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From Brooklyn to the Negev desert

An ambitious plan hatched by an American-Israeli organization is set to bring at least a thousand North American Jews to Israel by the end of July. NBC’s Hanson Hosein reports
/ Source: NBC News

The Bedouin are renowned for their relentless wandering across the Arabian peninsula. The Jewish “diaspora” refers to the millennia-old exile of Jews from their biblical homeland as they dispersed around the globe. But the Abu Hamad tribe, 800-strong, have parked their caravans and now live in the makeshift village of Deragot, deep in the Negev desert. And last week, the Julian family of Brooklyn left their home in America for good. They took temporary refuge — in the Bedouin village.

NOW THE FOUR Julian children help feed the sheep. And they all sleep fitfully under the stars on a rooftop, where it’s cooler at night, but noise from the dogs, donkeys and roosters often wake them. Their reward is a spectacular sunrise that bathes the barren land in golden light.

“It’s a good experience for all of us, especially for my kids,” Hannah Julian said. “They will learn things here they will learn nowhere else in Israel.”

The Julians were part of a mass exodus of 330 American Jews who left JFK last week on an 747 jet. They were part of an ambitious plan hatched by the American-Israeli organization Nefesh B’Nefesh (“Soul to Soul” in Hebrew) to bring at least a thousand North American Jews to Israel by the end of July. Every Jew has the automatic “right to return” to Israel. But immigration to the Jewish state has dropped since the violent Palestinian uprising began in September 2000. In 2002, 34,831 Jews moved to Israel, compared to the 76,766 who did so in 1999.

The immigrants are well taken care of when they arrive, and are assigned Israeli families to stay with until they can move into permanent residence.

But Sinai and Hannah Julian had other plans. And it’s all because of Younis Abu Hamad, a Bedouin tour guide and the couple’s friend.

“What are you doing in New York?” According to Hannah Julian, that’s what Abu Hamad asked her when the Bedouin first met them during a trip to Israel a year and a half ago, “You’re a Jew,” he said. “This is supposed to be your place.”

It was all the convincing the Julians needed. They had been planning to move to Israel for years, and they saw Abu Hamad’s invitation as a sign that they should finally come. And when they did, the Bedouin insisted they stay in his house until their apartment in nearby Arad was ready.

“They’re wonderful people,” Sinai Julian said. “They’ve been like family to us.”

SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP It’s unusual enough that Arab and Jew should get along so well here, especially during a volatile period where a tenuous truce could erupt in violence at any time. It’s even more strange that urban Americans would choose to spend their first days in a new land, living in such Spartan conditions in the desert, near the Dead Sea.

However, the 185,000 Bedouin of Israel, have typically been on good terms with the Jewish state. Some have even served in the Israeli army and are famed for their tracking skills. Yet, these Arabs have been a slow collision course with Israel, because of their land claims in the Negev. There have been a number of expropriations and evictions as the Israeli government eyes further development in the region that accounts for nearly half of the country’s land mass.

Deragot is an “illegal” Bedouin village, according to the Israeli government. Younis Abu Hamad’s family built their homes here without a permit — which is why they don’t receive any services from the state, such as running water or sewage. They maintain a large generator that supplies the village with electricity.

Still, the Bedouin don’t have the same highly-charged dispute with Israel as do the Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The Palestinians claim their own “right of return,” and are frustrated that the Israeli version has only resulted in their further displacement. The Julians may have exercised their rights under Israeli law, and immigrated with relative ease. Still, Abu Hamad says he doesn’t believe he’s contributing to the plight of his fellow Arabs by encouraging more Jews to come here.

“The people can live together,” he said. “It’s not a matter of your religion, or your color.” He pointed at the Julians. “We are a special example for other people. To come, and to try, and to sit, and to speak together.”

The tour guide added that sometimes when a hotel asks him to lead a group of Jewish tourists, they will refuse to go out with him, even when the hotel’s Israeli management stands up for him.

“People are afraid because I’m not a Jew,” he said.


The Julians say a few of their friends wondered if they were crazy to accept Arab hospitality.

“The fact of the matter is, Jews and Bedouin can live together with no problem,” Hannah Julian said. “They respect our customs, we respect theirs.”

Sinai does his prayers in the garden, in plain view of the rest of the village. This deeply religious family is still able to keep a kosher kitchen because Abu Hamad has given them a house to themselves. All the children play with each other, resorting often to sign language. And Bedouin modesty has a lot in common with Orthodox Jewish decorum, along with the separation between men and women who aren’t married to each other.

“I’ve probably got less of a chance of being attacked here in this village as a Jew than I have in the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv today,” Hannah Julian said. She added that the terrorist attacks against America on Sept. 11 prove that nowhere is really safe. “If God really wants me, he knows where to find me.”

This is the kind of attitude that heartens the Israel government.

“We don’t cower before terrorism,” Israel’s finance minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said in an interview. He said the renewed interest among American Jews to move here proves Israel will ultimately triumph. “It is telling the terrorists you’re not going to succeed. This is the ultimate victory over terrorism.”

Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Tony Gelbart said there’s been very little fear of violence among the Americans he has helped emigrate. “You would think terror or turmoil will deter these people,” he said. “But actually, it eggs them on, it pushes them forward.”


Immigration is crucial to the future of Israel, whether or not the current U.S.-backed peace initiative succeeds or not. Officials worriedly point to the demographic time bomb that forecasts that sometime within the next two decades, Arabs will outnumber Jews in the area that makes up Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. And they say that threatens the viability of the Jewish state.

InsertArt(1978111)Which is why even Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was on hand to welcome the Julians and the other American Jews when they landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport last week. Israelis are positively thrilled that citizens from their closest, and strongest ally, opted to leave the comfort of America to move here.

“We always needed you,” Sharon told the new arrivals. “But now, we need you much more than ever.”

There are still about a million more Jews in the United States than in Israel. But Nefesh B’Nefesh says it hopes to encourage another hundred thousand to join this latest group in the next 10 years.

The Julians say they’re excited to finally be here. Sinai hopes to teach English in the town of Arad. Hannah is a social worker, and runs a Jewish attention deficit disorder group in the United States, so she’ll have to commute between both countries for a few months. This duality also affects their children.

“When you come here, it feels like you’re home,” 12-ear-old Kobi Julian said. “But then you go back to America and you feel like you’re home too.”

Nonetheless, her parents say they’re making an important statement by choosing to live here — and to befriend Arabs.

“This is family,” Sinai said, pointing to the Abu Hamads. “We all have the same roots, going back to our father Abraham. It’s time for the family to come together. And stop having this family fight.”

Hanson Hosein is on assignment in the Middle East.