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Dr. Jill Biden, Wife of the Vice President, Praises New Israel Fund/Shatil Bedouin Women’s Program

11 March 2010

Laqia, Israel: Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, visited the Min Ajlina (“For Our Rights”) Bedouin Women’s Empowerment Project in Israel’s Negev today and expressed support for the program, which is a joint project of the New Israel Fund/SHATIL and the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI.)  The multi-track program strengthens Bedouin women as social change leaders, empowering them to effect positive change in public policy and advance the status and lives of Bedouin women in the Negev.

Addressing a group of Bedouin women involved in profit-making microenterprise, Dr. Biden said, “This is such a lovely project and it is so nice to meet you all. I am a working woman too, and I know how important it is to be independent.” A young Bedouin woman escorted Dr. Biden through the women’s workplace, explaining the spinning, dying and weaving of rugs sold to the public, providing women with much-needed income.

Rachel Liel, Israel Executive Director of the New Israel Fund/SHATIL, welcomed Dr. Biden, and emphasized the pressing need for women’s empowerment in the Bedouin community, by all socio-economic measures the most impoverished in Israel.

“The New Israel Fund was among the first funders and partners of the Bedouin community in Israel, a community long underserved in terms of resources, infrastructure and official government recognition.  We are very proud to welcome Dr. Biden, an educator herself, to a program that is successfully training and empowering a new generation of Bedouin leaders.”

Dr. Biden’s visit coincides with an increasingly strident debate inside Israel about the role of progressive civil society as well as foreign government support for human rights and social justice initiatives.  The New Israel Fund, the leading organization advancing democracy in Israel and the first funder of much of Israel’s third sector, is opposing pending Knesset legislation that would require organizations receiving financial support from foreign governments to register as the equivalent of “foreign agents,” and to give up their non-profit, tax-exempt status.  NIF, in particular, has come under attack for its support of human rights organizations, in the face of increasingly vocal right-wing opposition to the monitoring and reporting conducted by these groups.

“The Min Ajlina program is one of the best examples of a public-private partnership that is measurably improving peoples’ lives in Israel,” said NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch. “This joint effort between NIF and the US Government significantly supports unmet needs in Israel. It is this very funding that is potentially jeopardized by those who object to a robust and independent NGO sector.  We especially appreciate Dr. Biden’s visit at a time when the values of these programs must be publicly demonstrated.”

The Negev Bedouin are a population in transition: from nomadic herders to settled workers, from healthy people eating a nutritious diet and involved in physical labor to a population plagued by “modern” diseases.  More than 50,000 Bedouin citizens live in 36 villages that are still not legally recognized by the government and lack basic services such as running water, electricity, sewage systems and paved roads. The Bedouin residents of unrecognized villages live under constant threat of home demolition with no suitable housing alternatives. Bedouin women are particularly victimized by illiteracy, poverty and illegal but widely-practiced polygamy.

Currently, NIF is stepping up efforts to promote justice and recognition for unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev, particularly following the historic admission in 2008 by the Government-appointed Goldberg commission that official policies towards the Bedouin community have been unsatisfactory.  Eleven Bedouin villages have now been recognized by the Israeli government after years of advocacy by the NIF-supported Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages.

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