Jews and Muslims. Russians and Ukrainians. Bedouin and future Israeli soldiers. All living together at Nitzana, a community in southern Israel’s Negev desert, close to the border with Egypt.
Founded in the 1980s, Nitzana offers a place for youth to study, live and develop.
About 150 Bedouin children from surrounding villages call Nitzana home. They undergo a four-year education program, where, among other things, they learn to identify with and maybe even later serve the Israeli state in one way or another.
“The Bedouin have a long and very special tradition and culture, we don’t want to change them,” says Nitzana manager Avi Cohen.
“We want them to be a part of Israeli society. One of the biggest difficulties is the fact that there is separation between Jewish society and Bedouin society in the Negev. They live in their villages with their education systems and they are disconnected.”
Cohen says he wants to “create a connection” with the Bedouin, to recruit what he calls their “special capabilities” to advance both Israeli society in general and the Negev in particular.
Mubaarak Khamaayse, a 15-year-old from the Bedouin city of Rahat, spends five days a week in Nitzana. Moving there was a huge change.
“There is no racism like there was against me in Rahat,” he notes. “When I went to school in Rahat, there was racism from the students against me as a black child.”
He hopes he can become proficient in computers and software engineering. "Hopefully I will get to year 12 and finish with a high school diploma,” he said.
Nitzana also houses a pre-military academy, where future soldiers can spend half a year before they start their army service.
The community’s population has now also been bolstered by 200 youth from Ukraine and Russia, who arrived in recent weeks and months.
Sergey Sholosh, from Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region, fled Ukraine five months ago because of the Russian invasion of his homeland. To him and the others from Ukraine and Russia, Nitzana is supposed to provide the tools for them to build up a future in Israel.
He admits coming to Nitzana was unusual at first. And not just because the desert was an environment he was unused to.
“When I just arrived at Nitzana – there was a lot of military equipment. There are military and civil airplanes flying all the time and tanks.
“There are a lot of different nations here – also in the neighboring villages – indigenous Israelis, soon-to-be soldiers, Bedouins. But everything is fine, everyone is friendly, we talk to each other.”
With many cultures, different religions, political thoughts and experiences of war and conflict, it is not always easy for the young people to accommodate.
“Everyone comes with different behavior, different customs connected to culture, for example how one dresses. What seems to be too revealing for you can seem completely normal to me. Therefore, there is tension that accompanies these issues,” Cohen points out.
People also arrive with festering, built up anger, which also creates problems. Cohen however is undaunted.
“We are here together and we try to build up a life together,” he says. “It's not romantic, it's not always perfect but it's part of the story.”
The story was reprinted with permission from i24NEWS.