Al-Ahram Weekly – 21 August 2003
She is an incongruous figure waiting infront of the large central mosque in the northern Israeli town of Tamra for my arrival. There is no danger I will miss her. She has short blond hair, in contrast to most of the women who cover their heads with scarves, and is wearing a loose-fitting, floral kaftan that would be less out of place on the streets of Wimbledon in south London, her former home, than here in the Middle East.
But the difference runs much deeper. Susan Nathan is the only Jew in Tamra, living among 25,000 Muslims in a town run by Islamic politicians. More than this, she is one of only two Israeli Jews known to have crossed the ethnic divide in Israel to live in one of the country’s dozens of Arab communities. The other is the controversial academic and writer Uri Davis, founder of the little-known Movement Against Israeli Apartheid in Palestine, who resides in nearby Sakhnin.
Nathan, a 54-year-old teacher and former Aids worker, arrived in Israel from London four years ago, after the break- up of her marriage, to make “aliyah” — the Hebrew term for “ascending” used by those who migrate to Israel under the Law of Return. She chose to do it the hard way, subjecting herself to the “Immigrant Experience” by living in what was little more than a prison cell for five months at an absorption centre close to Tel Aviv.
“I arrived full of Zionist enthusiasm,” she says. “The official at the Jewish Agency’s north London office had lots of attractive pictures on the walls — all of Israeli Jews and Jewish communities. He never mentioned that the country I’d be moving to had plenty of Arabs there too.”
The yawning gap between Israel’s image and reality will be the running thread through our conversation.
Since she abandoned her home in Tel Aviv seven months ago and started living in Tamra she has lost almost all of her Israeli Jewish friends. Even her Jewish friends in Britain accuse her of being a traitor. “At first they thought I was just being provocative,” she says. “Then they thought I had lost my marbles, that I was suffering some sort of mental breakdown and needed help. Now that they realise I am serious they have turned their backs. What I have done is far too threatening.”
Seated in her second-floor flat in Tamra, with African cloth prints on the walls, a collection of classical music CDs and shelves filled with art and Jewish history books, it is difficult to see what kind of threat Nathan represents. She is slight, still not fully recovered from surgery for a rare eye cancer, and her thin voice is instantly drowned out when the muezzin begins the midday call to prayer. Although she refuses to speak Hebrew in Tamra, she still wears a Star of David pendant around her neck.
Paradoxically, her stance has also earned the enmity of leading Jewish left-wingers, including people like Uri Avnery of the Gush Shalom peace movement. “The Jewish left is totally in thrall to the idea of two states for two people. What I do by showing that Jews and Arabs can live together in peace undermines their argument.”
It is not just her former friends and the Israeli left who see her as a threat; apparently the authorities do too. Many e- mails she sends are never received, she has had her phone tapped and she undergoes rigorous searches at the airport whenever she enters or leaves the country.
Her offence, she says, is highlighting through her actions the existence of a de facto apartheid inside the country. Not segregation from the Palestinians in the occupied territories, although she insists that exists too and is ever more apparent with the building of a 350km separation barrier around the West Bank.
The segregation she is trying to expose is the one that exists between Jews and the country’s one million Arab citizens, the remnants of the Palestinian people who were mostly expelled during the 1948 war that founded the Jewish state. Today, most of these Arabs live on the country’s geographical margins, in the Galilee in the north or in the semi-desert area of the Negev in the south.
Although there is little in law to prevent Arabs and Jews from living together, in practice it almost never happens. Israeli Jews are educated to see their Arab neighbours as either primitive or dangerous, says Nathan.
Jews and Arabs marry so rarely in Israel that the phenomenon is not even discussed: the handful who have broken the taboo live incognito, usually in Tel Aviv or one of what are misleadingly termed “mixed cities” such as Lod, Acre or Haifa but in reality are little more than Jewish cities with poor, separate Arab neighbourhoods.
And Israeli Arabs face a series of hurdles preventing them from belonging to Jewish communities. Some 93 per cent of land is owned by the state or Jewish fund organisations and cannot be sold to Arabs. Those who try to lease plots of “Jewish land” are vetted by committees that weed out undesirables, including Arabs.
One Arab couple, Adel and Iman Kaadan, who were barred from a luxury Jewish community called Katzir in the Lower Galilee, have been fighting the discrimination through Israel’s courts for the past seven years. Although they won a ruling in their favour three years ago, the verdict has never been implemented and the government has been considering changing the law to make sure it never can be.
Against this background, Nathan started slowly questioning her own Zionism and the direction the Jewish state had taken since its founding more than half a century ago.
“I was breastfed Zionism. My parents were prominent members of the liberal Jewish community in London and were firm friends of Abba Eban,” she says, referring to the famous orator and Israeli foreign minister during the epoch- changing period of the 1967 Six-Day war, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza from Jordan and Egypt. “At the age of 10 or 11, I remember telling my parents that one day I would live in Israel.”
During the 1990s she regularly visited on holiday but says it was easy to ignore the Arabs. “It never occurred to me to go and see where and how they lived, they just didn’t register. Like most Zionists I never troubled myself by delving below the surface. I believed everything I was told blindly and with all my heart.”
Her faith was shaken, however, by the outbreak of the Intifada, nearly three years ago. Addicted to the television and papers, she felt she wasn’t hearing the whole story. Disillusioned, she joined a radical social welfare organisation, one of the few Jewish groups whose message of coexistence with the country’s Arab population has survived the Intifada. She refuses to name it, however, for fear that publicising her views may threaten the funding it depends on from America.
Nathan was put in charge of setting up an education project in Tamra and at weekends she would visit the town, calling on local families and walking the streets to get a feel for the place. “It was like I was a specimen in a zoo,” she says. “People stared at me as though I was there by some freak accident, as though I had got lost and didn’t know where I was.”
Fortuitously she was introduced to Asad Ghanem, a politics lecturer from Haifa University and Tamra resident. “He was courteous but very cold and guarded. He simply told me there was no such thing as coexistence.”
His wife, Akhlab, however, was keen to get an English teacher for the town and Nathan promised to help find someone to work in Tamra for an initial three months. Everyone she approached in Tel Aviv was too afraid. “Eventually I simply thought, ‘why don’t I do it?’ Asad and Akhlab were very shocked when I told them.”
She says she was surprised how quickly people accepted her. “Once they realised I was coming with an open mind and to help they were very welcoming,” she says.
Her seven months of living in an Arab Muslim town, far from moderating her, have made her rail yet more angrily against what she sees as the intolerance and racism of the Jewish majority. There is more than a hint of love affair, with Zionism, turned sour.
“It’s a question of facing up to our history and taking responsibility for it as Jews and human beings. You can’t just evict hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland as we did in 1948 and then choose to forget it. Like South Africa there has to be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I’ll be called a self-hating Jew, told I’m riddled with guilt, for saying this but Israel has to be judged by the same standards as every other country in the world. We have to transform Israel into a state we can be proud of.”
Nathan suggests that the way Israeli Jews view Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, are far from rational. “When I left for Tamra my friends said they were very afraid for me. So I asked them if they had any Arab friends on which to base the judgment. None of them did: they only met Arabs if they were being served hummous or having their car fixed. When I asked them what I should be afraid of they couldn’t articulate it. It’s all emotion.”
Nathan also stands apart in her views about how the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians might be resolved. Along with a few hundred Jewish Israeli anti- Zionists, she believes that there will be peace only when there is one state shared by Jews and Palestinians. “I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime but there must be a bi-national state. At some point it will come about. I am trying to bring it closer by living it now through my life.”
The parallels Nathan draws between Israel and the old South Africa are based on long periods of her youth spent there with relatives. It is also the place to which her parents retired in the mid-1970s. She says she now recognises that much of her problem with Zionism derives from her early experiences witnessing apartheid.
“I remember as a teenager reading a newspaper story in a Durban hotel about a fight between two black men. One bled to death even though an ambulance was passing by but it couldn’t stop because it was only for whites. It seemed so ridiculously stupid to me even then.”
Nathan acknowledges that Israel does not enforce the same kind of brutal apartheid. In fact, she even points out that her first real meetings with Palestinians occurred in the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem where her cancer was being treated. In the days before the Intifada, Jews and Arabs lay in beds alongside each other.
“Of course, Jews and Arabs travel on buses together, watch films in cinemas together. The apartheid in Israel is not formalised and legalised like it was in South Africa; it is sophisticated, hidden and emotional. It is based on a culture of fear of the other which is fed by the Zionist propaganda machine.”
The real problem, she says, lies in the different nature of citizenship for Jews and Arabs. It starts with the founding principles of the state such as the Law of Return, which allows Jews anywhere in the world to claim a right to migrate to Israel while denying millions of Palestinians the right to claim the homes they and their parents were dispossessed of 55 years ago. And it continues in the discrimination in employment, local council budgets, access to the media and control of the government.
“Where are the Arab heads of banks, the civil service, the rectors of universities? In most cases where are Arabs in even the lowliest positions in these organisations?”
Even in the separate education system for Arabs, officially justified by the minority’s own language needs, she says teachers are under threat of dismissal if they offer their students an alternative, non-Zionist narrative of Israel’s creation, one that includes the Palestinian account.
But most of all, she says, apartheid is shaped by the battle for territory. “It is revealed in the fact that the state can confiscate hundreds of thousands of acres of Arab-owned land and then refuse even to lease it back to the original owners; that the state has refused to build a single new Arab community in its 55 years even though the population has grown eightfold and hundreds of Jewish communities have been built; and that the state threatens to demolish tens of thousands of Arab homes because they are built without permits but fails to mention that it refuses to issue permits to Arabs.”
She points out that as a Jew she can buy or rent a place anywhere in Israel, she can go to the bank and instantly get a mortgage. And if she moves to the West Bank or Gaza she will be offered an endless array of financial incentives to make the move easier. “As Jews we are in a privileged position. But the overcrowding in Arab communities, not just in terms of the number of homes squeezed into each street but inside the houses too, is horrifying. They have no land left on which to expand.”
The reason is simple, she says. Dotted around Tamra are land-hungry farm collectives (the kibbutzim) and luxury communities reserved exclusively for Jews. “Where are the people of Tamra supposed to live? They all say they feel blocked in and I feel it too. It’s like being physically choked. By making life unbearable here is the state not really trying to bring about a quiet form of transfer, of ethnic cleansing? People who have the money or connections to move abroad do so.”
She is working on projects to expose the similarities between South African and Israeli apartheid, including regularly travelling to South Africa to work with the Tutu Foundation, set up by the black religious leader and anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu.
But she remains pessimistic about the future. “You can’t run a country without offering the people a future, some hope. Here the way forward is blocked and sooner or later it will catch up with them — just like it did in South Africa.”