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Interview with Susan Nathan
Susan Nathan fulfilled a lifelong dream by immigrating to Israel from England in 1999 at the age of 50. She had grown up in a family of strong universal values. Israel was central to their lives. It was treasured as the epitome of a just society, founded by people who knew in their flesh what it meant to suffer injustice. Like many British Jews, she viewed the Zionist enterprise in terms of the motto, “A land without people for a people without land.” She also had relatives in South Africa and made frequent visits. Here she witnessed the opposite of a just society. In her late teens she joined the fight against apartheid.
Thirty years later, a new immigrant and ardent Zionist, Susan Nathan took a job with Mahapach (“Turnabout”), an organization that goes into deprived areas, both Jewish and Arab, tutoring youngsters. Her work brought her one day to the Arab town of Tamra, east of Acre. She describes the experience in a recent book called The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish-Arab Divide (London: HarperCollins, 2005, p. 51):
Within minutes of driving into Tamra I felt that I had entered another Israel, one I had never seen before. It was almost impossible to believe that I could turn off a main highway, close to the luxurious rural Jewish communities of the Galilee, and find myself somewhere that was so strikingly different from any Jewish area I had ever visited before, and not just culturally. It was immediately obvious that Tamra suffered from chronic overcrowding. The difference in municipal resources and investment was starkly evident too. And a pall of despair hung over the town, a sense of hopelessness in the face of so much official neglect. It was the first time I had been to an Arab area (apart from visits as a tourist to the Old City of Jerusalem), and I was profoundly shaken by it. A disturbing thought occurred to me, one that refused to shift even after I had driven back to Tel Aviv. Tamra looked far too familiar. I thought, where have I seen this before? I recognized the pattern of discrimination from my experience of apartheid in South Africa, which I had visited regularly during my childhood. I could detect the same smell of oppression in Tamra that I had found in the black townships.
Nathan found herself spending more and more time teaching English in Tamra and becoming involved in the community. Her political views underwent a radical shift. By the year 2002, she could not bear to go on living in purely Jewish Tel Aviv. She had been supervising a woman from Tamra, who was coordinating Mahapach’s Arab sector. The coordinator’s family offered to rent her an apartment. She decided to accept, and then the family met with its hamula (clan). “They agreed that they would take me into the family and into the hamula. Because the only way someone from outside, a Westerner or a Jew, can move into the Arab world is under the protection of a hamula. Any other way would be unwise. I mean, the Arab world didn’t open its arms to me. It didn’t say, ‘Oh, how wonderful! A Jew comes to live here!’ Because of their experience here, and how they are treated, it was hard work. I had to earn my place. And earn their trust.”
Susan Nathan was interviewed by Stephen Langfur in Tel Aviv on September 19, 2006.
Where were you during the Lebanon War?
Were you afraid?
I understood there was nowhere else to go. I had nowhere else to go and the people I was living with had nowhere else to go. We adopted a sort of fatalistic approach, actually, that if the Katyusha landed on us, it landed on us. There were times it was very frightening. I mean, Katyushas landing all around us, the house shaking day and night. It wasn’t safe to leave the town. There was this terrible feeling of not knowing where it was going to land. We could hear the sirens in the Jewish towns, but there were none for us. No protection for us. And we could hear the bombing of Lebanon all the time.
Did you talk with your neighbors about what was happening?
Yes. They’re very pro-Nasrallah. Which I completely understand. What is there to make them loyal to the State? What do we do, as Jews, to make them feel wanted here? Being loyal is a two-way process. As a citizen you have a right to feel protected and valued and wanted by your State. As a white, Ashkenazi, highly educated Jew, I feel welcome and free in Israel – until I express my political views.
How did you feel about Hezbollah?
I respect them. This is not to say that I agree with violence. I don’t. But I understand where it comes from, and I understand why it’s necessary. They’re well-trained, they’re disciplined, it’s high-level guerrilla warfare.
I’ve lived now five years in the Arab world, and I have very big problems with the West. I feel that my life is a pawn of the West. Islam, for example, is what keeps Arabs upright. Upright as human beings in this current onslaught from the West, which thinks it’s superior in everything. So, yes, I do respect Hezbollah, because I see them as really having stood up to this country, as really having given them a run for their money. Someone needed to do it.
I want to ask you about Arab society in Tamra. Have you seen a tendency for it to become more closed in on itself? Has it become more religious?
Yes, I think that Arab society is becoming more closed in on itself, but not because it wants to, rather because the State is putting it in that position. I feel it in my everyday life. When you live in a State that sends you a clear message that you’re not really a part of this country, that your voice is irrelevant to your government, then you have a tendency to turn in on your own society. And this is why the Islamic parties have grown so strong.
It’s not only in Tamra, but yes. Increasing numbers of young women are covering, who might not cover if they felt welcomed and were treated as part of mainstream Israeli society, as full citizens. When someone tells you that she’s going to leave her job of six or seven years because she cannot cover, and she’s going to take a job at much lower pay because there she can cover, it’s a reflection on our society. So turning to Islam, to religion, gives you strength. And self-respect. And a feeling of somewhere to belong. Life is being lived now. They want their life now.
To me, the crucial moment in your book comes where you write about driving into Tamra for the first time. (The passage is quoted above.)
Yes. I thought, there you have [the neighboring Jewish town of] Mizpeh Aviv, with all its glory and all its space, green and parks and a swimming pool, and here you have all these people crammed into this town, and it’s exactly like townships in South Africa.
This first shock, this first revelation, when you drove into Tamra—a lot of us can identify with that. There’s another dimension too which is—what a foreign implant Israel is in the Middle East.
Because it’s an ethnocracy. An ethnocratic regime has changed the landscape to suit the needs of an ethnic majority. But Israel, if it wants to solve its problems, cannot go on projecting itself as the eastern arm of Europe. Some of us might have originated there, but we chose to come live in the Middle East. A solution is 100% dependent on accepting that fact, so that we can negotiate with our neighbors.
Before we go to the question of a solution, I’d like to give our readers an idea of the substance of your book by discussing some of the issues you cover. We could start with housing demolitions.
Many people in Tamra have demolition orders against them. I think right now it’s 150 homes. As a Jew I look around in the State, and I know how my State values me, in terms of the housing it provides for me. But if I think about the Arab life—in my neighborhood in Tamra, everyone comes from one of five villages that were destroyed in 1948. It’s a refugee neighborhood. We live in a refugee camp. I mean it’s like anything you see on TV. My family in Tamra were thrown out of their village, dispossessed of everything, came as refugees to Tamra, had to struggle by doing odd jobs to buy the piece of land that they live on now, were uncompensated by the State, had to wait—I think it was fifteen years to get a license to build. And that’s nonsense! Because obviously, if you have to wait fifteen years and you have a family, you have to build! You have to have a home! But does the State care about that? No. In the meantime it turns you into a criminal for building your home, because it never bothers to regulate the laws when they apply to you, as an Arab citizen. So you have to pay fines. All around me in Tamra there are people whose lives are simply worn down by paying fines to the State, because they couldn’t get permits to build.
It takes a lot of energy to live in Tamra, to live a life which is inside the ghetto, where there’s no peace and quiet day in, day out, where you’re crammed in like animals into small boxes, knowing you have no way out, that the state’s never going to give you any more land, and that 20 years from now your living conditions will be equal to Gaza. And that’s inside the State here. Do you think the people in Ramat Aviv give a damn about the fact that there are 20,000 people crammed into something like 4000 dunams of land [1000 acres], and that by 2020 we’ll be 42,000 people on the same amount of land? To me that spells danger in red flashing lights everywhere in this country. And that’s what I’ve decided I want to spend my life highlighting here, that we cannot continue like this, with this much inequity. We cannot.
Well, this is deliberate policy. It’s always been. What’s the aim of this policy?
It’s a subtle invitation to leave. Really we don’t want you here, so let’s make your life so intolerable that at some point you’ll pack up and go.
Let’s turn to another issue from your book, employment.
The State tells the world it’s democratic and everyone has equal opportunity. “Look, we have Arabs in the Technion [Israel Institute of Technology—SL], Arabs here, Arabs there–.” Yes, but you don’t tell us about the much larger number of Arabs who were educated in the Technion but aren’t working in Israel. They’re working abroad, where people don’t ask if they served in the army. Tamra has quite a large number of young men and a few women who’ve been educated in the Technion and are unable to get any sort of job here in the sectors where they should be working. And what concerns me, when I see those young people, is the depression that sets in when they say, “But I was born here. This is my country. My family is here. The State tells me I can have this education, but now that I have it, I can’t stay here to use it.” I look at the grinding, everyday life that we live in Tamra. There’s a permanent sort of depression that comes over us.
When there’s such fragmentation in Arab society, and no secure identity, it’s very hard to internalize the values of democracy and to think about something like where should your country be in, say, five years. Where do I want to take my country in ten years or twenty? You can’t do that when you’re caught in the trap they’re caught in. I think that’s why there are a lot of problems with the Arab leadership.
You raise an important point. In a more normal country, every person always has this future open to him, together with the State: where am I going to be? What is my future going to be? And here we have a problem, because for the Arabs in Israel this is blocked. You can never see your future with the State. So either you are taught to be individualistic and to fend for yourself, like to go abroad and make a career, or – and here it’s the more difficult path – to get Arab society to work as a collective. But that’s very very difficult.
Let’s move toward the question of a solution. The South African example. Can you envision anything similar happening here?
It wasn’t actually sanctions that changed things, as many people think. It was much more about international moral ostracism and about loan refusals. So I think Ilan Pappe and others are right when they try to bring in a huge boycott to stop people expressing themselves academically and culturally on the world stage. This has enormous impact. It was that and loan refusals. It was also something else that’s missing here – and I’ve said it to every Palestinian I meet who asks me this question: the ANC went out of its way to make sure that white people in South Africa would feel safe and valued and part of any future black-majority government. But Arabs have not made Jews feel that. It’s not only a Jewish problem, it’s also an Arab problem. There’s not enough coming from the West Bank and Gaza assuring Jews that they don’t want them in the sea, but rather to live alongside them equally. Oppression and apartheid in South Africa were appalling, but the African leadership was able to convince the whites.
The other lesson from South Africa is this: you have to negotiate without preconditions. Even when there are suicide bomb attacks, you still have to negotiate. It’s a fairy tale to say, Such-and-such must happen before I open my mouth to talk with you. Even if Hamas says, “No, we don’t recognize the State of Israel.” We still have to negotiate.
But we have some idea of the price that Israel would have to pay to get a real peace with the Palestinians, both inside and outside the country. This is worlds away from anything in the minds of Israeli leaders today. I think I hear you saying that there isn’t going to be peace until they give up the notion of a Jewish State.
I think this will evolve of its own accord, because we’ll go to war again and there’ll be a lot more life lost here, before people come to realize that this notion of being both Jewish and democratic just doesn’t work.
You’re saying that the way to a solution must lead through catastrophe, which is precisely what a solution is supposed to avoid.
That’s the way I see it. It’s not the same as South Africa. South Africa didn’t have to deal with this terrible emotionally burdened history of Jewish exile, and the blacks were in the majority.
Well, sanctions won’t happen, because the US and Germany would never allow them. Loan refusals won’t happen, because the global economy wants Israel inside. No Palestinian leader can both represent the will of his people and convince Israeli Jews they have nothing to fear if they lose their majority. Besides, they do have plenty to fear, after what they’ve done.
I gave a talk in Tamra and two people came over from Mizpeh Aviv. They said, “You know, Jews are afraid.” And I said,
“You should be afraid. You’re living on land taken from these people, and you see the conditions in this town!”
What’s left then? What could possibly lead Israeli Jews to give up a guaranteed Jewish majority?
Catastrophe again. But we’re trying to avoid catastrophe.
We can’t avoid catastrophe. You can smell it in the air all the time. Believe me, when you live where I live, you feel how imminent it is. There will be a military clampdown here and real violence, like it got in South Africa just before the fall of apartheid. There’s going to be a fight to the death here.
One last question. Why did you begin to doubt your Zionism only after you came here in 1999? Why not already in 1982 after Sabra and Shatila, or in 1988 during the first Intifada? I mean, for those who were living here–
But I wasn’t living here. I was living in London. I swallowed the Zionist propaganda. I was like my Jewish friends in London who wouldn’t say hello to me now. They’ve branded me a traitor. I’m not welcomed into the synagogue I grew up in. My point of view does not exist for them.