California Literary Review

The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide by Susan Nathan

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April 22nd, 2007 at 5:56 pm

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The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide
by Susan Nathan
Nan A. Talese, 336 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Democratic Dreams, Jewish Nightmares: Seeing the Plight of Israel’s Palestinian Arab Citizens

Having recently participated in a gathering of feminist Muslim and Jewish scholars including scholars from Palestine and Israel, I was eager to read Susan Nathan’s The Other Side of Israel : My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide. I wanted to hear more about the relationship between Arab and Jewish citizens of contemporary Israel. I also understood that this would be a controversial book which made me a bit apprehensive. The advance materials I read described the author as a British Jewish woman with family ties to South Africa who decided to live in an Arab village in Israel. She did this after making aliya1 and becoming a citizen of Israel herself. My worry was that this might be another leftist book that glibly made analogies between Israel and South Africa. I worried that the story would be more about being a privileged white western woman living with Palestinian others and not enough about the Arab Israeli citizens of this town and their lives.

Although my sympathies are on the left, I am also tired of trite platitudes about Israel. I know that discourse all too well. I understand the allure of being an antizionist, a Jew against Israel and yet, despite the allures of this position, I know that there are no guarantees for political or ethical purity. Instead I have come to see this stance as both illusory and dangerous. To be critical of Zionist discourse demands a much more serious interrogation of how Zionist discourse has shaped contemporary Jewish identity especially the identities of those of us who are now critical of Israel. In other words, for people like me, this means owning our own powerful and defining relationship to Zionism. As I see it, this haunting legacy most profoundly shapes our anger and disappointment with current Israeli policies and practices. It is also why what we now know about the history of the Jewish State and its ongoing discriminatory policies and practices in relation to Palestinians is so devastating. Given this, our criticism needs to be framed by the fact that we too are implicated in the promises of Jewish nationalism that we now critique. We need to own our complicity in these practices in order to be able to speak to those most in need of hearing these arguments, other Jews. Few of us are not implicated in this history.

As I began reading The Other Side of Israel, it became obvious to me that Nathan understood my reservations as those of the vast majority of her intended audience and wrote her book accordingly. Nathan rightly suspects that most of us are critical of the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza2 but that we have not given as much critical attention to the plight of Palestinians within Israel, the communities of what are referred to in Israel as “Arab Israelis.” In order to see this ‘other side’ of Israel, Nathan invites us on a journey that begins with her own longstanding commitment to Zionism. She takes us with her as she moves from exercising her Jewish right to return to eventually deciding to live in an Arab village. She retraces her steps.

This is the story of a middle-aged Jewish woman who decides to make aliya and become a new immigrant to Israel. We follow her as she becomes an Israeli citizen, her time in an absorption center learning Hebrew, her move to an apartment and a job in Tel Aviv, and finally her decision to live in Tamra, an Arab town in the Galilee.

In the process of taking this journey we come to see with Nathan some of the limitations of contemporary Israeli democracy, what for many of us including Nathan was once a Zionist ideal. Instead we begin to see not only discrimination but systemic and systematic state and extra-state institutions, policies and procedures that perpetuate and extend the marginalization and oppression of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens. Once in Tamra Nathan shows us in vivid detail the results of these policies. Especially evident in Tamra are the egregious efforts by both the Jewish National Fund and the state to keep the vast majority of land and natural resources within Israel’s borders in the hands of its Jewish citizens.

Part of what I found heartbreaking about what Nathan reports is that these are policies inflicted on Arab citizens of the State, not just Israeli policies in occupied territories. And Nathan shows how pervasive these discriminatory practices are. Although she tells numerous stories about individual Arab citizens, their families and their communities at the hands of the Israeli state, it is the broader systemic nature of these asymmetrical social arrangements that demand our attention. As Nathan makes clear these are bureaucratically instituted policies of discrimination and they permeate every aspect of Israeli society.

Most upsetting for me were the stories Nathan tells about the ongoing efforts to confiscate ancestral land and property from Arab Israeli citizens. These are places that had been inhabited by these Palestinian families for centuries. As she explains, Israel’s ongoing land acquisition policies are directly linked to efforts to contain Arab Israeli citizens in towns and villages that can no longer accommodate them. Because the state refuses to grant permits to build on what limited space is available, these Israeli citizens live under constant threat of having their presumably “illegal” homes demolished by the state. Taken together all of these policies assure that Israel will remain a Jewish State. In other words, for Israel to be a Jewish State these discriminatory policies are crucial. They also mean that Israel cannot be a truly democratic state.

In Nathan’s account it is the Palestinian Arab citizens of the State and not those Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation whose plight speaks to problems at the heart Jewish nationalism. In other words, it is not 1967 that marks a turning point in Israeli history around relations between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, but rather, 1948. And this is both a sobering and shameful truth.

In a sense, none of this information is new, but Nathan’s way of entering into these discussions is what makes her book so compelling. She brings readers with her to look at the “facts on the ground”4 and she demands that we not turn away. Nathan does not let any of us off the hook including those of us who consider ourselves among the most progressive of Jews both within and outside of Israel. As Nathan makes clear, we too have benefited from these oppressive policies and practices. Any of us can simply hop on a plane as Jews and claim our right to return. As such we share responsibility for the denial of similar rights to Palestinians including those who are citizens of Israel and their families.

And then there are all of those trees—evergreens bought in the name of greening the promised land and used to cover over the rubble of what were once thriving Palestinian towns and villages before 1948.

Reading about these acts of displacement after the recent evacuations of Jewish settlers from Gaza, evacuations presented with such pathos in the western media, left me wondering how the world could have forgotten that so many Palestinians still remain in refugee camps even now almost sixty years after they were forced from their ancestral homes. In this regard, I found Nathan’s account of a member of her Arab family trying to visit what was once her family home in Ein Hod, an Arab village long since transformed into an Israeli artist colony especially haunting.5 Reading this account, I heard echoes of so many other stories about displacement, Jewish stories about forced migration, not the displacement of Israeli settlers but the stories of European Jews, those who continue to rightfully demand reparations even sixty years after they were forced to leave their homes.

It is just hard to fathom how difficult it is for even progressive Jews to see these connections and this is what Nathan wants us to see. With great urgency Nathan insists that we confront the legacy of 1948, what for Palestinians is the Nakba6, the disaster, and that we begin to make amends. And as Nathan explains, this means we must radically rethink what Israel is. If we want Israel to be a truly democratic and not just a Jewish state, we will have to confront the gross inequities that mark the parameters of “the other side of Israel.” This means challenging the legal and social policies that perpetuate these inequities. By demanding that we see the gap between the Jewish and the democratic dreams of Jewish nationalism, Nathan challenges us to consider what a truly democratic Israel might look like.

Like many of us, Nathan is sickened by what she has discovered. These truths are in sharp contrast to the vision of Israel that she grew up with, the version of Zionism that brought her to Israel in the first place. And yet, I suspect, it will only be when enough of us are sickened that any real change can happen. For now, Nathan is simply doing what she can. By remaining in Tamra she demonstrates daily that it is possible for Palestinians and Jews to live together.

1 In Nathan’s glossary “Aliya” (or Aliyah) is defined as follows: “The Hebrew word (literally, “ascent”) used to describe the immigration of Diaspora Jews to Israel. It has Biblical connotations, suggesting that Jews were ordained by God to return to the Promised Land. Nearly three million Jews have made aliya, brought to Israel by the Jewish Agency under the Law of Return, since the founding of the nation in 1948.” (275)

2 Although as I write this, technically Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, Israel remains a powerful and controlling presence even in Gaza.

3 I purposely use a variety of terms to refer to the communities Nathan is writing. These include: “Arab Israelis,” “Israeli Palestinians,” and “Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel.” Although in Israel these communities and citizens are generally referred to as “Arabs,” this is not the way these communities and individuals define themselves. This politics of naming is part of what Nathan asks us to reconsider. In light of this, I have tried whenever possible to remind readers that these communities define themselves as Palestinian.

4 This phrase comes from the title of another powerful and important scholarly book about Israeli archaeology, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

5 On this issue and especially this particular village, see Susan Slyomovics, The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village, (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).

6 Nathan offers the following definition for Nakba, “Arabic word meaning ‘catastrophe,” used by Palestinians to describe the defeat and mass dispossession of the Palestinians that occurred during and after the war of 1948.” (284)

  • shane farrell

    it was shite

  • badger

    your book is cool

  • anonymous

    During the few days that it took me to complete the book I had a terrible nightmare. It involved an attack – not by Arab or Palestinians – but by Jewish people I knew. I feel as if it’s almost symbolic. If all the facts in the book are true, then I feel like I have been fed and have helped to perpetuate a huge lie and injustice. Like Susan Nathan, I too was brought up to believe the correctness of Israel and its democracy and the evil of the Arabs who attacked Israel from its inception in 1948.

    This book is causing me to question some core beliefs I have held throughout my entire life. I am still struggling to untangle truth from fiction in my own mind. Any reader who supports Zionism will find that Zionism, given that the facts in the book are true, has a much different meaning in practice in Israel, than he or she ever dreamed of. In other words I never would have considered that a Jewish state could be incompatible with democracy, until now.

    Susan Nathan’s book is hard to put down while reading, but its personal impact is even harder to dismiss.

    I pray that what she says isn’t basically true — because if it is– Israeli Arabs have been dealt a terrible injustice since 1948 that must be rectified, and Israeli youth and reservists are being put in situations that prevent them from following the Torah – which is what truly Jewish people hold dear. Being Jewish means following the Torah, and that path leads to justice, not justice for Israel’s Jewish citizens only, but for her Arab ones as well.

  • david johnson

    The book is a wake-up call. I have always believed in what Ms. Nathan writes of since 1973 when, speacking to a Palestinian refugee in NY (who lived in Lebanon) told me of what was happening in Israel. Until that time I had thought everything Jewish was the BEST – I have Jewish relatives on my mother’s side. Unless the world and especially America wake up to the realities of what is addressed in this book, no peace will be forthcoming. Quite the contrary – I fear WWIII could be just around the corner – thus the added urgency of knowing the truth. Thank you for printing this

  • mattik

    Thank you Susan! Really shaking book among these lies we hear around us.

  • Rafe’

    As an Israeli arab I am proud of you Susan for writing this book. I just finished reading it today, and I had tears in my eyes so many times while reading it … Thank you Susan for shedding light on our crazy reality that we have been living the past decades …

    I came across this book overseas, and I am definitely not bringing it back with me when I go back because I might be harrassed and investigated for hours in the Israeli airport for having such book. They would find it ofcourse after they search my suitcases VERY thoroughly like always … ma la’asot!

  • danny

    This book masquerades as an expose of discriminatory living conditions for Arab Israelis when in fact, upon closer examination, it is a tirade against the existence of the state of Israel. The situation of the Indian native people of America is far more devastating. America has practised ethic cleansing, genocide, massacres against our Indian people. Take a good look at Alaska and see what I mean.

    How about America

  • Sid Sloth

    To all people who are dissappointed in the Jews and their conduct. Also relevant to the ones who have the opposite view, i don’t take sides here (as much as humanly possible).

    Ofcourse there are atrocities commited! Both on the front-line and the backyard. By both sides. What Western culture has the luxury to ignore (or pretend to) is that you need to brake some eggs to make an omlet.

    Yes! That burger you’re sucking down is made with the meat (some) of a cow that suffered all her life and was slaughtered cruely (sometimes left injured to suffer terribly) by someone who you pay to do that.

    You’re conviniently shut in your office, shaking your fist at the newspaper, while paying others (soldiers, etc) to do your killing for you.

    Do not judge those who fight for their right to exist or the future of their children (literally). You are in no position.

    Mrs Nathan, a very brave feat, i think it’s great that the world gets to see through the eyes of the little guy.

    Sid

  • Diane

    I have never read such crap in all my born days. I didnt realize there was a new planet called “stupidity”.

  • Anne

    Amazing book – most impressive.
    Rafe’ – if you want a copy you can get it in Jerusalem (if you can get to Jerusalem!) at the Educational Bookshop in Saladin Street. Good luck!

  • http://funk.co.uk/funkblog.html Deek Deekster

    A superb book, and a good review. Susan Nathan has done us all a great service by her bravery.

    I also note – and this is backed up by the very few disparaging comments made here – the compete lack of substantial comments offered by the nay-sayers. It’s hard to present a convincing argument against the truth.

  • Smadar Carmon

    I am tremendously grateful for Susan Nathan’s book. growing up as an Israeli Jew I thought I knew it all, but by reading this book it has opened my eyes. The book has helped me understand that what us Israelis are doing is more than just an occupation, it is systemic and cruel, and I hate to say it but it’s more like a genocide. I admire Susan’s integrity and desire to find out what is really happening. I also appreciate that the book includes many facts about many different facets regarding the life of Palestinians. As an Israeli born I have always known that things were not right, but after reading this book I realize how superficial my knowledge has been. because of this book I will never see things the same. Smadar Carmon

  • http://none Kathleen

    The first respondent said it.This is pure SHITE!

  • http://none Kathleen

    I thiink this woman must have delusions of grandeur.
    Typical of a left winger and an unscrupulous lier.
    She should write about the atrocities commited by the
    Israeli/Arabs who act as enemies within the country,even
    whe they are members of the Knesset.
    I will not buy the book,because it is a sickening and
    false accusation against a democratic Israel.
    Hey Susan why don’t you leave your comfortable domicile in the U.K and move over to Gaza and see how long you’d survive!
    Sheeesh disgusting to say the least.

  • Hadassa

    C’mon Jews, srew up your courage and admit that she is bloody right. As I do. Being a Jew requires an open – mindedness!

    Hadassa

  • karen Levy

    I’m an American-Israeli writer trying to find someone in Tamra. How do I contact someone who has been there recently?
    K

  • karen Levy mktwinmakers@yahoo.com

    I’d appreciate being contacted by anyone familiar with the village of Tamra.
    K

  • Dermot

    Among Jews, the legacy of the Torah has made conscience a primary motivator. More than many other groups, they agonise over issues, question the rightness of the behaviour of individuals and social groups, including — often most trenchantly of all — their own, and take up the oppression of others as their own cause. This trait is a most admirable one and is one of the chief foundations of whatever morality lies at the base of our Judaeo-Christian civilisation. It is conscience that has put Jews in the front line of struggles for human betterment everywhere.

    The problem is that a surfeit of conscience in particular situations can get you killed. If not informed by a sober appreciation of realities, especially historical and political realities, it can become a rationale for surrender or even collective suicide. Left-wing and ‘peace activist’ Jews such as Ms. Nathan are people of tender conscience who focus exclusively on the issue ‘is Israel being kind enough to its Arabs?’, imagine that it’s all simply about folks ‘getting along’ and forget or do not understand contextual matters such as the nature of nationalism, the attitude of mainstream, let alone radical, Islam to the existence of a Jewish state, and finally, the relation of the nation state to democracy.

    Setting up an ideal standard of what the treatment of the Arab minority should be, they see the half-empty rather than the half-full glass. A 20% minority that does not share any of the national ethos of the state is an extremely rare phenomenon in the world, let alone in a democracy. I can’t think of any others that aren’t failed states racked by instability. Israel has done pretty well to have its Arab minority — with a far higher living standard and far more freedoms than they would enjoy in any Arab state and far more than their own culture would naturally encourage — represented at all levels of society up to the Supreme Court.

    Here’s the bottom line: contrary to Ms. Nathan’s thesis, Israel’s continuation as a democracy depends on its continuation as a Jewish state. Imperfect as it is now, Israel’s democracy would not survive in the kind of state desired by the left — some kind of binational state with a neutral identity. With only a tiny fraction of the land area and population of the Middle East, Jews would inexorably find themselves drawn back into their historic status in the region — that of dhimmis/second class citizens in an overwhelmingly Muslim world. Israel’s democracy, in order to survive, must take strong measures to defend its existence in a very turbulent neighbourhood.

    Jewish conscience is too tender a plant to survive unaided in a world full of threats and dangers. It needs an alliance with Greek Stoic philosophy to infuse it with the strength needed to live in an imperfect world. This means that, while maintaining the highest moral standards, it must accept that these may not always be realisable and that imperfect, though viable, arrangements are the best that may be attainable in a world where evil exists.

  • moshe rabeynu

    I would like to inquire, for curiosity’s sake, how many shekels Mrs. Nathan has made for publishing her book and for the subsequent speaking tours? It would be most enlightening to know how much of the proceeds she has contributed to making the lives of the residents on Tamra more enjoyable? Jewish intellectuals like to write learned and humanitarian scholarly works demonstrating their empathy for the poor underdogs of the world and, while doing so,to make a handsome living. Yes, there is a market today for the runinations of self flaggelating intellectual Jews to demean and castigate Israel. It gives Arabs and anti-semitic Gentiles nachis to be given these juicy tidbits by a Jewish scholar. It gives Jewish readers a chance to vicariously walk in the anti-semite’s shoes and mumble epithets against “the Jews”. There is a war situation going on and, although Mrs. Nathan would like them to, Israel cannot quite manage to wipe the palestinian arabs’ asses for them during this war situation. As far as actual “persecution” being perpetuated, one must ask the question “Is the Palestinian population growing or diminishing?” Although they may have hurt feelings and a sense of being the underdog in Israel’s society, has their population been cut down by the so called “harsh inadequacies and persecution?”. I dare say that it hasn’t and quite the opposite has been the case. When there is peace, life for everyone will be better. It will be easier for Jews and Palestinians to relate to each other as fellow human beings and neighbors. Of course, along the long and tedious route to peace, there will be scholarly intellectuals, like Mrs. Nathan, who will be more than glad to show how humanitarian they are in their tomes and make a handsome living in the process.

  • yiddishi gerard from mumbai

    Yes yes yes but what we forget is that at the root of all problems are pirate english. the rot from mainland europe, pirates, took england from celts. then english too usa, and australia, new zealand, and england and its ex colony was the bottom of creating israel. england made pakistan and england must atone again and again and again. spanish too robbed south america and forced catholicism and spanish there. england reduce your population. england is the most crowded state in europe, and they are tip top liars and hypocrites.

  • samydoc

    Je viens de lire le livre de Mme Nathan. Je pense qu’il faudrait proposer son nom pour le prix Nobel de la paix.

    Quant aux personnes haineuses qui essayent de salir son nom, ce sont les mêmes qui ont intérêt que cet apartheid persiste, que les palestiniens soient enfermés dans leurs bantoustans, ou leurs ghettos.

    L’histoire jugera, tôt ou tard, ce peuple qui en opprime un autre sous prétexte qu’il a été lui aussi victime.

    Ce pays du moyen orient (Israël ou Palestine) ne peut être que le pays de plusieurs peuples, plusieurs religions, comme il l’a été depuis le début de l’histoire. Ce racisme anti-arabe, latent et patent, finira par être la perte d’Israel, car il ne lui sera pas pardonné.

    Merci, Mme Nathan, vous êtes l’honneur d’Israel.

  • http://adam-insan.org.il Ilse

    I read the book in both German (where even the titel alludes to Ms Nathan’s being an outcast in Israeli society…) and English, being an activist in the field of intercultural activities in the Galilee since 1996. I am deeply grateful for the fact that the topic of the Israeli Arabs is given some attention, since it is indeed much neglected in the mainstream society for many reasons, many of which I understand well. On the other hand I must admit that there are innumerous factual mistakes in the book. I have known many of the people the author quotes and writes about personally for many years, and there are gross misunderstandings in many of the circumstances of their lives and acivities described in the book. This goes for Harry Finkbeiner, the Sawa’ed family, Yaakov Arnan – and indeed the whole initiative in Kibbutz Harduf, which is hardly to be recognised the way it is written about for anoyone who knows the efforts from the inside.
    This makes me wonder – how many of the other “facts” Susan Nathan tells about might be just as inaccurate? I tend to think that she looks at the whole question as something that no one but her has any idea of how to deal with, making all the efforts that are being taken by others than herself look stupid, naive, ineffective…
    So while I appreciate the fact that the topic through her best-seller (in Germany it is one at least, due to the noisy title which translates to something like “They gave me thorns – rejected by her own people in the promised land”) receives some attention I find it quite unbearable that the picture she creates of the actual situation is somewhat distorted and biased. There is more hope than she can see, there are more people active in positive ways and much more interaction, even though a lot still needs to be done!
    The comparison to South Africa is something very personal, which reveals to us the way her mind works – she was a paria there because of the way she perceived apartheid, she came to Israel and took the same role, even if the circumstances are quite different…
    And by the way – some of the comments here seem so indifferentiated that I start to understand her feelings… But thanks for the thorough analysis of the book by Laura Levitt, who might appreciate my comment…

  • jess

    you were speaking truth.

  • Helen LEwis

    A number of these respondents don;t seem to have read the review, let alone the book, and taken refuge in avoidance tactics. the issue isn;t about wiping palestinians asses (what a racist comment!) or being nice to them; its about givng them equal opportunities as citizens in their own country. Why is this so difficult for some Jews to understand? Do you remember nothing of your own history in Europe? Haven’t you read your own prophets?

  • Markus

    Helen Lewis,

    Not a racist comment: just a comment on the patronising discourse in which some writers/activists like Susan Nathan position the Palestinians.

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