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Moses in the Desert

Israel’s Prawer Plan recapitulates the errors of Robert Moses

By Joshua B. Lipson

In the theater of the absurd that often becomes of Birthright’s trips for Diaspora Jewish youths to Israel, few moments are stranger than the detour into the Negev desert to the now-canonical “Bedouin tent.” Pitched by businessmen for tourists, stocked with modern comforts, and designed with intra-Jewish coupling in mind, the airy tent becomes a romantic stand-in for the experience of the Negev Bedouin, one of two varieties of “Good Arab” in the official Israeli imagination. “You see, hevre,” I imagine a guide explaining to a bunch of clueless American Joshes and Jeremies, “the clannish Bedouins don’t want trouble like other Arabs—they’re loyal to the State of Israel, and serve as excellent scouts in the army!”

What he says nothing about, I imagine, is the fact that within a matter of months, the Israeli government will be expelling between 30,000 and 40,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel from their traditional villages, razing their homes, and resettling them in state-built townships according to its own semi-private master plan.

Although the Israeli parliament voted by a substantial margin to approve the Begin-Prawer Plansaid by its supporters to be a remedy for the rural squalor in which many Bedouins liveat no point did a single one of the potential deportees get a chance to vote on his future. This should come as no surprise: Ethnically and geographically distant from the Israeli Jewish elite and long seen as a slow-to-anger, apolitical constituency, Bedouins have experienced nothing like the equal citizenship described by Birthright’s “Good Arab” mythmakers. But as anywhere between one-seventh and one-fifth of the Negev Bedouin population is forcibly transferred, it is easy to imagine that the Israeli state will once and for all lose the support of a substantial minority populationtransforming the Negev into a problem region (politically speaking; it already is one in economic terms), while forcing young Adam and Rachel to find another tent in which to mate, their Bedouin hosts sufficiently disillusioned.

Before you begin to shake your head in exasperation with “the Zionist settler-colonials,” dear reader, consider the following: It has happened in Americamore often, more recently, and closer by than you think. In the mid-20th century, “master builder” Robert Moses asserted non-governmental control over the planning show in New York City, advocating for large-scale displacements to make room for his massive, Progressive-minded infrastructural projects. Speaking in the name of New Deal reformism but shot deeply through with contempt for African-Americans and ethnic immigrant whites, he set into motion the shattering of entire neighborhoods, including my grandparents’ in the Bronx, in order to make room for such projects as the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Say what one will about his insensitivity, but there’s little doubt that Robert Moses’ infrastructural colossi made getting around core and metropolitan New York easier, faster, and more economical.

For whatever impulse toward ethnic cleansing might underlie the Begin-Prawer Plan, its stated purpose—one not terribly unlikely to be achieved—is the improvement of Bedouins’ material standard of living by getting them on the infrastructural grid and into the loop of government services. Provocatively posing the benefits of the resettlement plan to a left-liberal audience, Meirav Arlosoroff writes in Ha’aretz that Begin-Prawer commits the state to spending 2.5 billion shekels ($711 million) on new and existing Bedouin townships—and will finally force the state to deliver services to a sector frequently neglected because of the state’s very refusal to recognize its communities as legal. Ms. Arlosoroff might possibly be right—the benefits of aggressive development might well outweigh the moral revulsion of forced population transfers—just as Robert Moses might in some sense have been instrumentally right to have displaced my grandparents.

But there is reason to doubt the wisdom of authoritarian government solutionists, convinced that communities will at the end of the day be grateful to the bulldozers that demolish them. This was the overarching theme of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," a 1961 masterpiece by Robert Moses’ archrival, Jane Jacobs. If you enjoy Greenwich Village or SoHo, know that it is due to the strenuous objections of Jacobs to Robert Moses’ doctrine of top-down urban planning that a Lower Manhattan Expressway doesn’t exist in these neighborhoods’ stead. Crafting a bold theory of urban social capital, she argued that without eyes on the street, urban planners failed to appreciate the harm that heavy-handed reshaping of the cityscape wrought on the social and economic productivity of neighborhood communities—bringing about crime, disillusionment, and flight in their attempts to engineer perfect cities.

The Jacobsian conservative argument against the Begin-Prawer Plan couldn’t be clearer: Shattering long-established Bedouin communities for the sake of putatively efficient allocation of land and services will devastate social capital in an already marginalized, impoverished community on the fringes of Israeli society. If the Bedouin and Jewish development townships alike are any indicator of the likely outcome of mass settlement projects in the Negev, would-be Robert Moseses ought to take pause: No intensity of flow from the government spigot has seemed to be able to quench the problems of crime, delinquency, and disillusionment that result from being herded into shabby, boring, and artificial places.

These concerns about the practicality of Bedouin resettlement must be coupled with the moral case against deportation—lest Israeli planners continue down the hazardous road of Moses in the desert.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. Follow him on Twitter @Josh_Lipson.

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