International Fellowship of Christians and Jews

Ethnic GroupsBedouin People

While the term "Bedouin" conjures images of flowing robes and roaming tribes, most Bedouin living in Israel today have become sedentarized, leaving their nomadic lifestyle, moving into houses, and finding employment. But their culture is strong, and thought they might be settled in one place, their tradition has not died out.

The Bedouin tribes originated in the Arabian Peninsula. After the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, tribes began migrating to Israel. Approximately half of those tribal immigrants came to the Negev and to the Galilee from the Arabian Peninsula; farmers from Egypt and tribes-people from Sudan made up the other half. Although Israel does not differentiate between races within Bedouin culture, the Bedouin themselves often differentiate between "black Bedouins" and "white Bedouins." The "white Bedouin" are dark-skinned; the "black Bedouin" are actually of African descent, tribal people who were kidnapped and sold as slaves, eventually being brought to Israel. After Israel became a state, the "black Bedouin" were free, and many chose to live among the "white Bedouin" in towns and villages, although the latter still consider them second class citizens, and marriage between the two groups is still taboo.

Today, there are approximately 170,000 Bedouin in Israel; the majority, 110,000, live in the Negev, 50,000 in the Galilee, and another 10,000 in the central region. They are predominantly Muslim, and place great importance on a code of honor within their society. Bedouin tend to marry within families (first and second cousins) and ideally try to live with three generations together—grandparents and grandchildren living / traveling together.

Once, the Bedouin livelihood depended entirely on their flocks. They moved from place to place, in search of suitable grazing land for their herds. As early as the 19th century, Bedouins living under British rule began to transition to a semi-nomadic lifestyle. In the 1950's and 1960's, as populations grew and pasture land shrunk, large groups of Bedouin left their nomadic lifestyle and settled into towns across the Middle East. Many Bedouin saw the advantages of becoming citizens of a country, and receiving the accompanying benefits, in contrast to their life as roaming, stateless herders. They began to lead a life of farmers, rather than that of shepherds. Today, Bedouin work mostly in agriculture, heavy industry, the building industry, and as drivers.

For the Bedouin, it has not been an easy road to a more settled lifestyle. They have faced problems such as having to relinquish their old way of life, their economy, and customs; dealing with the poverty and high crime rate as they adjust to living in cities; and conflicting with the Israeli government over many of the "unrecognized villages" in which the Bedouin live. However, the government has established a Ministerial Committee for the Advancement of Bedouin Affairs, and pledged billions of NIS in order to find an equitable solution for the Bedouin people. The Galilee Bedouin have traditionally volunteered for the military services, and as a consequence, have an exceptionally good relationship with the state.

Though many of the Bedouin customs are no longer, the tradition of extending hospitality remains strong. Many tourists seek out the unique experience of lodging with the Bedouin—the chance to ride on a camel, eat authentic Bedouin dishes while sitting on a decorative low cushion, and listen to the beautiful strains of music played by the Bedouin host. As the sun sets, a traditional Bedouin storyteller will often rise, ready to share his tales. Many Bedouin sites run bed and breakfasts, where visitors can enjoy the warm hospitality during their travels. In the north, the Shibli tribe, which originated from Yemen and live on the slopes of Mt. Tabor, keep close ties with their Yemenite Jewish cousins. One particular family specializes in pre-wedding henna, the decorative ink used to draw intricate designs on the hands and feet of the bride. Yemenite Jewish brides have been known to visit before their weddings for this unique "makeover."

Although, like many ancient peoples, the Bedouin have had to adapt to modernization and urbanization, traditions and customs—strong familial and tribal ties, extending warm hospitality to guests—still live on within each individual family, continuing to be passed on to the next generation.