Saturday, 25 October 2008
Book Review: The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide by Susan Nathan
Susan tells her readers how, when she was visiting a South African relative at the age of sixteen, she saw a black servant reprimanded for not wearing white gloves while serving them food. An incensed Susan followed the servant to the kitchen and had sex with him on the kitchen table.
Many years later, fifty year old Susan, recently divorced, made aliyah and moved to Israel from the UK, leaving behind two grown up children. Susan was following a path followed by many other Jews. The Jewish Agency in London processed Susan’s application in a week and bought her a ticket to Israel. When Susan landed in Israel, she was put in Rana’ana, one of the best run immigrant absorption centres where she was taught basic Hebrew and the nitty-gritty's of life in Israel.
Soon Susan became unhappy with her life in Israel. She realised that she had performed aliyah at the expense of the Arab citizens of Israel who are treated as second hand citizens. Slowly her romantic notions of Israel and life in Israel evaporated. Israel was a sanctuary for the Jews of the world, but it had a lot of skeletons in its cupboard.
Never shy of taking direct action, three years after reaching Israel, Susan packed up and moved to Tamra, an Arab town of 25,000 people in the Galilee, located between Haifa and Nazareth.
Susan paints a vivid picture of Tamra. Electricity and telephone cables are slung haphazardly across the streets. Rubble and rubbish can be found everywhere. Children play in the streets. The drains are overwhelmed by the occasional showers.
Susan rents some space from an Arab family living in Tamra. The grandmother in the family is so very good at making the most of what they have. They grow vegetables in the little patch of land they have. The head of the clam or Hamula stands for office in the municipal elections and wins. Susan votes for him.
Susan finds that Arab festivals are similar to Jewish ones. An Arab engagement party is not much different from a Jewish one. Customs, especially in the case of deaths and burials are very similar. Bodies are buried on the same day by sundown. Arabs have 3 days of mourning whilst Jews mourn for 7 days.
I’ll leave it to you to read the book and enjoy Susan’s description of Tamra, the elections and everything else.
Discrimination in different shapes and sizes
To an outsider, Israel appears to be an open society where all citizens have equal rights. It is a democracy where every citizen is entitled to vote and practice a religion of his/her choice. But it is not as simple as that. Israel, a nation formed on the basis of a UN resolution, does not treat its Arab citizens on par with its Jewish nationals. Discrimination is at times subtle, but at times it is in-your-face. Israel is a made-to-measure-democracy, where a Jewish majority at all times is fixed. ‘Fixed’ as in ‘match-fixing' fixed.
Each page in Susan’s book (two hundred and seventy odd pages) details a form of discrimination or harassment practised against the Arabs. I am not even going to try and capture all of the story here. However, let me tell you that Susan’s book has the ring of truth and honesty and is capable of making even the most committed Israel fan re-appraise his or her stand.
The Zionists migrated to an empty barren land, described as a “land without people for a people without land”. Just as the European migrants to the Americas found bison and native Indians, the Jews did find some people in Palestine (lots of people actually), but they were not particularly civilised or in any way worthy of being treated on par with the immigrants. Which was a relief actually since it made it easy to de-humanise them and grab their land.
It worked out like this. The UN resolution which created Israel and a Palestinian state gave 55% of the land to Israel and 44% to the Palestinian state. This despite the fact that the Arabs were a majority in Palestine at that time and the Jews actually owned only 7% of the land. I don't agree with Susan that the 55:45 split was particularly unfair since the State of Israel was supposed to be a haven for Jews from around the world, not just for the Jews already there. It was assumed that there would be continued migration of Jews into Israel, which was to be a predominantly Jewish state.
However, I agree with Susan that happened after that was not particularly fair. In the course of the 1948 war, Israel did its best to chase Arabs away from their homes. Internally displaced Arabs had their lands and homes confiscated. The Israeli government's programme of extensive confiscation of Arab land has continued ever since. There's an Israeli bureaucratic term for Arabs who are internal refugees - “Present Absentees”. There are 250,000 of such present absentees in Israel.
Israel has put in place a land policy which Susan describes as “land apartheid”. Except for 7% of Israeli land owned by Israeli Arabs, the rest is owned by the government which leases it to Israelis. So far, over 400 Arab villages have been destroyed by the Israeli government.
Whilst there's plenty land available for Jews, the Israeli government tries to cram in as many Arabs as possible in the least amount of land. With the agricultural land surrounding Arab villages and towns confiscated, many young Arab couples can't find land to build homes for themselves. Susan gives the example of her own town, Tamra, where only 1000 acres of land is available for building. This means 88 people per acre. 6000 acres of Tamra's land has been zoned, that is designated for farming or as green land. We are told that Tamra has run out of land to bury the dead. According to Susan, the message to Arabs from the state is clear. They are not welcome in Israel.
The famous Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem has been built on the ruins of the abandoned village of Ein Kerem.
Ayn Hawd is yet another village taken over by the Israeli army after the villagers abandoned it during the 1948 war. 35 villagers, members of the Abu al-Hija family, went back and occupied a small portion of the land that was theirs. Ever since then, Israel has been trying to evict them from that land. To do so, a large area including the land occupied by the village has been declared to be a national park and later, an archaeological site as well. To put more pressure, the land was also declared to be part of a firing range. Laws designed ostensibly to protect vegetation prevent the villagers from grazing their cattle. The villagers are denied access to electricity or water. A veteran from Ayn Hawd described to Susan how it used to take him 3 hours to get to school. Ayn Hawd is not a one-off, but has been replicated across the country.
Tree planting programmes
The Israeli government has an avowed goal to 'green' Israel. This one involves planting pine, olive, carob and the like trees wherever possible, especially over destroyed Arab villages, so that one cannot find any trace of them. The Jewish National Fund (set up in 1901 in order to buy land in Ottoman ruled Palestine) is an NGO which, inter alia, collects money for the planting of trees in Israel. If you donate $18, you can have a tree planted in Israel. It might be on land once occupied by an Arab village.
More than Israel's land policy, I found Susan's description of Israeli education policy very troubling. To start with, Arab students have a different curriculum from Jewish students The government spends £105 a year on every Arab student, whilst £485 is spent on Jewish students. A mind boggling £1,340 is spent every year on Jewish religious (Yeshiva) students. This is because both the education ministry and the religious affairs ministry support these students.
Infrastructure and other facilities available in Arab schools is markedly inferior to Jewish schools. For example, even though all schools are required to be air conditioned, many Arab schools are not.
Palestinian Arab history is not taught in schools. There is no mention of the 'Nakbah' suffered by the Arabs of Palestine, other than as part of the Israeli citizenship curriculum explained below in the section 'Oases of Hope'.
In Susan's opinion, the worst aspect of the system is that all teachers are vetted by the security services. Shin Bet has a large network of spies, even in schools. Since students know that their teachers have obtained security clearance, they don't respect them. I don't fully agree with Susan. Does she expect the Israeli government to hand out jobs to people who could be a security threat? However, keeping in mind the fact that almost all Arabs in Israel are bound to have grievances, I assume the teachers who obtain security clearance are bound to be totally spineless.
School books promote stereotypes. Susan went through a textbook which talks of little Gideon and little Avner wanting to be astronauts. There was only one instance of Arabs being mentioned. Young Mohammad and young Yousef are shown to be asking their uncle how to be good camel drivers.
Susan says there is no Arab University in Israel, but towards the end of the book, she makes a reference to Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, a minor contradiction I guess. Israeli universities don't permit dissent. Arab students find it tough to get admission to universities. There are extra points for students who have done well in Hebrew, but none for doing well in Arabic. In 2003, there was a reform which was meant to make it easy for underprivileged students to gain admission to universities. The measures were intended for underprivileged Jewish children, but the main beneficiaries were the Arabs. The reforms were countermanded within a short time.
Susan tells us of Samiha, a very smart student who could not apply for medical school after she passed out since she was too young. The minimum age limit is set so that Jewish students who join medical school after their 3 year military service are not disadvantaged. So Samiha applied to law school where she was supposed to be a shoo-in. Samiha's application was rejected, for reasons unknown.
Susan finds Arab Politics to be feudal. A family is usually dressed up as a political party. Susan thinks Israel is to blame for this state of affairs. In Israel, Arab politicians are considered hostile unless they join a Zionist party. Arab parties are excluded from coalitions. So Arab politicians stick to municipal elections.
I don't fully agree with Susan, though, a share of the blame should lie with Israel. I don't really understand why Arabs who form 20% of the population and have the right to vote shouldn't be a decisive force in Israeli elections.
Is it apartheid?
Susan makes a good case to say that Israel's treatment of its Arab minority is apartheid. The petty elements of apartheid are not present. Arabs can sit on the same benches as Jews. They can ride the same buses. However, the discrimination in core areas such as land, education etc. amount to an apartheid of sorts, according to Susan. I can see an element of truth in what Susan says.
The Israeli Left
Susan has nothing but contempt for the Israeli left-wing which reserves its sympathy for Palestinians in the occupied territories and don’t really care about Arabs within Israel. For example, Haaretz, the left-wing Israeli newspaper, has much better reports on Palestinians from the occupied territories than on Arab Israelis. Israeli left wingers say they had no choice but to come from Europe, take a country not theirs and dispossess thousands of Palestinians. Any mention of equal rights for Arab Israelis is anathema to everyone in Israel. There is no concept that rights are basic and universal.
Susan has lengthy descriptions of how left-wing Israelis don't do enough for Israeli Arabs. There is an interesting description of an interview by Sara Leibovitch-Dar, a Haaretz journalist, which ultimately was not published in English. There are interesting quotes from left-wing Israeli's - “If we let the Arabs back, they will be everywhere.”
Susan's friend Daphna Golan, Law Lecturer at Hebrew University, runs an organisation called Btselem which fights human rights abuses in the occupied territories. Daphna wants a Palestinian state, but Susan would rather focus on rights of Arab Israelis
Comparisons with Germany
Ein Hod is a communal settlement of artists built over the remains of the Arab village of Ayn Hawd mentioned above. Samira, whose parents used to live in Ayn Hawd, went to Ein Hod to 'take a look.' She was practically chased away. Susan contrasts the treatment Samira received with that of Rabbi Rayner's experience in Germany. Rayner, an eminent liberal Rabbi from London went to Germany to take a look at the house where his folks used to live. He was graciously invited in and allowed to look around.
Susan has an interesting opinion on the hijab, one of the most reviled garments in recent times. Susan says the hijab gives her dignity. She doesn't feel repressed. Instead, she feels free and proud to be a woman. When Susan used to live in Tel Aviv, she skimpy clothing meant that when men spoke with her, they had a conversation with her body and not with her.
Armed Extremists on the loose – with army protection
Susan has a few horror stories of how armed settlers are carrying out a limited form of ethnic cleansing in Israel in order to rid it of its Arab population. She runs into a rifle carrying settler while in a hospital ward who boasts that he has just requisitioned a home in East Jerusalem. 'All of East Jerusalem belongs to the Jews,' he boasts. Later Susan finds a bunch of settlers trying to evict an Arab family from their East Jerusalem home. Having occupied a flat about the Arab family, the settlers work in relay teams in making life a living hell for the Arab family. The hallway is used as a toilet and there is constant noise. To top it all, the settlers have military protection.
The Israeli Army – a culture of hatred and some hope
'What’s the difference between an Israeli soldier who bulldozes a house with people inside and a terrorist?' Susan asks her readers rhetorically.
The Israeli army incubates a culture of hatred, according to Susan. Even nice, law abiding teenagers become machines of hatred once they are in the army. Even the well intentioned among the soldiers cannot make a difference. Susan gives the example of Bar, who joined the army in the hope of doing some good. Bar was on duty at a West Bank checkpoint which had been closed in retaliation for a suicide bombing a few days earlier. Schools had just reopened and a number of school children in their new uniforms and their parents had lined up to cross over. Tempers started to fly when they realised that they won't be allowed across. Soldiers scream at the children to stay away from the gate. The frightened children do stay away. Bar decides to be polite and she is shoved aside by the queuing Arabs.
Irit, Principal of the Waldorf school, tells Susan that she hasn't recovered though she left the army 12 years ago.
Yet, more and more soldiers are objecting to the army's treatment of the Arabs. Many soldiers feel shame. They don’t want to belong to Israel. They say ‘its not mine. I’ll go to India or live in Europe.’
Susan tells us of an Arab employee being sacked by McDonald’s for speaking in Arabic with a fellow employee. Apparently there was a company direction that forbid employees from speaking Arabic. Why is there such a prohibition? Because the sound of Arabic might scare customers!
When the Rule of Law leads to injustice
South Africa during the apartheid era was one of those rare instances where the rule of law resulted in gross injustice. Apartheid was sanctioned by law and every other injustice practised by the state had legal sanction. Something similar takes place in Israel. There are laws which are meant to benefit only Jews. But they wouldn't say that. The law will instead say that it applies only to those who are eligible under the law of return or to those who are mandatorily required to perform military service.
Israel does not have a written constitution, though it was promised in the declaration of independence. Susan has an interesting explanation for this. According to Susan, a written constitution would lay down basic rights and guarantees for all citizens, including Arabs, enforceable in a court of law. Israel is not very keen on this.
The commonly accepted definition of a Jew is one born of a Jewish mother. Under the Law of Return, any one with a Jewish grandparent is eligible to perform aliyah, the idea being to get as many Jews as possible into Israel. Susan contrasts the Law of Return with the demand by displaced Arabs for the Right to Return to their homes, a right they have been denied so far.
Under the Citizenship Law of 2003, Palestinian spouses of Israeli Arabs won't be given Israeli ID or citizenship. A harsh law, it has not prevented Arabs in Israeli from marrying Palestinians, though they can't live together after marriage.
The public sector is almost exclusively reserved for Jews. The Israeli Electricity Board has over 13,000 employees, of whom 6 are Arabs. Please remember that Arabs form 20% of Israel's population.
Water scarcity in the West Bank
The West Bank sits atop the most prolific aquifers in Palestine. However, it faces acute water shortages, since water from the West Bank is used to fill up Israeli swimming pools and sprinkle Israeli lawns.
A difficult life
Life is a lot more difficult for Israeli Arabs than for its Jews. Most service providers will not travel to Jewish towns or villages. Susan has interesting stories of how telephone companies won’t sent their repairmen to Tamra which is not listed on El Al's database.
At Ben Gurion airport, Arabs are searched more rigorously and are treated rudely. Susan's friend Dr. Manna’s son and his Jewish girl friend were forced to miss a flight because they were required to undergo additional security checks. A woman travelling to Germany for a cancer operation was asked to turn up early so that she could be subjected to extra security checks. Susan compares this to a black man in South Africa not being picked up by a whites-only ambulance and dying as a result of that. I don't agree with Susan on this. I think El Al is perfectly entitled to carry out additional security checks on any of its passengers. How can El Al ensure that a bomb is not attached to the wheel chair carrying the cancer patient if not by carrying out additional checks? Let's face it, there is a much higher chance of an Arab passenger turning out to be a hijacker than a Jewish one. However, there is no excuse for being rude to Arab passengers.
It is not surprising that Arabs in Israel tend to say “Ma la’assot” or “What to do?” quite often.
Oases of hope
Amidst all this, there are many signs of hope. Mahapach, an NGO in which Susan is involved, does a lot of work for disadvantaged communities, especially oriental Jews, the Mizrarahim.
Eitan Bronstein runs an organisation called Zochrot (meaning remember) which posts signs on places built over destroyed Arab villages.
Israeli schools teaches all senior students before matriculation and military service an Israeli citizenship curriculum. Both Arabs and Jews learn the same lessons, which examine Israeli history including the Nakbah.
Arun Gandhi and non-violence
Mahatma Gandhi's grandson finds a mention in Susan's narrative. Susan says (rightly in my opinion) that Arun Gandhi fails to understand the depth of Palestinian anger when he advocates non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation. Susan attended a lecture by Arun Gandhi where he apparently talked of his childhood in South Africa with his Grandfather. Though Arun Gandhi was born in South Africa in 1934, I don't think he lived in South Africa at the same time as Mahatma Gandhi since Gandhi returned to India in 1915. As far as I know, Arun Gandhi lived with the Mahatma for two years only (1946-1948) in India. I assume Susan misheard what Arun Gandhi said.
I still believe that the UN resolution which created Israel was fair and just. I also think the Israel is entitled to permit Jewish immigration into Israel, since Israel is meant to be a haven for Jews. However, the UN resolution did not give the Israelis a mandate to carry out ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel. Israel was meant to be predominantly Jewish and not exclusively Jewish. This selective amnesia, in my opinion, has been the root cause for the state sponsored discrimination against Arabs. I believe that Israel should allow all displaced Arabs to return to their homes from refugees camps in Israel and from outside.
Towards the end of the book, Susan examines the two state theory and wonders if it is the best option available for Israel. An alternative would be for a single state incorporating Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Susan approvingly quotes Dr. Saed Zidan, Prof. at Al-Quds University, East Jerusalem who feels that Israel could become a confederation of an Arab state and a Jewish state. Everyone will stay where they are, but enjoy equal rights.
Palestine in a rough place where dialogue does not always work. I can imagine Jews saying that if they had lost the 1948 war or the 1967 war, the Arabs would have thrown them into the sea. In any event, they would have been treated worse than how Arabs are currently being treated in Israel. But arguments such as these will not offer a solution to the Palestinian problem. Just as the USA made peace with native Americans by conceding that they had been wronged and compensated them with money and land, Israel must make good the losses suffered by its Arab population and make peace with them.
I don't think a single state incorporating Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is practical. There is too much hatred between Jews and the Arabs for that to work. In my opinion, even a confederation will not work since it would require Arabs and Jews to have a common foreign policy and a single army. I just don't see the Israeli army with Arabs and Jews working together. The two-state solution set out in the UN resolution is in my opinion, the only solution in this troubled land. To make it work, Israel must first rein in its right wing Haredim and settlers. Once all Jews in Israel accept that they are not entitled to the whole of Palestine and that Israeli Arabs have the same rights as Jews, Israel will be in a position to offer a meaningful solution to the Arabs.