In Israel, a Good Samaritan to Russian immigrants

Despite facing discrimination himself, Bedouin lawyer Raid al-Ubrah helps newcomers assert their rights.

danna harman
Counsel: Raid al-Ubrah (r.) is the Russian-language lawyer at Yad Riva, a nonprofit that offers free legal assistance.

It's almost evening and the al-Ubrah family is getting ready to break the Ramadan fast. Women in traditional dress kneel around an open fire making pita bread and the men lounge on cushions waiting for the sun to set and the feast to begin.

Raid al-Ubrah, the eighth of the family's 10 children, comes screeching home in his silver sports car, takes off his preppy paisley tie, scoops up his 5-year-old son, and puts his two mobile phones on vibrate. Office hours are over, he says with a grin, and its time to switch gears.

Mr. Ubrah cuts a rare figure among the 45,000 Bedouin who live in Rahat, Israel's only Bedouin city. For starters, he is a lawyer – an uncommon profession here. More uniquely, he speaks fluent Russian, having studied in St. Petersburg.

But for Ubrah, his volunteer work stands out. He's the in-house Russian-language lawyer at Yad Riva, a Jewish nonprofit in Beer Sheva that offers free legal assistance to the elderly, many of whom do not speak Hebrew confidently. They come for help with everything from filling in social security and pension forms, to advice on housing loans and what to do when their dog bites the neighbor and they get sued.

"I enjoy the action, I like the old people, and I like helping out," Ubrah says. "Who cares if the person asking for advice is Arab or Jew or Christian?"

From the desert to St. Petersburg

Excepting a high school trip to Egypt, the first time Ubrah left Israel was to study in Russia. Much of his clan – with thousands of members one of the largest in the southern Negev – came to see him off at Ben Gurion Airport.

"My dad grew up in the desert, living in a tent. And, while he may have wanted to be a lawyer, there were no opportunities," he says of his father, a nomad turned truck-company and travel-agency owner. "He paid for all my education and encouraged me. I had to make him proud."

In five years in St. Petersburg, Ubrah learned Russian, received a degree in international law, and came to love the Russian people.

Once he had settled in and started his small practice in Beer Sheva, Ubrah was on the lookout to do something to benefit Russians there.

But for a Bedouin, volunteering within the larger Israeli community is complicated.

"I don't agree with the basic concept of Israel as a Jewish state," says Ubrah, railing against what he calls gross government discrimination against Israeli Arabs, including the Bedouin.

During the last 40 years, about half of the 160,000 Negev Bedouins have moved, or been forced to move, from the desert to one of the seven government established Bedouin urban centers, where infrastructure is weak, and land is insufficient for traditional livelihoods like herding and grazing.

According to a 2007 study by the Van Leer Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank, 66 percent of Negev Bedouin live in poverty – compared with 25 percent of the general Israeli population.

The situation is far worse for those outside urban areas, who live scattered among some 39 villages not served by the government. Human Rights Watch asserted in a March report that officials systematically demolish Bedouin homes in these villages while overlooking or retroactively legalizing unlawful construction by Jewish citizens nearby.

"Israel should officially be a state for all its citizens. What, this is not my country? I don't pay taxes?" asks Ubrah.

Clinton Bailey, a Bedouin advocate, activist, and scholar, stresses that Ubrah's sentiments are representative of the community.

"There is a general growing feeling that the state has really let them down in terms of social services and resources," he says, pointing out that fewer Bedouin serve in the military or vote for Jewish Israeli political parties than ever before. "This is leading to alienation, and in some cases even political extremism," he says.

Despite these tensions, Ubrah didn't think twice about Yad Riva.

"The fact that the government is bringing in all these Russian so-called Jews and giving them rights here, while we are lacking in ours, is not something I accept," he says. "But the immigrants themselves? What are they to blame?"

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, more than 1 million Russians have come to Israel under the law of return. Many of those who visit say Yad Riva is a godsend.

Naomi Neuhaus, the Yad Riva coordinator in Beer Sheva, says they originally put out a call for a Russian lawyer. "But no one was volunteering. And then in came Raid. And well, he was a surprise. A terrific one."

Providing consultation and kindness

Ms. Neuhaus often sits in on Ubrah's clinics, even though she doesn't understand Russian. Recently, a feisty woman in bright turquoise pants came in crying over a money feud with her children. Ubrah drafted a letter for her and gave her a tissue. Another woman, who arrived with family in tow and a stack of papers she could not read – was upset about her rent agreement. Ubrah crafted a letter to her landlord.

A secretary came in and interrupted a meeting with a plate of cookies. "Take that away!" bellowed Neuhaus, "Don't you know its Ramadan?" she protests, waving her arms wide in Ubrah's direction.

Maybe the client is hungry, suggests Ubrah, nodding kindly at a man seeking debt advice. "Everyone has their own story here. That's acceptable."

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