By Shelley Neese, The Jerusalem Connection
Then those of the Negev will possess the mountain of Esau, and those of the Shephelah the Philistine plain; also, possess the territory of Ephraim and the territory of Samaria, and Benjamin will possess Gilead. And the exiles of this host of the sons of Israel, Who are among the Canaanites as far as Zarephath, and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad will possess the cities of the Negev. The deliverers will ascend Mount Zion. To judge the mountain of Esau, and the kingdom will be the LORD’S”. (Obadiah 1:19-21)
Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Obadiah are just three of the biblical prophets who received divine revelations about a future war between the reunited Houses of Joseph and Jacob and the House of Esau. The prophets foretold an ultimate victory over Israel’s enemies, recovery of the land that was promised, and a final ingathering of the children of Abraham. The prophet Obadiah, however, is given a very specific vision providing remarkable detail about where exactly in Israel one specific group of exiles will assemble. Obadiah’s vision reveals the return of exiles from Spain, the Sephardim, to take possession of the Negev, Israel’s southern desert. This short sentence—“the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad will possess the cities of the Negev”—may be easily overlooked by the passive reader but the alert believer immediately recognizes a prophecy that is being fulfilled at this very hour.
Sephardim, persecuted for nearly two millennia and dispersed for half a century, are returning to the Negev. Hundreds of thousands from the Middle East and North Africa returned with the foundation of Israel. Now, the Bnai Anusim, the lost Sephardic Jews in Latin and South America, are—five hundred years after their ancestors were forcefully converted to Catholicism—discovering their Jewish identities and Hebraic roots for the first time. As they awaken to their heritage, many of these Bnai Anusim are being called to the Negev. God, in all his mystery, is transforming a land without a people into the eternal possession of a people without a land.
Over the preceding centuries, Obadiah’s vision would have seemed more like a curse than a blessing for the Sephardim since the Negev was no prize to be won. After centuries of neglect under the Ottoman Empire, the Negev was completely desolate and sparsely populated. When the British Mandatory Authorities explored the region after WWI, they marked it as uninhabitable, dismissing the idea of Jewish resettlement. The land was just as Deuteronomy 29:23 said it would be after centuries of exile: “a burning waste of salt and sulfur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it.”
Making something out of nothing, however, is where Zionism excels. With the establishment of the state of Israel, the ingenuity of Israeli pioneers turned previously desolate wasteland into a success story of the Zionist movement. Israeli engineers developed the world’s greatest systems of water desalination, drip irrigation, and desert preservation. The Negev bloomed into an economically productive desert with thriving agricultural settlements, fish farms, floral hothouses, and desert research centers. Only after this miraculous transformation was the harshness of the desert conquered and the Negev ready to be populated.
Indeed, Sephardim were the first large group to inhabit the region. Soon after Israel’s birth, the world witnessed the partial fulfillment of Obadiah’s vision as hundreds of thousands of Sephardim from all over the Middle East and North Africa returned to the Jewish homeland to reclaim the land marked as their spiritual inheritance. In the 1950’s and 60s, 600,000 Jews immigrated to Israel from Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Egypt, Iraq and other parts of the Arab world. The Government of Israel was intent on using this massive immigration to settle the unpopulated parts of the land. They placed the vast majority of these Sephardic immigrants in absorption camps and development towns in the southern half of Israel. The heavy Sephardic influence and large numbers of Sephardim in the Negev’s cities and towns is still felt today.
The Negev, however, has yet to reach its full potential. God’s plans for the region are not complete. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, said “the Negev holds the key to Israel’s path and its future.” His belief and vision are still relevant today.
The Negev accounts for over sixty percent of the land of Israel but has only ten percent of the population. In contrast, the narrow coastal land in the center of the country accounts for 50% of Israel’s total population, one of the most densely populated areas in the developed world. As the center of the country reaches its maximum capacity, the Negev is the most obvious solution for relieving population pressures. Since the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has put a particular emphasis on the Negev and declared its development as one of Israel’s primary national missions. The Jewish National Fund’s Blueprint Negev and the Government of Israel’s National Master Plan 35 have created planning policies for the next twenty years to focus on developing the Negev in a few key areas: establishing new settlements, doubling the population of Beer Sheva, reinforcing desert infrastructure, relocating industries to the Negev, and encouraging small business development.
While the government’s business and infrastructure plans are moving forward and meeting their targets, the biggest challenge for Negev developers has been the recruitment of large communities to populate new areas of the desert. The high temperatures, little rainfall, and more rustic lifestyle of the desert towns are significant obstacles to overcome in luring Israelis away from the cafes and malls of Tel Aviv. Despite recruitment efforts of the Jewish Agency, the majority of new immigrants are settling in Jerusalem and the center of the country. If Israel’s goals for the Negev are to come to fruition, there needs to surface a large group of people divinely led to the desert.
Obadiah’s vision already identifies the individuals God has hand-selected to possess the Negev. This prophecy was partially fulfilled with the first wave of Sephardim from the Middle East and North Africa, but it will not be fully fulfilled until the Sephardim from the opposite side of the ocean have claimed their part of the spiritual inheritance. There are thousands—some suspect millions—of Sephardim currently living in Mexico, South America, and the southwestern United States. As their ancestors’ identities were hidden because of persecution, the Bnai Anusim’s knowledge of their Jewishness was buried over time. Only now, in the last twenty years, are the Bnai Anusim awakening to their calling in larger numbers, returning to the Jewish community, and making Aliya. The Negev, now conquered and cultivated, is prepared to absorb thousands of these new immigrants. In some mysterious way, this land has been saving itself for the return Obadiah prophesied. As settlement of the Negev grows in importance for the future of the country, all that awaits the desert is a massive Aliya—the ingathering of the lost Sephardim.
Shelley Neese is Managing Editor of The Jerusalem Connection.