Communities and the inside borders

Israel is a young country situated on an ancient land and populated by diverse groups of people. Each of the groups holds onto its own traditional cultural traits. In order to properly function as a state and to minimize conflicts within and among the groups, Israel continuously seeks to find a fine balance between preservation of traditional and integration of modern cultural traits within the society. This continuous challenge rarely receives serious attention in international media, at least compared to that given the conflicts occurring along the borders of contiguous neighboring countries (as described in Part 1).

The Druze’s Dilemma

One of the groups undergoing the process of cultural integration is the Druze. Residents of remote, high-elevation (in regional terms) settlements for the past millennium, the Druze’s desire for geographic isolation was for the purpose of self-preservation. In a rural environment a location remote farther from main transportation routes equals less interaction with the outside world. As a minority group practicing a type of religion that falls outside the mainstream Islam, and perceived as heretics, the Druze chose to reside far away and develop an inward-looking lifestyle as mean of basic cultural survival. This included a ban on marring outside the Druze stock—a regulation for women punishable by death—and other norms of behavior designed to prevent outside influence and dominance.

With creation and rapid modernization of the state of Israel, the conditions around the Druze changed, and the impact on Druze villages is evident (Figures 1 and 2). This impact created a conflict within Druze society in how to respond to changes. In a market economic environment, if they are to succeed socioeconomically, they cannot remain culturally isolated, retain internal social restrictions, and reject ongoing cultural changes affecting Israel altogether. An alternative to change is that most of the Druze who reside within Israel’s original borders will continue to be confined to professions that offer little prospect of increased social and economic standing (e.g., military enlisted personnel, low level bureaucracy).

To make a rapid adjustment to a new cultural environment over a generation or two is a difficult task. Yet, the Druze must resolve their dilemma. At the same time, the state of Israel faces an identical dilemma—modernization, regardless of how well the intentions, cannot be forced on any community without a fear of backlash and creation of additional problems in a region already full of problems. Israeli Druze are strong supporters of the state of Israel, something that the government prefers to remain that way. (Druze in the Golan Heights, on the other hand, traditionally feel closer to Syria than to Israel.)

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Figure 1. A view northeast from the mountain top at the vicinity of a Druze village, Daliyat el-Carmel, on the Mt. Carmel near Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. Once a fairly remote settlement, it is now only a short drive from the University of Haifa’s campus and the city center. Photograph by the author.

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Figure 2. The landscape of Isfya, another Druze village on Mt. Carmel. Every Druze village in Israel is one spatial unit where many generations have lived. This road, which continues to Haifa, is an example of how an access to the outside world is affecting internal change by reducing geographical isolation and increasing economic and social interaction with that world. Photograph by the author.

The Bedouins and Negev Dichotomy

Unlike the Druze, who have been practicing their sedentary lifestyle in the same locations for centuries, Israel’s Bedouins were people on the move. A majority of the Bedouins live in Israel’s southern periphery, primarily Negev desert, and consider a sedentary lifestyle to be a cultural anomaly and unnecessary spatial and cultural restraint. Their perception of the living area extends much farther than for the Druze and does not have firmly envisioned borders, such as the end of a village. The Bedouins operate along their own established set of tribal connections and norms of behavior in a society that, in practical terms, has run parallel to that of the state of Israel.

Here, too, as in the instance of Druze, Israel has created a hands-off relationship with the Bedouins in regard to running many aspects of their own affairs, such as conflict resolutions within and among the clans and tribes. It has not been an ideal arrangement, and hardly a permanent solution, but in the predominantly Bedouin areas in northern Negev it worked in order to keep potential conflicts from escalating. Yet, the changes outside this area are now affecting it and, in essence, forcing culture change among Bedouins.

A small country with a rapidly growing population, Israel hopes to redistribute some of its people from the Tel Aviv metropolitan area into the southern countryside. The Negev Desert accounts for half the country’s territory, but less than ten percent of its population. To most Israelis, the Negev’s desert landscape and climate are hardly an attractive reason for relocation, compared to the cosmopolitan urban environment and sandy beaches of Tel Aviv, but the government’s goal is to promote migration into Negev and stimulate urban growth there. Pull factors include relocation of defense industry’s facilities and installations, and lower taxation for those willing to relocate.

Another goal is to provide the Bedouins with permanent settlements and open more land for agriculture (Figures 3-5). That already proved to be a challenge in northern Negev where life side-by-side between Jewish farmers and the Bedouins has created issues. Resolving conflicts related to land ownership and use, various social issues including criminal activity, and the inequality of economic prospects were issues once reserved for sheiks and other tribal leaders. Today, however, they must be addressed by Israel’s legal system, that is, unless the government wants to officially sanction the existence of two parallel societies evolving in the same area.

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Figure 3. The landscape of northern Negev. In the foreground an agricultural field lies ready for the next season’s planting and the Bedouin shacks sprawling along the hill slope. Photograph by the author.

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Figure 4. Israel’s goal is to transform Negev, and better utilize half of the country’s territory. Photograph by the author.

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Figure 5. Residential landscape of Rahat, Israel’s only Bedouin city. This is a planned community with neighborhoods designed to host over thirty different Bedouin clans, all of which are spatially separated in order to reduce the potential for conflicts and feuds. It is a bold attempt to transition a folk culture nomadic society into a sedentary lifestyle and provide an adequate sense of space and place. Photograph by the author.

Border Crossings

Almost every type of conflict in the Middle East, whether or not violent, has something to do with people crossing each others’ borders. Such actions, which involve the intrusion of space and transformation of places, naturally evoke corresponding reactions. This is a universal trait.

We forget, however, that cultural borders do not exist in nature; rather, they are creations of our own mind. Cultural borders—the separation of “us” versus “them”—are the chief means by which a community preserves its identity. In a folk culture environment, these borders include ethnic, religious, social, and economic divides, but they remain firm.

Modernization introduces foreign cultural traits, such as new social, and political institutions. It also brings long-term economic benefits. In order to harvest the benefits, a group needs to adjust its traditional way-of-life and modify the boundaries.

The foregoing examples illustrate primary dilemmas confronting the Druze in the north and Bedouins in the south. They are problems not easily solved and their resolution will involve major cultural adjustments within each group. Clearly, the state of Israel’s task of being a cohesive nation is equally as challenging as it attempts to balance this extremely diverse and continuously changing cultural environment.

End of part 2…

Sense of Place in a Space of Conflict: Israel (Part 2)
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