Crossing the Divide
The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide
by Susan Nathan
New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2005,336 pp., $25 hardcover.
Reviewed by Sherna Berger Gluck
What does it mean to be an “outsider” who espouses the cause of an oppressed group; to serve as a ventriloquist, projecting their voices because you are more likely than they to be heard? I ruminated about this when I was writing my memoir An American Feminist in Palestine. In particular, I was concerned about how to handle the aspects of Palestinian culture and society of which I was critical, especially the status and treatment of women. Would critical disclosure undermine support for the cause I had taken up? This question resurfaced for me as I read Susan Nathan’s illuminating book on Palestinians who are citizens of Israel—the people Israelis refer to as “Israeli Arabs.” (Like the Palestinian citizens of Israel themselves, Nathan uses “Arab” and “Palestinian” interchangeably throughout her book.)
Nathan’s engaging opening chapters reminded me of John Howard Griffin’s 1960 book, Black Like Me, the account of a white man who used chemically induced “blackface” to expose the indignities of racism in the US. Nathan begins with moving day to Tamra, an Israeli “Arab” town of 25,000 not far from Haifa. Her nervous taxi driver can’t locate Tamra on a map, and before he leaves her, he offers her the name of a contact in the Israeli army should anything go awry. She then has to coax the fearful movers to get out of their van and unload her packed boxes. She spends countless hours trying to arrange utility services. Her problems provide a hint of what Palestinian citizens of Israel face just dealing with the mundane tasks of daily life. She introduces us to the look and feel of the town and to the Abu Hajji family, who rented her their top floor apartment and eventually “adopted” her. She spends much of her free time with this extended family, who teach her about hamula [clan] politics and the culture of the community.
Nathan decided to move to Tamra despite the incredulity and arguments of her Jewish friends. She first visited the town on a field trip for Mahapach, a student organization that works with disadvantaged Israeli “Arabs” and Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries), which had enlisted her to write a grant for them. Wanting to go beyond statistics in her grant presentation, she jumped at the chance to visit one of the “Arab” towns. Her trip becomes the dramatic entrée into a new life and consciousness.
Within minutes of driving into Tamra, I felt that I had entered another Israel . .. 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 neglect. It was the first time I had been to an Arab area . . . and I was profoundly shaken by it. . . Tamra looked far too familiar. I thought, Where have I seen this before? I recognized the pattern of discrimination from my experience of apartheid South Africa, where 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.
This recognition makes more credible what seems to be the rather swift demise of Nathan’s “love affair” with zionism. Her “journey across the Jewish/Arab divide” transforms her from a somewhat naïve and totally committed British Zionist who made aliya (the Jewish “return,” or “ascent,” to Israel) into a passionate advocate for justice for Israeli Palestinians.
While Israeli scholars have written about the status of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, Nathan presents the story of this minority in a very accessible and often moving account. In addition to her own experiences and interviews, she draws upon articles in Ha’Aretz, the liberal Israeli daily. The book works best when she focuses on her life in Tamra and the people she meets there.
In the next few chapters, as she hears the Palestinian narrative during many visits and conversations with Palestinian scholars and professionals, her initial, visceral reaction to Tamra is reinforced. She intersperses their accounts with statistics and stories from the Israeli press that document the economic and educational discrimination the Palestinian citizens of Israel face. As unsettling as this documentation is of the Palestinians’ second class citizenship, it pales in comparison to the systematic denial of their national/ethnic identity and historical roots.
For example, one-third of Tamrans are forbidden to return to their original homes because they are classified as “present absentees.” This peculiar designation means that they were present in Israel in 1948, but absent from their homes when all property was registered, after which 93 percent of it was turned over to the new Jewish state. Not only did the Palestinian “internal refugees” lose everything in 1948, but also the three percent of the land that the Arab population still holds is under the jurisdiction of Jewish regional councils—which refuse to issue permits to develop it. Like their kin in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, these citizens of Israel become subject to home demolition when they build without a permit. At the time of Nathan’s writing, some 150 homes in Tamra were slated for destruction. (The cover photo of a destroyed building, however, is in Gaza—an unfortunate and misleading choice.)
In the remaining chapters of the book, Nathan describes her initially disappointing encounters with the Israeli left, whose alliances with Palestinians she sees both as fragile and highly tentative. Convinced that she is the only Jew who lives in an “Arab” town, she meets long-time anti-Zionist critic, Uri Davis, and finally finds an Israeli who is simpatico. As Nathan becomes acquainted with him and others involved in projects focused on the rights of Palestinian Israelis, she must temper her exceptionalist—almost “lone ranger”—stance. She acknowledges and becomes part of the loosely knit network of Jewish Israelis who are taking steps to make a difference. Ultimately, in her chapter “A Traumatized Society,” she looks at the impact on Israeli society of the treatment of Palestinians both inside Israeli and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Nathan ends her book by reflecting on her journey, noting that her choice to become rootless as she questioned the basis of the Jewish state was not easy, and that “being honest with oneself, seeing truth beneath the layers of lies and misinformation, is deeply disturbing.” Having made that choice, Nathan uses her personal experience very effectively to bring to a potentially wide audience not just the pain and suffering of the Palestinian citizens of Israel but also the richness of their social and cultural life.
One topic is noticeably absent—the status of women. Talking about her life in Tamra, Nathan only alludes in passing to her participation in “women’s empowerment projects.” As it turns out, with some simple Internet surfing, I uncovered two projects there organized by “Kayan, a Feminist Organization.” One of them focuses on “personal empowerment” and women’s need for independence and legal rights; the second, a gender education project for girls, focuses on the problem of early marriage in the Palestinian Israeli community, among other things. Certainly the very existence of these projects indicates that there are problems.
Similarly, Nathan seeks out and interviews only male Palestinian professionals. She not only ignores a leading activist like Nabila Espanioly, she doesn’t even cite Espanioly’s long-established organization, Al Tufula Pedagogical Centre, in the valuable list of resources at the end of the book. Even when she discusses the work of the human rights organization Adalah, Nathan makes no reference to the feminist activities it regularly features in its newsletter or to its longstanding lawsuit on behalf of battered women.
Was Nathan concerned that she might appear to be an insensitive “Westernized” woman if she gave her readers some insight into women’s status and the empowerment projects that obviously address this issue? But Palestinian feminists themselves talk about their triple oppression: as a Palestinian national minority, as women in Israel, and as women in Palestinian society. Or did Nathan keep silent for fear that exposing the faultlines in Palestinian Israeli society would undermine her advocacy for their rights? It is a tough call, as many of us know.
Despite the absence of any gender analysis, I deeply appreciate Nathan’s book. Above all, I am thankful for her willingness to step forward and bring to light the rarely told story of the twenty percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian citizens—even at the risk of being called a “bad Jew” or an anti-Semite. Her book is required reading for anyone willing to take the intellectual journey across the Jewish/Arab divide.
Veteran feminist oral historian Sherna Berger Gluck is the author of An American Feminist in Palestine: The Intifada Years (1994), which discusses the first intifada. Although she is retired from teaching women’s studies and directing the Oral History Program at California State University, Long Beach, she still serves as the codirector of the Virtual Oral/Aural History Archive (www.csulb.edu/voaha).