Thursday, August 13, 2009


My first contact with Susan Nathan was seeing her book, The Other Side of Israel, in a Palestinian bookstore in East Jerusalem. After she agreed to meet with me, I traveled to Tamra, an Arab town in northern Israel where she has lived since 2003, the only Jewish woman among 30,000 Palestinian Arabs who are also citizens of Israel.


Two years later, I called her again, this time from my home, to find out how things on ‘the other side of Israel' looked to her now, across, as the cover of her book puts it, ‘the Jewish-Arab divide.”

Susan Nathan has spent the last few years writing, cataloging, documenting, and speaking about the injustices and human rights violations imposed by the Israeli government on its non-Jewish citizens who account for 20% of the population. She has brought to the attention of a worldwide audience what it means to be a second class citizen in Israel, simply by virtue of one’s race.

Seeing life from 'the other side', understanding the Palestinian narrative, meant she had to unlearn her lifelong Zionist training, to acknowledge that the flip side of Israel’s triumphant independence in 1948 was the suffering of the displaced, uprooted and terrorized Palestinians whose historic land was seized to enlarge the UN-mandated borders of the new Israeli state. For the Palestinians, this was the Nakba or catastrophe, which today, under the new Israeli right wing government, they are forbidden by law to commemorate or to mention in school curricula.

While considerable attention has been paid recently to the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories of West Bank and Gaza, less is known about the situation faced by Palestinian Arabs within Israel.

One in five Israelis is a second-class citizen
In her book, Susan Nathan makes vivid how these realities on the ground translate into second-class citizenship in Israel. The list of injustices has grown since her book was published and builds from the small to the momentous: identity papers coded to differentiate Jew from Arab, intense airport security including the removal of every item in the Arab traveler’s suitcase, demolition of Arab homes, refusal of permits to rebuild them, prohibitions on Arab land purchases and the resulting overcrowding in towns such as the one where Susan lives. With the loss of agricultural land outside the town, Tamra has run out of space for 'natural growth' which means the residents must build multi-story homes and keep livestock next to their houses.

The list runs on to a re-architecting of the roads and bridges so that only Jews can travel on them; gross neglect of infrastructure and services such as water, electricity, clinics and schools, especially in the Negev; exclusion of Arab workers from wealth-generating sectors of the economy at the same time that they are disconnected from their traditional agricultural economy; employment practices that include the firing of workers who speak Arabic on the job; diverting or manipulating water supplies; erasure of Arab presence and history by building parks and forests over Arab villages, removing former Arab place names from maps and roads and, as reported recently on When motorists head up the hill to Jerusalem, for example, the large green traffic signs say "Yerushalayim" in Hebrew, "Jerusalem" in English and "Ursalim al-Quds" in Arabic. But if transportation minister Israel Katz has his way, all three languages will spell out the word "Yerushalayim."

The use of erasure to replace one collective memory with another extends most egregiously to the school system. Palestinians Arabs have no real voice in formulating the curriculum in Arab schools which re-educates the student to accept the erasure of his own history and identity replacing it with understanding history from the Zionist perspective and sympathizing with Jewish suffering.

Activism 2.0
Since the publication of her book, Ms. Nathan has spoken at numerous events in Europe, where she reports that awareness and information levels among Europeans have increased considerably and continue to grow. At the same time, her energetic public presence have transformed how she sees her role as an activist:

There's a huge division now coming between Jews who've understood the reality of Israel and what's going on here and those who've yet to understand the reality of what's going on here, who can't accept it and find it very frightening and threatening. My role is not to continue to bash away at Israel how terrible Israel's very important I've realized by being in Europe to show compassion towards Jews who are not yet able to accept that this country has turned out to be the way it is; it's very frightening actually to see Israel the way that it really is. My own position has started to evolve to understand you can't frighten people into accepting the reality here...It's important to acknowledge and understand that I was once in their position...I was very much the victim of the Zionist education which hundreds of thousands of people around the world...but the Zionist position is weakening...

Instead of the 'barrage' that characterized her earlier public presentations, Susan now prefers 'fierce criticism of our people mixed with compassion':
I've changed how I present (my argument): I'm far less aggressive but at the same time I'm far more dangerous...I have a far better view of what's going on..that's the only way you can get Jews to take on board what's happening here...a continuous barrage of criticism will not make the changes we need. I'm very fiercely critical but I'm also very compassionate. It's very difficult for people to accept that everything they've based their life on has been based on a sandcastle which is now being swept away by a wave.

Susan Nathan's new credo resonates with some of what I heard from Philip Weiss in last month's Tidings blog post and podcast. Perhaps we are witnessing the emergence of a more mature, a kinder left-wing Jewish voice, one that forcibly identifies with being Jewish, that wishes to look unflinchingly at the reality of what Israel is today and that accepts as progressive Jewish responsibility the holding up of a mirror to let Israel see what others see. Perhaps this will modulate the dialogue from invective to conversation, dial down the tone from rabid to calm and, perhaps it will lead, as Susan fervently hopes it will, 'to another country, not the country we have now.'


After reading her book and interviewing Susan Nathan I wondered if we understand the price we pay for identity, identification and identity cards. How easy would it be to create second-class citizens without ID cards?


The Other Side of Israel: an interview with Susan Nathan is also available as a podcast. In the radio series Tidings from Hazel Kahan, it was produced by Tony Ernst and broadcast on WPKN on August 6, 2009. Tidings can be heard streaming live on the first Thursday of every month at 12 noon EST on, broadcasting from 89.5 Bridgeport, CT and WPKM 88.7 Montauk, NY. WPKN is an entirely listener-supported community radio station. Hazel Kahan is also the creator of leafages.