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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .


Transitions: Russians, Ethiopians, and Bedouins in Israel's Negev Desert
Richard Isralowitz and Jonathan Friedlander

Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999
158pp. Hb.: 40.00; ISBN 1 84014 512 9.



The photography is the first thing that strikes one about this book. Ron Kelly's photographs draw one into the great barren expanses of Israel's Negev desert, but they also show that the desert is bristling with new development. Much of this development is connected with the government-sponsored settlement of Russian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and Bedouin. Transitions is about this settlement program, and about how these groups experience life in the Israeli state.

The nine articles in this volume illuminate the subject from very different angles, and in very different styles, some academic, some personal, but two overarching themes emerge. The first is the disjunction between what Israeli governments intend for the Negev and what their policies make possible. It has been the policy of successive governments to encourage the economic development and population of 'peripheral' areas such as the Negev. In the 1950s ten 'development towns' were built in the desert for immigrants. In the 1980s and early 1990s a second wave of mass immigration took place. 40,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel from their drought-ridden country, and 360,000 Russian Jews arrived from the collapsing Soviet Union. Many of them were settled in the Negev. But in order to establish a settled population it is not enough to build houses. People also need jobs, transport, education, health, and welfare services, otherwise they will be driven to leave.

The second theme of Transitions is that the experience of Ethiopians, Russians and Bedouins in the Negev is largely determined by how they are perceived, officially and unofficially, to fit into the Israeli State. The Bedouin experience is dominated by the fact that, as Arabs, they are treated as if they do not have a right to be there at all. The government resettlement program forces the Bedouin to live in specially designated, very poor, townships by making it illegal for them to live anywhere else. This causes great resentment. However, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants may not feel they belong either, even though they are Jews. Despite being a small nation with limited resources, Israel is committed to a policy of unlimited immigration for Jews. Isralowitz and Abu Saad point out that this is a source of social conflict. The poorer elements of society, including the Bedouin, see the immigrants as a threat, as competition for jobs. The Ethiopian immigrants also have to contend with the racist attitudes of Russians and even of Absorption bureaucrats. Moreover, as Transitions documents in words and, perhaps more eloquently, in photographs, the immigrants' cultural and ethnic differences alone give rise to feelings of alienation. As one of them put it, 'There we were Jews, and here we are Russians'.


Rose Hankey



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