Barrie battles for Bedouin rights as he fights his own health crisis

By Doreen Wachmann

CANCER sufferer and stroke survivor Barrie Rockman refuses to have his spirits dampened by his medical condition.

Instead, he is throwing himself into a campaign for better health care for Israeli Bedouin.

Birmingham-born Barrie, who now lives on Moshav Eshtaol, near Beit Shemesh, is very aware of anti-Israel feelings all over the world, including among Diaspora Jews.

Which is why he thought that a scheme to help Israeli Bedouin might capture the imagination of Jews critical of Israel and urge them to put their hands in their pockets.

Barrie was inspired to espouse the Bedouin cause when his friend Zvi Lidar, who works for Leumit Health Services, met a Bedouin woman in the Negev desert.

Barrie said: "A young Bedouin woman was carrying a child in one arm while pulling another toddler of about three, who was dragging his feet by her side. It was very hot."

The woman, Aisha, refused a lift from Zvi and his Bedouin colleague for fear of her husband.

She was on her way to the nearest clinic with her three-year-old son who had had a high fever for three days. She had to carry the baby as she had no one to leave him with.

She told the men that she rarely attended the clinic as it took too long on foot and she had no-one to leave her other children with.

Zvi then conceived the project of a mobile medical unit to bring healthcare to the 70,000 Bedouin, who live in about 45 unrecognised Negev villages, which are currently in the news because of the Israeli government's recent Prawer-Begin plan to resettle the villagers in more modern accommodation.

Barrie said: "Most of those settlements are unauthorised and unregulated by the Israeli authorities and therefore lack even the basic state-provided infrastructure of water, electricity and roads.

"The distance between one residential compound and another is considerable. In the absence of official land utilisation plans, no buildings, including medical clinics, are allowed to be built in this area and any permanent building is declared unlawful.

"That is why women like Aisha, requiring medical treatment for themselves or their children, have to walk distances of three-four miles in each direction just to reach the nearest clinic.

"Consequently, 80 per cent of these women do not even attempt to receive pediatric or gynaecological care. Many of the pregnant women are seen for the first time only when they reach the delivery room.

"This phenomenon, known as LOPC - Lack of Prenatal Care - is well known in the Soroka Hospital in Beersheba. The outcome is a catastrophe - a very high infant mortality rate."

Barrie's father Peddiah Rockman was a kosher butcher in Birmingham. Just after Barrie's barmitzvah, his father made the "disastrous" move of relocating his business to Dublin.

"My father made a great disaster by buying a butcher shop in a town of 1,000 Jews and five kosher butchers who were related to everybody," he said. "My father had never heard of market research."

The first six months of his stay in Dublin were especially hard for Barrie, who had left all his friends behind in Birmingham as his family stayed at a local kosher boarding house while their house was being built.

Nevertheless, the Rockmans became very involved in the life of the Dublin Jewish community.

Peddiah was a founder and secretary of Terenure Synagogue and Barrie was a Bnei Akiva leader till he says he was "excommunicated" for not wearing a hat while studying at Trinity College, Dublin.

Future Israeli ambassador Yehuda Avner, who was then BA national director, "gave me a choice, wear a hat or you can't be a madrich".

Barrie says he has never been religious since.

"I have not looked back," he added. "Being excommunicated puts me onto the level of Spinoza."

Years later, when Barrie went to Israel and was working with the British embassy recruiting scientists and engineers, he met Manchester-born Mr Avner and reminded him of the incident.

He said: "Avner didn't like it very much."

Barrie continued: "I was always a Zionist. I was a kibbutznik from my youth. I went on hachshara in Thaxted. My friends went to Kibbutz Lavi and places like that.

"I went instead to university where I was the representative of the Irish Jewish Students Union."

He boasts that he went to the same prestigious school, Wesley College, as George Bernard Shaw and Israel's future president Chaim Herzog.

But he says: "I have not achieved such distinction. From there I entered Trinity College and, after a couple of false starts, finished up with a degree in business studies, philosophy and psychology."

Barrie subsequently worked in industry in Britain, Switzerland and Israel, making aliya in 1968, soon after the Six Day War.

He lived on kibbutzim, managing their social work programmes and, until the age of 56, served with the Israeli army as a liaison officer with the United Nations in the Sinai and the Golan and training and supporting officers who volunteered to tell families of the deaths of their loved ones.

"I was always involved in something or other," he said. "I lived in Sderot during the war there. We had a year to spare, renting a house between buying one on the moshav.

"I decided to spend it in Sderot to help. I sat on the board of a major organisation that organised all the counselling and I taught traumatised kids English."

Now, Barrie is coping with the debilitating effects of his blood cancer after recently suffering a stroke.

But he says: "I have not given up, hence the Bedouin story."

To donate to the project, contact Zvi Lidar at or telephone 00972 505303995.

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph