Vivian Silver, center ©Photo by Barbara Gingold, Jerusalem 2011

Promoting Peace and Development within the Bedouin and Jewish Society

It's hard to imagine a place more at odds with the mid-Western Canadian city of Winnipeg, where winter temperatures not infrequently dive to minus 30 degrees, than a Bedouin town in the Negev desert. Yet to Vivian Silver, who came on aliyah from Winnipeg in 1974 and lives today in Kibbutz Be'eri, near Gaza, both share some common threads.

As Co-Executive Director, together with Amal Elsana Alh'jooj, of NISPED – the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (www.nisped.org.il) – she is convinced of the possibility of social change, wherever it takes place. "There is an inseparable connection between peace and development. In situations of conflict, people on both sides need to feel their lives will be improved in order for them to make the necessary compromises that will lead to peace or stability," she says. "That is equally true in inner cities; in Winnipeg with its First Nation population and in the Negev with its Bedouin and Jewish populations."

Recently, Vivian and Amal were awarded the 2011 Victor J. Goldberg IIE Prize for Peace in the Middle East in recognition of their efforts to promote peace and development within the Jewish and Arab society in Israel. The honor recognized their initiatives to train and empower the Arab Bedouin community of the Negev with a particular emphasis on the crucial role of women in the process of community development.

The ceremony, says Vivian, was unusual and exciting. "Victor Goldberg decided that it should be held in the area in which we work, so it took place in the Bedouin city of Rahat. That enabled the people in the community in which we work to be present at the ceremony and allowed them to see that the work we are doing is not only valued by them, but by the international community." Among those attending were the US Embassy Consul General, the mayor of Rahat, members of the international diplomatic corps and national and regional policy makers.

So how did a girl from the prairies end up living in a desert kibbutz and working with the Bedouin?

Vivian's work stems from a lifelong concern for social justice, in terms of both gender discrimination and the rights of minorities. It was only natural that when she moved to the Negev, she would extend her interest to local affairs.

As a founding member of the reestablished Kibbutz Gezer, Vivian was elected the kibbutz's first secretary general, was the founder and first director of the Department to Advance Gender Equality in the United Kibbutz Movement and a member of the Knesset sub-committee for the Advancement of Women in Work and the Economy. She is the co-chair of Shutafut-Sharaka, a forum of civil society organizations committed to the advancement of democratic values and the promotion of an equal and shared society for all Israeli citizens. She is also active in ALLMEP (Alliance for Middle-East Peace), is a member of the Public Advisory Committee of Midot, which evaluates nonprofit organizations in Israel and on the board of B'tselem, a human rights organization in Israel.

Married to Lewis Zeigen, a former New Yorker, Vivian lives on Kibbutz Beeri with her two sons Chen and Yonatan, 24 and 22, who are presently travelling the world, one on route to Mongolia, the other trekking in northern India. She and her husband cycle over the weekend and Vivian is able to release built up tension through weekly yoga classes on the kibbutz.

But living in the Negev, she became aware of the terrible difficulties faced by the local Bedouin population, including high unemployment and illiteracy rates, poverty and living conditions which sometimes lack basic services such as running water and electricity.

Her work with NISPED and its Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation (AJEEC) led her and her co-director Amal Elsana to develop programs for this community, focusing on early childhood education, health promotion, education and Arab-Jewish volunteer activities and economic development enterprises, among others. One such program is the catering kitchen in the Bedouin community of Hura. Funds were raised to renovate a building that houses an industrial kitchen where Bedouin women were professionally trained and now produce some 3,000 hot lunches a day for the village schools. "This is an incredible project which has enabled women to support their families," Vivian says.

Another project is the Jewish-Arab gap year program run in cooperation with the Israeli Scouts movement, which involves Jewish and Bedouin high school graduates volunteering together for a full year. Yet another program focuses on a group of Palestinian and Israeli women who are creating joint craft products which are sold as "products for peace".

In spite of difficulties, both Amal and Vivian feel that they are totally committed to what they are doing. Says Amal, "We have no choice but to deal with the challenges."

According to Vivian, "In a sense we are a microcosm of what our two peoples could potentially be – open to each other's cultures, respectful of our differences, working for a better world for both our peoples.

"We do everything we can to educate both populations that there is room in this country for both our peoples to live together in human dignity. We have developed models of community development in the Negev that can be implemented elsewhere in the Middle East and in fact, everywhere."

Even, perhaps, in Winnipeg. 

Carol Novis, formerly from Winnipeg, worked for the Canadian government. In Israel since 1976, she has worked as a journalist working on several newspapers, and also teaches journalistic editing at Beit Berl College.

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Linda Samet
2011-09-19
I enjoyed reading about a long lost friend from Camp Massad. Linda Samet (nee Levin)

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About the author

Carol Novis

Carol was born in Winnipeg, Canada and after university, worked for the Canadian government in Ottawa and then London, England. She came to live in Israel in 1976. Most of her career has been spent...
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