Susan Nathan is a Jewish woman, raised in England. Her father is South African. About six years ago she moved to Tel Aviv. Soon she did not feel comfortable there living within the racist system of the Israeli government, so she decided to move to Tamra, a Palestinian village in Israel. From her insider’s position in the Palestinian community in Israel she describes in her book “The other side of Israel” the different shapes of discrimination that the Palestinian minority in Israel meet daily. “There is a much international attention for Gaza and the West Bank. But about the internal discrimination of Palestinians in Israel nobody speaks. That’s why I wrote this book, I am the bridge between the Jewish and Arab world”, says Susan Nathan. In October this year she visited Belgium and Holland to promote her book.
QUESTION: What was your motivation to move from England to Israel in the first place?
SUSAN NATHANI made the decision already when I was about twelve years old. I was raised very Zionist and knew from childhood on that I should go to Israel. In England I felt that I belonged to a minority. I had to go to church, always had to explain the meaning and origin of my Jewish name (Levy). I constantly felt that I was different. That’s why I developed my Zionist ideology. Many Jews that made aliyah (emigration to Israel) do not speak about the enormous feeling of power this gives to them. The Jews move from a position in a minority group in the diaspora to a country that is designed according especially to their wishes. In Israel there are national holidays, Jews do not need to adapt. The Jews who make aliyah feel like defying the world that used to pursue them.
QUESTION: And why did you decide to move to Tamra, a Palestinian village in Israel?
SUSAN NATHAN: When the intifada started the Jews pointed to the Palestinians: “Look, they disturb our peaceful coexistence. They behave like barbarians”. I felt unrest appearing in my quiet middle class soap bubble in which I lived in Tel Aviv. I wanted to investigate if the media was true in its reporting. I work with an NGO called “Mahapach”, which means revolution. This NGO aims at supporting poorer communities of Arab and Mizrachi (Arab Jews) origin within Israel. I was asked to support the Arab communities.
When I arrived at first in Tamra, I understood within 10 minutes that the situation here was comparable to the situation I knew from South Africa. At that moment I could not return to my normal life in Tel Aviv, pretending that nothing was happening. I had to speak out about manipulation of reality by the media propaganda machine.
QUESTION: What is your book about?
SUSAN NATHAN: My book is about the status of the Palestinian minority living in Israel. Palestinians in Israel are being discriminated in their lives on every level. The worst form of discrimination is comes from land allocation. 94 per cent of the land in Israel is in the hands of the JNF (Jewish National Fund). This land can be used by Jews from all over the world. Israeli Arabs, who constitute 20 per cent of the Israeli population, are destined to their ghettos. Thus the Israeli state sends a constant message for Arabs to leave Israel. For me it should not be a solution if the Palestinians should obtain more land. I’d rather have the Jewish and Palestinian community mingle. One state for all inhabitants. That unavoidably means the end of the Jewish state.
QUESTION: What other ways of discrimination of Palestinians in Israel do exist?
SUSAN NATHAN: In all layers of society life Palestinians are being discriminated against, from education and employment to land allocation and community subsidy. Illegal houses (built because Palestinians in Israel could not obtain building permits, where Jews from all over the world could) are being demolished. In the meantime Israel is building settlements in the West Bank illegally.
Also, in education there is discrimination. Arab schools get fewer subsidies. For instance, books and computers are not paid for. Schools are located in bad buildings, without heating or air conditioning. Also, Palestinian teachers are screened before they are allowed to teach. They are not allowed to have too much political interest or to teach about the Palestinian history or the Naqba (the catastrophe for the Palestinians due to the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948). Palestinian history is being denied. In the meantime complete museums about Jewish history have been established.
It is rejected to establish a Palestinian university in Israel. The racist system is being disguised by the fact that Israel lacks a constitution. If a constitution should be recognised internationally the principle of equality should be part of it. Then Israeli Arabs should have a ground to fight their inequality. The system of laws in Israel in itself is a way of discrimination, because many laws are valid only if you have served in the Israeli army, which only Jews are entitled to [do].
There are many other ways of discrimination. Palestinian villages, for instance, are not in computer databases; at the airport Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are questioned and searched thoroughly and eventually cannot pass. Jews do not want to know about discrimination, they don’t want to see it. So Palestinians in Israel live separately, invisible for Jews.
QUESTION: What is the role of the international community to improve the situation of Palestinians in Israel?
SUSAN NATHAN: With their hearts Europeans support the Palestinians. But they act too cowardly against Israel. This mainly is the result of the feeling of guilt Europe has, because of their poor actions against the Holocaust. I am disappointed of the lack of intervention from the side of Europe. But in the meantime I think that it is the responsibility of us Jews to change that situation. Jews from the diaspora should come to Israel and inform themselves about the situation of discrimination.
QUESTION: And what can Jews in the diaspora do?
SUSAN NATHAN: Jewish communities worldwide yearly donate millions of dollars to support Israel. They do so because they believe that Jews are victims and therefore need to be supported. What they do not understand is that they support the dangerous plans of the Israeli government simultaneously. If they should know what their support actually does mean, they’d abhor it. Their safe homeland exists at the cost of another ethnic group. This goes against all lessons of Judaism. Luckily the Jewish communities in the diaspora are behind; the right of return for Jews, for instance, is on the political agenda in the Knesset already.
QUESTION: Your book is not about the occupation, the wall and the colonists, but about the situation within Israel in particular. Does the Israeli population know of the racist system they are living in?
SUSAN NATHAN: They don’t want to know. It is so much easier to be against the occupation than against something that is at stake in their own society. That would mean that they should change their lives to change this system.
QUESTION: How important is education if we want to change the racist system?
SUSAN NATHAN: Together with Ilan Pappe I founded a new NGO, aiming at including the Naqba in the curriculum of regular education. Things can only change if we Jews understand that the history of the Palestinians also means our own history. Likewise, our history of banning and expulsion is also their history.
QUESTION: Do you think the situation will change eventually?
SUSAN NATHAN: For sure. The number of Palestinians in Israel is increasing. The new generation is positioned further away from the suffering of their parents and is better educated. They will not accept what their parents did accept. The inequality will explode eventually and result in another intifada.
Young Israeli Jews become aware more and more of the situation. Young people tell me: “You draw attention to topics which we were vaguely aware of, but which were never quite clear to us. Although we knew that it exists, we did not know how the discrimination works.”
Also the economic position of Israel is weakening. Many Mizrachi Jews experience that they also are being discriminated by their own Jewish state. At a certain moment all groups with feelings of unrest within civil society will unite. It is only a matter of time.
This interview was first published in ‘De Brug’ a magazine published by SIVMO — a Dutch organization that supports Israeli human rights and peace organizations. SIVMO can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the following address. This interview was reprinted with permission. Laurens den Dulk helped with translation, and Amal Awad helped with editing of this interview. To order Susan Nathan’s book The Other Side of Israel click here.