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 aliya(1) 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 Gaza(2) 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.” (3) 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 Nakba(6), 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)
September 19, 2005
Laura Levitt, Ph.D.
is the Director of Jewish Studies at
Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Two more interesting reviews:
Hat tip to Avigail.