Apartheid in Israel

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This article is part of the Jesus Now - Peace and Justice series.

Apartheid In Israel
A Day With Susan Nathan, author of The Other Side of Israel.

Susan Sophia

Susan Sophia has worked in the social justice field for more than 20 years. She interviewed Susan Nathan at Tamra Village in late March 2006 as part of a research idea involving interviews with prominent Israeli dissidents such as Ilan Pappe, Tanya Reinhart, and Uri Davis, and with Palestinian Israeli citizens like Omar Barghouti, and with Palestinian stateless residents of the occupied territories such as community workers and business women. The larger idea to which all these interviews should contribute is still at the drafting stage.


I spent a day with Susan Nathan in late March 2006. As a Jewish woman from Britain, she had undertaken aliyah (immigration to Israel) in the late 1990’s in order to contribute to the Zionist dream of a Jewish state. Susan established herself in Tel Aviv where she taught English and worked for a number of progressive social organisations. It wasn’t until after the intifada of 2000 that she began to realize that something was wrong. The more Susan learnt about this situation the more troubled she became on a personal and political level. She began to question herself in terms of where she stood in Israeli society and what her contribution was to this “chaos”. In 2003 Susan put her principles into practice and moved from her comfortable and familiar environment in Tel Aviv to Tamra, an Arab town in the north. To this day, Susan is the only Jewish person amongst the 25,000 indigenous Arab townspeople. She is determined to demonstrate that Jews and Arabs can live together whilst still keeping their distinct identities. “You can show that you can be yourself and stay with others,” is how Susan explained it.

Susan’s writings and talks tackle the issues of democracy, inclusiveness and human rights in Israel. She explains in detail a system of apartheid where the world’s most powerful nations turn a blind eye to blatant ethnic discrimination and actively support the State of Israel. Susan’s book The Other Side of Israel is being updated and will be re-released shortly. The book has received world-wide attention and Susan is a sought after speaker, especially in Europe and lately in the Middle East. Susan is also working on another book about Israel which has a very unusual and interesting focus related to the decay of the “health” of Israel.

My own confrontation with Israel’s apartheid structure first occurred in Haifa when I inquired about the bus timetable for Tamra on the day before I was to meet with Susan Nathan. Israel’s bus network is absolutely amazing and perhaps superior to anywhere in the world. So I was surprised to find out that the first bus to Tamra, a town of 25,000 people, left Haifa just after midday and that there would be no buses to take me back at the end of the day. There was a bus early in the morning that took the residents of Tamra out and one at the end of the day that brought them back. I took a Taxi there and back and this was of considerable expense.

Susan began the interview by telling me that she felt traumatised about being part of an “ethnocratic” regime and the moral, social and physical destruction that this creates as she believes that democracy does not sit well within such a structure. Susan said that Israel had become a very unhealthy society and that “…you don’t learn compassion and tolerance for others outside your community if you live within an ethnocratic society”. She felt that this ethnocratic regime lies at the heart of Israel’s problems and has been the greatest failing of Israel. She added that Israel had made a mistake “…to concentrate on its victimhood in order to justify its exclusion of others.” Because of this, both Arab and Jewish people inside Israel are malfunctioning politically, socially and economically. Susan says that both peoples have a missing identity, as there are gaps or holes in their identity. She believes that this has serious consequences on the individual level and hence also on the social level. Some of these consequences are that people don’t internalise the values of democracy and hence are not able to visualise themselves living a democratic lifestyle. Susan says that for both peoples, cultural values are weakening, as is the interest in one’s culture which adds to the confusion about identity. There is for many a fear of expressing one’s culture. For Susan the question of identity also involves asking from where it is gained. Is it taken from national, state, economic or other indicators? If Israel is in fact a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural phenomenon that refuses to recognise itself as such, then where is the possibility for an additional identity to aspire to that goes beyond the dominant Ashkenazic (European) ideal to embrace the whole society and not exclude its minorities?

The issue of unemployment is tied up with identity as well. In Tamra, despite many of the youth having gained access to tertiary education, the unemployment rate of the town is 40%. Susan said that the streets of Tamra are “…packed at night with the bright, young youth, many of whom have managed to overcome the barriers to gaining a tertiary education only to be excluded from the employment market because they are Arabs. In addition to this, there are particular industries that they, by virtue of their background, are barred from for “security” reasons.” Arab Israelis are barred from serving in the army and people not serving in the army are excluded from much of the employment market. She states that in Palestinian society “…education is everything but the question is what will this achieve ... (if) a graduate can rarely get beyond the position of a teacher? ... Palestinians academics are a tiny percentage and have to walk a thin line between the Palestinian and Jewish communities and also in compromising their ethics”. Susan said that such a high unemployment rate as found in Tamra is typical in every Arab area within Israel and that this, with all the issues related to it, is breeding a future intifada within Israel. She adds that “…this looming conflict will drive Israel to have a long hard look at itself.”

Susan states clearly that the occupation is within the State and not just in the West Bank and Gaza as there is no freedom of speech for Arabs within Israel. Above all, says Susan, transfer “…is always a hair's breath away…life with no psychological security is disastrous.” Susan also told me that government polls indicate that 64% of Israelis believe that Arabs should be “transferred”! The term “apartheid” came up frequently in our discussions as it does in Susan’s book. Susan explained that a Jewish person, who is focused on the Zionist vision need never worry about the Palestinians, or come into contact with them. They can ignore the Palestinians. Susan stresses that the international community must see what is happening to the Palestinians inside Israel and to see the extent of the apartheid system and systematic destruction of the Palestinian identity just as has happened with Australia’s indigenous people. She added that even extremely senior academics have been shocked to learn of the extent of this apartheid system and how cleverly it is disguised.

Susan stated that within Israel there is no concept of justice in order to attain peace and that this was one of the major obstacles to a fair and humane society. On the international level, Susan mentioned that she is constantly asked to speak at conferences about peace but she wants to talk about the apartheid in Israel. Again, Susan goes back to the issue of victimhood and that this includes Israel’s Arab population. She says that people inside Israel seem to have an inability to look beyond history and that this failure is all linked to victimhood. Susan says that so long as it stays at this level nothing will move forward and so “one must look beyond history when looking for a solution and this will happen when there is nowhere else to go.” She goes on to say that there is “…an unhealthy 'suffering' competition going on and that this is wrong as the whole world centres the focus around our suffering, largely because of the strategic element of Israel.”

For Jewish people, Susan explains, there is a constant feeling of one’s identity being under threat and that this has come from an upbringing where there were generations of refugees and a constant state of transience. She said that this threat has been deeply internalised. Young Israeli’s however have never experienced this and that they are the new Jews…”tough, blonde, serving in the army – not the oppressed outsiders, but lords of the country.” Susan said that the “naked power” she felt as a Jew coming to Israel – as part of the majority finally, not a minority, was a very powerful experience and that Jewish people in Israel don’t talk about this.

At a speech at Haifa University recently Susan analysed the identity issues that Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews grapple with in this way: “Identity, of course, means different things to different people, and the way in which it is formed is a matter of debate. Does it come from being a citizen in a nation state, where one can relate to a flag and a national anthem, developing a sense of pride in one’s citizenship, a feeling that one belongs in, and is valued by, one’s country? Or does it derive from something else? From the feeling of ‘being different’, being on the ‘outside’- an identity which is predicated on being in opposition to, rather than in harmony with, the values of the country in which one lives? ... I have always felt that my very existence is a political statement: this may in part explain why an allegiance with the state of Israel was formed inside me at an early age. My loyalty to this state – a feeling that is hard to articulate but which I felt very powerfully – derived from the sense of security that it offered me: it was a country where I had no need to explain my needs or myself; a place that might be a refuge for me should my life become intolerable in Europe. Throughout my childhood and much of my adult life, the feeling of always being on the edge of disaster was part of my environment, and I internalized it at a very deep level. But little did I realize that I was committing myself emotionally to a state that was perpetuating the same discrimination that my own family had suffered from... It is precisely because of my personal history that I find myself in conflict with my Jewish/Israeli identity and the politics of my country’s government. The irony of the Palestinian dispossession inside the state of Israel, its ‘internal refugees’ has not been lost of me, the child of refugees, always unsettled, always insecure.”

To address the discrimination Israel imposes upon its Palestinian citizens and upon its far greater number of Palestinian non-citizens Susan believes that it is important to turn away from focusing solely on ethno-nationalistic interests and instead start from the humanitarian focus. She believes that if enough people come to this realisation status quo change is possible.

Summing up the important message that Susan wishes to convey I can do no better than to take another quote from Susan's recent speech at Haifa University: “My chosen way of life means that I confront my society and take responsibility for policies that are allegedly perpetrated in my name and are arguably supposed to benefit me and my fellow fellow Jews worldwide. My strong sense of my Jewishness, and culture and humanness are what enable me to live within the culture of another without feeling that I lose any of my own identity. As Jews, we have a history of demanding social equality and equality and egalitarianism, and yet there is to me an evident contradiction between this demand and our retreat into separation from our fellow citizen and neighbors the Palestinians. ... An essential part of what it means to me to be a Jewish citizen of any country in the world, but especially this one, is my total commitment to the notion that a truly democratic state is based on justice. Justice is not obtained by violence or military force - one cannot achieve true democracy by means of oppression, by destruction, home demolitions, targeted assassinations, locking people up or killing them. The recognition of a people’s right to self determination, to full equality of citizenship, to equal opportunity in jobs and education, freedom of movement and the right to a home with adequate income, food and safety are basic principles of supposedly civilized societies. Indeed, democracy is a demanding form of government, it demands respect for other people. ... I am not challenging the right of the state to exist, I accept it, but I am challenging the particular way in which political Zionism has permeated every spectrum of life here. The state of Israel is not the center of Judaism; God is the center of Judaism.”

Susan describes herself as “still very much a child of the Holocaust” and she has memories of people trying to trace relatives through posting signs up around the place. It bothers Susan why Germans couldn’t see what was happening to the Jews and she doesn’t want it to be like that in Israel. Susan believes that there are some very good journalists working in Israel who are writing about what is happening but they seem to be hardly known in Israel and many don’t care to know about them. Susan’s final comment to me in our interview was that Israel must work towards a heterogenous society in contrast to the calls by many concerned Jewish groups who are pushing for greater homogeneity.

Susan Nathan hopes to visit Australia in the near future to talk about her coming book and to learn about some of the similarities Israel and Australia share with regard to their indigenous populations including issues of national identity and the realities of where each country is located geographically.


©2006 Susan Sophia