In the Negev, Religion Is Making the Desert Bloom

April 10, 2019 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

Both in and out of office, one of David Ben-Gurion’s enduring passions was settling the Negev, the vast desert in southern Israel, and turning it into an agricultural powerhouse. Reviewing two recent books about this part of the Jewish state, Allan Arkush notes that “while development has not taken place on the scale or in the way that Ben-Gurion imagined, Israel has, in fact, made a large swath of the desert bloom.” Arkush begins with Yael Zerubavel’s Desert in the Promised Land:

As Zerubavel reports, most of the Jews who came to settle in Israel’s south in the first two decades after the establishment of the state did so involuntarily. Immigrants, mostly from Arab countries, were transported “directly from the boat to their designated settlement in the Negev in order to minimize the possibilities for them to object to this plan.” In fact, some were smuggled into their new homes in development towns in the dead of night to prevent them from being alarmed by the desolation all around them. . . . Zerubavel, [however], writes not to condemn or, for that matter, to celebrate the policies pursued by Israeli leaders in the 1950s but to situate them in the context of a broad range of “complex and contradictory” Zionist stances toward the desert in general and the Negev in particular. . . .

The anthropologist Pnina Motzafi-Haller’s subjects [in her book Concrete Boxes: Mizrahi Women on Israeli’s Periphery] are all the descendants of the people who were unceremoniously dumped in the desert a half-century or more ago. Some of them have risen above the unfavorable circumstances . . . into which they were born, but others have never escaped them or have done so only for a short time. . . .

Of all the options available to her subjects, however, it is not rebellion but “religious strengthening” (hitazkut) that Motzafi-Haller regards as the “most constructive,” an attempt to transform, or at least better, their lives, rather than to escape them. “The act of participating in religion classes marks them as serious, respectable women with high spiritual aspirations, not gossips who spend their evenings watching shallow soap operas on television.” This can lead not only to greater peace of mind but also to new patterns of consumption [and financial responsibility].

Motzafi-Haller is, we shouldn’t forget, an unabashedly secular woman. Her recognition of the beneficial aspects of religiosity is neither pious nor apologeticShe sees hitazkut as just the best available option.

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