Dale Farm—and did so, not without raucous protests, unfavorable media attention, and a mediation offer from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Like Bedouin culture, traditional Traveler culture is itinerant. Both groups regard their way of life as superior to that of farmers and town dwellers. Both hold honor dear and define honor in strikingly similar ways: A husband protects and provides for his women. A wife obeys her husband and does not work outside the home. Girls regularly drop out long before the legal school-leaving age and are often married by sixteen. A man gains status by fathering many children, especially sons, and engaging in traditional occupations like animal breeding. Factory and service jobs are scorned.
Job prospects in the animal-breeding business aren't what they used to be, but modernity has otherwise been surprisingly generous to Travelers and Bedouin. In both the United Kingdom and Israel, government welfare benefits, including monthly payments to parents for every child, provide significant income support. New opportunities, some in what may euphemistically be called the non-regular economy, have also contributed to unprecedented prosperity. And modern medicine means that 10 or 12 children in a family can grow to healthy adulthood. In sum, Travelers and Bedouin have unprecedented resources with which to achieve the large family ideal. In fact, these circumstances have helped make polygamy far more widespread among the Bedouin than it was in Ottoman times, when few men could afford a second wife.
Modern society does not, however, approve of living in caravans or tents pitched wherever the family chooses. In Britain, as in Israel, the government wants traditionally itinerant people to keep their children in school, take jobs in the regular economy, and move into housing that is built to code. For their part, the Travelers, like the Bedouin, prefer to live in rural settings where they can park caravans or pitch tents beside homes that they build themselves and keep livestock near the house. Not only at Dale Farm but across England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, Travelers find that the number of places where itinerants can lawfully camp in this manner is dwindling; and when they form settlements without a permit, the authorities enforce the law.
In Britain, as in Israel, these disputes involve contests over legal rights to use of the land, and the opposing arguments are heard by the courts. But the fight over Dale Farm has not ended with a court ruling any more than the Bedouins' fight will end with action by the Knesset, because these disputes are not only—or even primarily—legal controversies over land use. Similarly, outsiders frequently try to leverage fights like these in the service of broader struggles: Anarchists tried to co-opt the Dale Farm dispute, while some British officials, though they focused on the requirements of environmental zoning laws, at bottom did not want Travelers in their town. The unauthorized Bedouin settlements have received support from groups involved in the wider Israeli-Arab conflict. But these attempts at issue linkage only obscure the real nature of these disputes.
These controversies are, in essence, struggles over identity. Such struggles between modern societies and itinerant groups are as inevitable as they are painful and universal.
What, after all, does it mean to be a Traveler if you live in a Council flat and do not travel? What does it mean to be a Bedouin if you do not own herds? Yet the unspoken—for land available to Travelers is inexorably dwindling, and the burgeoning Bedouin population makes it physically impossible for every family to own herds. To put a still finer point on it, there is subset of government-Bedouin disputes in which Bedouin are charged with pitching camp and grazing goats in nature preserves intended to protect endangered species and habitats.
Gypsies and Bedouin know that if they do as the government asks—move into town, send their children to school, and train for jobs in the modern economy—their distinctive cultures will disappear. The Travelers' grandchildren will fade into the general British population, the Bedouin descendants into the ranks of Arab town dwellers.
Many people would be glad to see certain aspects of Traveler and Bedouin culture disappear—for example, the practice of pulling half-educated girls from school. For their part, Travelers and Bedouin have an understandable urge to preserve both their traditional culture and the comforts of life in a wealthy, modern country. Yet doing so will be difficult at best and impossible without fundamental changes to at least some parts of these cultures. The notion that families have the right to pitch camp, establish villages, and graze animals freely, wherever they choose, runs directly up against the right of other British or Israeli citizens to ensure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare by—among other decisions taken by their democratically-elected governments—designating nature preserves and establishing green belts. Modern government, therefore, can do many things to ease the path of its internal itinerant cultures; but, in the end, it cannot give them what they want the most.
Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.
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