Ruth Wasserman Lande is one of the four speakers at FEDtalks, the kickoff event of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign, on Sept. 13. (photo from Ruth Wasserman Lande)
In her “day job,” Ruth Wasserman Lande is deputy director-general of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, a position in which, among other things, she seeks out the best practices of municipal governments around the world and shares them with cities and towns in Israel. As a “volunteer, extracurricular” side gig, she is involved in a pilot project that could have massive implications for Israel’s cohesion, security, economic and social advancement and the place of minorities within the country.
She and a group of volunteers – many of them, like her, alumni of the Wexner Foundation’s Israel fellowship at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government – are turning a disadvantaged Bedouin village in the north of Israel into a model community that can be replicated across the country.
Improving the economic conditions and the integration of non-Jewish citizens into the Zionist project is crucial for Israel’s future, Wasserman Lande said in a telephone interview with the Jewish Independent, and the Bedouin population is critical to this undertaking. She will speak about the project and its potential impacts at FEDtalks, the kickoff event of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign, next month.
The town of Shibli Um El-Ghanem has a population of 6,700, all of whom are Muslim Bedouins and many of whom serve in the Israel Defence Forces or alternative civil service. Bedouins in the country’s north have a long history as “exemplary citizens,” going back to service in the War of Independence, she said.
“The potential impact of the 180,000 Bedouins in the north is far larger than their absolute number, and the country’s strategic alliance with them since the establishment of the state has been, and remains, key to its national security interests,” Wasserman Lande has written. The pilot project will “serve as a positive example to others in the village who do not serve in the IDF, as well as other minorities, who find themselves in the crossroads between different vectors which threaten to draw them away from moderate integration into Israeli society.”
Wasserman Lande notes that Egypt’s poor treatment of its Bedouin population is to blame for some of the anti-government unrest in Sinai, while Israel’s comparative success in integrating Bedouins has dissuaded many in that community from becoming attracted to extremist movements. Success in this pilot project is integral, she contends, to cementing Bedouin allegiance to Israel and providing an example to other minority communities.
The project is a multi-pronged effort to identify and address challenges and opportunities within the town. It includes the establishment of a centre for scientific excellence, as well as a regional centre of United Hatzalah, the first aid brigade created and run by Charedi Jews, which is often first on the scene at emergencies, providing basic medical care until the arrival of Magen David Adom. It also includes the creation of a Bedouin Heritage Visitors Centre, which will represent northern Bedouin culture and heritage.
A regional industrial park serving Jewish and Arab communities in the Lower Galilee is intended to provide opportunities for employment and growth.
In analyzing the untapped assets of the town, Wasserman Lande and her team identified tourism as a potential source of economic growth. Shibli is located at the base of Mount Tabor, which is home to two important churches – one Catholic and one Orthodox Christian – and is located in a place of immense natural beauty. The churches attract 500,000 pilgrims a year, but the area has done little to maximize the economic potential of these visitors. When the model is replicated in other towns, she said, economic assets unique to each place will be identified.
Shibli was selected to test the model because it ticked many boxes, one of which was the cooperation of the local authorities, including a mayor who is a dual Canadian-Israeli citizen. It is also notable that the town is on Israel’s demographic and geographic periphery and is socioeconomically disadvantaged.
While there are tangible components to the project, there are also capacity-building aspects that target less visible obstacles to the success of communities like Shibli. The central government, through its various ministries, allocates significant financial resources to local communities, but some are better than others at doing the administrative work required to access funding and use it efficiently. While public aid may be available, Wasserman Lande said, obtaining it often depends on “being able to speak to the right people, open the right doors, do the right follow-up.” Successful use of funds also depends on confronting nepotism and a lack of transparency in some communities. Part of the project is to develop skills in local leadership.
Wasserman Lande sees the entire undertaking as a Zionistic one.
“The vision is Zionistic, my drive and incentive is Zionistic,” she said. “I’m thinking, what is good for my country? It is very important for my country strategically that this particular population is aligned with its interests.”
If successful, the project will advance the Zionist project within Israel and abroad, she said.
“That will create, if it’s a success story, a model formulation for other minorities,” said Wasserman Lande. “It will also be a flagship against BDS [the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel] across the world as a beautiful, successful model formulation in a completely Muslim village. In a little bit of a later stage it can even serve as a potential bridge – a people bridge – between Israel and the Saudi Arabian Bedouins, Egyptian Bedouins … but we are not there yet. Furthermore, it will empower and enhance the Bedouins themselves, first and foremost those that live in that particular village.… That is something very, very special.”
Prior to beginning this project and her position as deputy director-general of the municipal authority, Wasserman Lande was an advisor to the late former president of Israel, Shimon Peres. From him, Wasserman Lande learned something that she said has served her well in this undertaking.
“I will say only one thing [about Peres]: he didn’t think that anything was impossible,” she said. “It was an inspiration for me. That’s really the driving force behind this whole project because I can definitely say from the bottom of my heart that it is very challenging.”
Wasserman Lande will be one of four speakers at FEDtalks on Sept. 13 – for tickets, visit jewishvancouver.com/fedtalks2017. The Independent has invited all four speakers to be featured in advance of the event. Next week: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.