As we observe International Women’s Day today, Rabbis for Human Rights highlights the struggle to save the beloved ecological school at Khan al Akhmar, serving approximately 150 Jahalin Bedouin children living on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The school, currently slated for demolition due to Israel’s unjust planning policy, is the only viable formal educational option for the girls of the Khan al Akhmar community, and its destruction would signify a tremendous loss for the Jahalin women.
By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann
A little more than a hundred years ago, women’s rights and socialist groups marched in New York at the end of February demanding better working conditions and voting rights for women, and started something that has spread to many countries since then. This was later recognized by the United Nations in 1977 as International Women’s Day (IWD), and many countries around the world now commemorate that struggle today. It was decided to commemorate the struggle for equal rights for women and their contribution to society every 8th of March. This year, it just so happens that International Women’s Day is adjacent to the fast of Esther commemorating in Jewish tradition the courage of Queen Esther of Persia in speaking up to protect and save her people. Many Israeli and Jewish feminist groups have marked the fast of Esther with protest vigils, speaking up against discrimination against women in rabbinic law, in particular the problem of agunot (“anchored” women who cannot remarry).
On this special day I also think of the brave men and women of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe in the Judean desert, many of whom have in recent years taken the long, difficult journey towards better education for their girls (as well as their boys), most of whom have in the past been illiterate and unable to pursue education because of a restrictive patriarchal culture and the building and planning limitations imposed upon them by the Israeli occupation in Area C. Against tremendous odds and with the support of activist groups such as Rabbis For Human Rights, the Comboni sisters, the Jahalin cooperative and others, they have built schools, trained themselves as teachers, some finishing university studies, and then reinvesting in education within their own communities.
We see these hard won efforts so clearly in the story of the Khan Al Akhmar ecological school. Built in 2009 out of mud and tires by an Italian NGO, the school is currently under the immediate threat of demolition by the Israeli authorities as a result of Israel’s discriminatory building policy in Area C of the West Bank. Prior to the school’s opening, the nearest educational facility for the children of Khan al Akhmar and the surrounding communities was 45 minutes away. The distance was a major educational barrier for the community, and the tradition-bound Bedouin did not permit the girls to attend. However, the opening of the mud and tires school in the village itself changed all that, providing a practical and culturally acceptable solution to the challenges of enrolling Bedouin girls in formal education. The impact of the school on the community is indisputable: while many of the women and older girls sadly cannot read, most the younger girls now can!
Women are, as is well known, and has been the modern Jewish experience through groups like Hadassah in the USA, important agents of positive social change; education is a key element to their development as leaders in all societies, including the Bedouin. We must not permit the inequalities and inherent discriminatory practices of Israel’s military control over the West Bank obstruct the educational rights of Palestinian or Bedouin children, or impede modernization attempts within those communities in general.
On International Women’s Day, we salute the communities who have chosen this new path and acknowledged the capacity of women as agents of change, and we honor the fearlessness of those women who have taken steps beyond the traditional limitations of their communities. We at Rabbis for Human Rights will do what we can to continue to support them, especially in recently empowered but endangered communities such as Khan al Akhmar where the threat of demolition of their special school is imminent.
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann has been working with the Jahalin community for over a decade and is the director of organizational development at Rabbis for Human Rights
For more information on the threat to Khan al Akhmar: