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Putting Meat on the Table: Employment Opportunities for Bedouins in the Negev (JDC)

In the south of Israel, a new work revolution is under sway. I'm not speaking of the housing or doctors' protests or even of land disputes, but of a small but crucial section of society which, with the help of the Jewish Federations of North America's historic partner, Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), is gaining access to the workforce: the Bedouin population of Segev Shalom. Known in Arabic as Shaqib al-Salam, Segev Shalom is a Bedouin town in the Negev, founded in 1979 as an initiative to provide Bedouins with residences in urban environments.

The One Stop Employment Center was set up in May 2010, and its work has been in facilitating the integration of Bedouins into the workplace. With around 200,000 Bedouin living in the Negev; 50% in government-recognized planned towns and 50%, residents of unrecognized locales, the Bedouin contingent is a significant percentage of Israeli society and is a sector focused upon in JDC's work.  As a result of the rapid and unplanned changes within the social infrastructure caused by the resettlement of the Bedouins from agrarian lifestyles, the communities have faced many difficulties, namely in integration.

Kher El-Baz, Director of Social Services for the Segev Shalom regional municipality, describes how over the past 10-15 years the Bedouin community has been spiraling downwards and is ill-equipped with tools to cope with the social and economic changes. These changes created a lot of social problems, including new ones which the Bedouins had not previously encountered, such as drugs. Smuggling of drugs and women, protection rackets and other illegal money-making activities have meant that the Bedouin community has been enmeshing itself in a cycle of crime.   

Growing at an average rate of around 5.3% per year, the Bedouin population's struggle with unemployment and attitudes towards work has only increased since the city's establishment. Only 3% of Bedouin men and women who graduate high school have the skills and are able to join the work force and the employment level among the Bedouin is 35%, the lowest for any sector in Israel. Of Bedouins between the ages of 18-67, 60% of men are working and 10% of women. The advent of the Of-Oz chicken factory in Segev Shalom, at the end of 2010, has provided a new outlet for this group's employment needs.

Of-Oz, as a fresh source of local industry, has been working together with the One-Stop Employment Center and as a result, hiring widely from Segev Shalom's 7,500 population and from the outlying areas, dramatically increasing the proportion of Bedouins employed. The One-Stop Employment Center, operates on three levels; individual, communal and regional. The main headquarters work from Beersheva and the second largest center in another Bedouin town, Hura, boasts a 35-40% employment rate of its present 300 clients, a steep turnaround from the drastic unemployment statistics.

JDC explains that the Centers in the Negev developed as a partnership between JDC, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor and the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee. The Centers are unique in that they provide a complete set of employment services under one roof – vocational training, individual employment counseling, a job database, courses in computers, Hebrew and English language skills, childcare assistance, and workshops on resume writing, interview skills and women’s entrepreneurship.

The Employment Center provides applicants with both the soft and hard skills needed for preparing themselves for interviews and Of-Oz, like other local employers, agrees to run training for its employees. JDC has three main targets in mind for the increased employment in the Negev; molding a positive work ethic with all its implications, empowering Bedouin women in the work market and restructuring any negative perspectives on hiring Bedouin workers. The Of-Oz factory is a step towards fulfilling these targets.

Visiting the Of Oz chicken factory in Segev Shalom is a meat eater's idea of gourmet paradise. Thousands of chickens pass through the factory every day on their way to people's kitchen tables. The largest factory of its type in the middle east, this is the first time such a large business has been built both in the Negev and in a Bedouin town. Since its construction, it has hired over 600 full time workers and another 1200 people, mostly from the Bedouin sector, are indirectly employed. 170 million shekels was invested in the project's execution and the project stands unique in its partnership of Jews and Bedouins.

At the time of the factory's launching, then Industry Minister, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, said, 'The Bedouin population can contribute greatly to the Israeli economy and it's our obligation to unearth that potential.  Their low percentage of participation in the workforce damages not only their own sector but also the business market and the potential of this group to flourish and above all, to damage us, as a country. ' A cause preeminently important to JFNA, JDC's historic partner, is that of strengthening Israel's community, by furthering social justice in providing the opportunity for all to thrive in a productive, socially beneficial activity and eradicating injustices where we identify them.

Ben Eliezer extrapolated that the low employment level threatened 'the possibility of shared life between Bedouins and other sections of society'. He expressed a wish that 'the establishment of this enterprise and the functioning of this center of industry would form the foundation for the hoped change to equal lives here in Israel'. With regards to Of-Oz, Ben Eliezer continued; 'The way to bringing them [the Bedouin communities] out from the cycle of violence and crime to integration in the state is found in the state's duty to fit them into a program of employment. That's what we're doing here today with the dedication of the chicken factory that will provide 600 places of work for Bedouins.'  JFNA and its historic partner, JDC, are involved in improving services for the most vulnerable Israelis. The greatest public change occurs, not when the organization stands prominently seen at the forefront of the action but when it facilitates social change from within. This is the essence of the Segev Shalom endeavor.