August 2, 2005
By: Deaglan de Breadun
** Israeli activist Susan Nathan who recently visited Ireland was interviewed by the Irish Times July 28. On August 2, the foreign editor of the paper gave permission to post the following article:
The most accurate description of Susan Nathan comes from herself: "What I do is that I live what comes out of my mouth." She is the only Jew among 25,000 Arabs in the northern Israeli town of Tamra and has taken up the cause of the Palestinians who remained inside the borders of Israel after the state was set up in 1948.
Her harshest critics could not say she has chosen a comfortable path. Friends and even some relatives have turned against her, she says, but she is standing by her controversial claim that the Palestinians in Israel are victims of apartheid-style discrimination and mistreatment.
Now she’s written a book to tell her story and make her case, The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish-Arab Divide (HarperCollins). The writing style is direct and simple: she wanted "Joe Bloggs on the street" to be able to read it and say, "I didn’t understand that it was like that". In person, too, Nathan is direct and to the point. As far as she is concerned, the issue itself is a simple one. Her Jewish co-religionists took the land from the Palestinians, who have been severely oppressed and treated as second-class citizens ever since.
She only came to this conclusion in her 50s, having been an ardent Zionist all her life. It took a long time for the penny to drop but there is now no self-doubt or hesitation.
Nathan says that initially she was "brainwashed and in love with the Zionist narrative". Very few non-Jewish people understood the power of Zionist propaganda.
"You are brought up to believe that you are outside of society, that you are forever persecuted, that Israel is your safe haven . . . It is like being part of a cult." The Zionist claim that Israel exists for the salvation of the Jews in case of another Holocaust was "a very cynical misuse of people’s fears and the Holocaust".
She is the daughter of a Harley Street physician. Her father, Samuel Levy, studied in South Africa and then Trinity College Dublin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. "He used to spend Friday night and all Saturday with the family of Chaim Herzog [future president of Israel, whose father was Ireland’s chief rabbi]."
The family came from the Baltic region. Fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms, they made their way to Odessa on the Black Sea. Family lore has it that they wanted to go to Hamburg but the ship was full so they had to sail for South Africa instead. "And that’s how we escaped the Holocaust."
Born in 1949, she grew up in South Africa and England. She got married, reared a family and got divorced when she was 50. Initially she was an avid supporter of the Israeli state. Having worked as a teacher and HIV/Aids therapist, Nathan decided at last to realise her lifelong Zionist dream of emigrating to Israel. "I applied under the Right of Return," she says. Under Israeli law, anyone with a Jewish grandparent can emigrate to Israel and become a citizen.
"It was a wonderful homecoming. I believed the Zionist ideology, I really believed this was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. Palestinians were not on the map for me in any shape or form." She was offered "a very good job" teaching business English in Tel Aviv. Around the time of her arrival, the latest intifada rebellion erupted at the end of 2000. She saw "the wonderful achievements of our forces" being extolled on Israeli television.
"I really fell for that line," she says. But then she became very ill and had to be hospitalized and this brought her into close regular contact with Palestinians. She began to ask herself, "Where am I in this society, what is my role?" She became involved with a Palestinian-Jewish NGO dealing with deprived communities, and worked on a project in Tamra. "I started to understand the enormous similarities between Arab-Israeli society and black society during the apartheid years in South Africa."
But it’s not as if Israel adopts petty measures such as having separate Arab and Jewish toilets the way South Africa had separate toilets for blacks and whites. "In Israel it’s far more sophisticated than that, because it’s all heavily veiled. It’s very important for Israel to be seen to be democratic, Western, accepted by the US and Europe." But as far as she is concerned: "Israeli society in its current form really equals a half democracy, a democracy for Jews only."
Nathan’s version of Israeli history would not find favour in Zionist circles: "The major form of discrimination comes in the confiscation and appropriation of Arab land. All of the state of Israel is built on Palestinian land. Around 480 to 500 villages were totally destroyed during the battle of Israeli independence in 1948. And this discrimination and dispossession goes on and on and on.
"Israel is the only country in the world where you can be an eternal refugee, where you can be present but absent by law from your property, being deprived of the right of return to your property and your land, even though you own the deeds for that property and that land, and to be without compensation. It is appalling.
"And once I had seen the comparison with South Africa, I decided that I could no longer keep my mouth closed." Nathan decided to go and live among the Arabs in Israel and "help to activate change".
She vigorously rejects any allegation that she is an anti-Semitic or "self-hating" Jew. "One is not called anti-British if one criticizes the policies of the British government." This is "just a rather nasty political ploy".
But she knows there is a price to be paid for the stand she has taken. "Everything in life comes with a price." Taking a phrase from the late Edward Said, she says: "What I do with my life is the politics of embarrassment." Predicting there will be another intifada uprising soon, she adds: "Israel should have been the safest place in the world for Jews to be and actually . . . now, ironically, it has turned out to be the most dangerous." Nathan’s "personal dream" is that Israel will ultimately be a bi-national state."
Her sympathy for the Palestinians is largely unqualified and she sharply rebukes a member of the audience at a Dublin meeting who raises a question about the rights of gays and lesbians in the Palestinian Territories. The question is "incredibly offensive", she says, warning of the "moral superiority of the West".
"As far as I know, you’re not a Muslim, you don’t live in the Muslim world. The Arab world is perfectly capable of dealing with those issues in its own time and in its own way."
Speaking to her afterwards, I said many people would regard gay and lesbian rights as universal human rights, so why couldn’t outsiders raise them? "Because I don’t think people from other cultures should interfere."
As for suicide bombing, she says: "I don’t condone it. I don’t say it’s right. But I think we have to say, ‘How does this come about? Why do we have this phenomenon?’" When I put it to her that the Irish were oppressed but didn’t use suicide bombers, she responds: "Yes, but did you have the entire army unleashed on you? Did you have jet-fighters bombing your homes? Did you have your homes demolished while you were in them? Did you have 40 years of brutal occupation and conniving to come to some sort of artificial peace process? Did you have that?"