Whose Democracy? :: Reflections on "The Other Side of Israel" – by Susan Nathan ::

The Israeli Arabs – who amount to about 20% percent the Israeli population, will be voting in the forthcoming general election in Israel, which takes place on the 28th March. But how far they enjoy the full civic rights afforded to the Jewish population of the State of Israel. Susan Nathan’s book throws light on the truth behind Israel’s democracy.

Susan Nathan’s book [1] seems to work on two different levels. On the surface it is a gripping and fascinating account of Ms Nathan life in Tamra – a town of 25,000 Israeli Arabs situated in the Galilee between Haifa and Nazareth. On a higher level, Ms. Nathan transcends her daily experience onto a polemical discourse expressing her anguish, thoughts and disillusion with the realities of the Arab- Israeli- divide and the discrimination she encountered through her daily life. The book is written in a warm , passionate, and a genuine way with which readers could easily identify by referring to their own experience of living in a multi- ethnic society – though the divide between Jews and Muslims in Israel is running much deeper than in any other Western society. I, for one, could easily identify with Ms Nathan’s agony and sense of disillusion with the Zionist undertaking – although we arrived at the same junction through completely different routes.

Ms. Nathan made Aliya (Hebrew for ascending to Israel) in 1999 – taking up the "Law of Return" which grants an automatic Israeli citizenship to Jews from all over the world who emigrate to Israel . Having been born to an ardent Zionist father in London and "being raised on stirring stories of the great and glorious Jewish state" she was shocked to find that 20% (more than one million) of the population are Israeli Arabs who are remnants of the Palestinian inhabitants driven out in the 1948 "war of independence". Throughout her work in Mahapach – a students’ organization caring for disadvantaged communities in Israel – Ms Nathan came to contact with Arab families in the Galilee. Having seen their plight she decided to move to "the other side of Israel" where "the roads are not signposted … a place you rarely read about in your newspapers or hear about from your television set. It is all but invisible to most Israelis".

The "Other side of Israel" has become visible to me by treading a road with different landmarks but a similar direction to that of Ms Nathan. I was born in a kibbutz not far from the the Arab town of Tamra where Ms Nathan has been living. As a child I became aware of the Arab villages which were razed to the ground in the aftermath of the 1948 war and whose confiscated land was partly allocated to my Kibbutz by the State of Israel. Yet, my parents – who immigrated to Palestine in the early 30s – instilled in me the values of the Zionist endeavor, which made me blind to the fate of the Israeli Palestinians. Like Ms Nathan in her early days I believed that the Jewish people have the exclusive right to the land of ancient Palestine – "a land without people for people without land" – and that the early Jewish pioneers inhabited a barren land where they "made the desert bloom”. Although I lived alongside Arab communities I was not aware of their predicament. Nor was I conscious – as Ms. Nathan eloquently point out – that " it is the height of irony, given our history that the Jewish State has so little concern about the ghetto living it has forced on its Arab citizens".

These ghetto’s living conditions are chronicled in details throughout Ms. Nathan’s book starting with the military administration established by Israel (1948-1966) in order to restrict the movement of Israeli Arabs and proceeding with:

  • – The personal status laws which discriminate against Muslims and non-jews rendering inter-faith marriages and ethnic integration virtually impossible.
  • – The Present Absentees status whereby Israeli Arabs who were absent for a brief period from their property during the 1948 war were denied of their rights to their homes, land and bank accounts (nowadays about 250.000 Israeli Arabs live in Israel under the status of Present Absentees).
  • – The unrecognized villages (which include about 100,000 Israeli Palestinians) whose inhabitants – who are not acknowledged by Israeli laws – are living under a constant fear of demolition orders and are denied supply of public utilities and services such as water, electricity, sewerage, telephone lines, schooling, and medical services.

Perhaps the most telling of the overt discrimination against Israel Arabs is the citizenship law which demonstrates a pervasive and systematic bias against non-Jews culminated recently (2002) in a new law which denies a citizenship status for Palestinians from the occupied territories who marry Israeli Muslims. Above all Ms Nathan ‘s book depicts in details the latent and blatant discrimination against Israeli Arabs in distribution of resources, access to education, jobs, the media, housing, land and property ownership – all of which she encountered throughout her daily life in Tamra.

Although the book focuses on the predicament of the Israeli Arabs Ms. Nathan is equally aware of the plight of the Palestinians refugees in the Occupied Territories, and the impact of the occupation on the Israeli society. In a section entitled A Traumatic Society she portrays, through her conversation with young Israeli soldiers, the mental shock they have faced in serving as a force of occupation – a traumatic experience which had led many of them to taking drugs and being pushed "over the Edge". A significant number of young soldiers who were raised on the doctrine of the "purity of arms" have indeed started to question the morality behind the occupation, and in 1982 the Refusenik movement was established – following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Today the Refusenik movement amounts to more that 1600 dissidents including high-ranking officers, pilots, and young school graduates.

Ms. Nathan may not have immediate solutions to the decline and demoralization confronting the Israeli society but she empathetically feels that the Israelis have" to face tough moral questions raised by the way Israel was founded in 1948 … They have to be reconciled to their past and be prepared to apologize for it". This may sound somewhat naive, or unrealistic, in the deadlocked current situation but such an acknowledgement is likely to build the trust lost in a decades-long conflict in which there are no winners.

In Summary, Susan Nathan’s book is a revelation to anyone who is interested in the human and social aspects of life in a tribal community amidst a multi-ethnic Western society, and to those who still view Israel as a vibrant democracy which is committed to "uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex" (Israel’s Declaration of Independence – May 1948). They may all enhance their horizon reading this captivating book.


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