Israelis get leadership training here to take home

Israel’s efforts to make the Negev desert bloom has a dark side. But few Americans know about it, says American-born Israeli Devorah Brous.

“The Jewish population here has no idea that … development of the desert curtails Bedouins’ access to their land and to their traditional way of life,” she said.

To create more harmony between Bedouins and desert developers, Brous founded the nonprofit Bustan in 2000. The name refers, in both Hebrew and Arabic, to an orchard of fruit-yielding trees.

Brous was in Sonoma recently for intensive leadership training. She is one of four Israeli activists who visited Northern California this year to learn more effective leadership skills and apply them to their work in the Holy Land.

“One of the biggest blocks for us is that there is not enough cooperation between organizations, and this training showed us how to work more effectively as a team,” she said.

The training was conducted by the Rockwood Leadership Program, a nationally known, Berkeley-based organization providing professional development to nonprofit groups. Since 2000, Rockwood has offered training to more than 1,500 nonprofit leaders in the United States and Canada.

Brous’ training was part of a special arm of Rockwood called the Israeli Advocacy Leaders Fellowship.

“We see it as a ‘California meets Tel Aviv’ — as an international collaborative NGO [nongovernmental organization] working in the age of globalization,” said Gal Spinard, project director for the Israeli fellowship. “We have the potential to really support and enhance the Israeli social sector by providing this experience to its leadership.”

Brous lives in Jerusalem. Since she started Bustan she has worked closely with Bedouins living in the Negev, located in south-central Israel. Her goal is for Arabs and Jews to equitably share land, water and energy.

Some 180,000 Bedouins live in the Negev. They are Arabs and Israeli citizens. But corporate and residential development threatens their indigenous way of life, Brous said. She explained that Bedouins live close to about seven sizable settlements, 22 factories, an oil terminal, closed military zones, a munitions plant, multiple quarries, a toxic waste incinerator, a power plant, several airports, a prison and two rivers of open sewage.

Brous is proud of what Bustan has already accomplished — such as building a medical clinic, leading “Negev Unplugged” tours that point out clashes in industry and the environment and teaching low-income Bedouins about sustainable agriculture — but says there is much more to be done.

Nurit Haghagh, an Israeli woman who leads a nonprofit that advocates for greater equality for the country’s Sephardic Jews, also attended the training.

Her organization, Hakeshet Hademocratit, is certainly different from Bustan. She explains that for decades Sephardic Jews — those whose parents came from Arab or North African nations and not from Europe — have been marginalized in home ownership, workplaces and schools. Hakeshet seeks to uproot cultural stereotypes and improve the civil rights of Sephardic Jews.

For example, the average income of Ashkenazic Jews was a third higher than that of Sephardic Jews, according to a 2004 survey by the Adva Center, an Israeli policy group. Upward mobility is even less likely for Sephardic Jews who have lived in Israel for many years. Ashkenazi immigrants are up to 10 times more likely to study in a university than an Israeli-born Sephardic Jew, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

“The discrimination today is more subtle, more covert than in the past, and harder to recognize,” Hagagh says.

Even though the two women work with different populations and issues, they nonetheless feel connected by their ultimate goal: equality.

The nonprofit world in Israel is small but growing, Brous says. However, they’re all fighting for the same dollars, and it makes organizations competitive instead of cooperative.

Brous would love to see philanthropic organizations or Jewish federations make this requirement of their grantees: Share the dollars, work together or give the grant back.

“Change is incremental in the nonprofit world,” she says. “When you’re dependent on funders, it can be very trying. Imagine what we could do if we worked in partnership.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.