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A Jew among 25,000 Muslims

By Jonathan Cook

The Guardian
28 August, 2003

Even as a young girl in Wimbledon Susan Nathan knew she would one day move to Israel. But why did she choose to settle in the Arab town of Tamra?
Jonathan Cook

Wednesday August 27, 2003: (The Guardian) She makes an incongruous figure, waiting in front of the central mosque in the northern Israeli town of Tamra. There is no danger I will miss her. She has short blonde hair, in contrast to the rest of the women who cover their dark hair with scarves, and is wearing a loose-fitting floral kaftan, better suited to the streets of Wimbledon, her former home, than here in the Middle East.

The difference runs much deeper than mere looks: Susan Nathan is the only Jew among 25,000 Muslims in Tamra, one of the country's dozens of Arab communities whose council is run by Islamic fundamentalists. She is one of only two Israeli Jews known to have crossed the ethnic divide: the other is the controversial academic Uri Davis, who lives in nearby Sakhnin.

Nathan, a 54-year-old teacher and former Aids counsellor with the London Lighthouse Project, arrived in Israel four years ago, after the break-up of her marriage. For the first few months she shared a tiny room in an absorption centre near Tel Aviv. "I was breastfed Zionism. My parents were prominent members of the liberal Jewish community in London and were firm friends of Abba Eban," she says, referring to the Israeli foreign minister during the epoch-changing period of the 1967 six-day war, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza from Jordan and Egypt. "At the age of 10 or 11 I remember telling my parents that one day I would live in Israel."

But since her move from Tel Aviv to work as an English teacher in deprived Tamra seven months ago, she has lost her Jewish friends. "At first they thought I was just being provocative," she says. "Then they thought I was suffering some sort of mental breakdown. Now they realise I am serious, they have turned their backs. What I have done is far too threatening."

Seated in her second-floor flat, surrounded by African cloth prints on the walls, classical music CDs and shelves filled with art and Jewish history books, it is not immediately clear what kind of threat Nathan represents. She is slight, still not fully recovered from surgery for a rare eye cancer, and her thin voice is easily drowned out when the muezzin begins the midday call to prayer. Although she refuses to speak Hebrew in Tamra, she still wears a Star of David pendant around her neck.

Paradoxically, her stance has also earned her the enmity of the Israeli peace movement. "The Jewish left is totally in thrall to the idea of two states for two people. What I am doing by showing that Jews and Arabs can live together in peace undermines their argument."

Although there is little in the law to prevent Arabs and Jews from living together, in practice it almost never happens. Israeli Jews are educated to see their Arab neighbours as either primitive or dangerous, says Nathan. Jews and Arabs are forbidden to inter-marry in Israel: the tiny number who do must leave the country and marry abroad, usually in nearby Cyprus. The handful who do live together do so incognito, usually in Tel Aviv or in one of what are misleadingly termed "mixed cities" such as Lod, Acre or Haifa. But in reality these are little more than Jewish cities with poor, separate Arab neighbourhoods.

Israeli Arabs face their own obstacles to joining Jewish communities. Some 93% of land is owned by the state; and those who try to lease it are vetted by committees that weed out undesirables, including Arabs. Against this background, and the eruption of the intifada, Nathan started to question her own Zionism and the direction the Jewish state had taken since its founding.

She was surprised at how quickly she was accepted in Tamra. "Once they realised I was coming with an open mind and was trying to help they were very welcoming," she says. Seven months of living in a Muslim town have made her rail even more angrily against what she sees as the intolerance and racism of Israeli Jews. "When I left for Tamra, my friends said they were very afraid for me. So I asked them if they had any Arab friends on which to base this judgment. None of them did: they only met Arabs if they were being served humous or having their car fixed. When I asked them what I should be afraid of they could not articulate it. It's all emotion."

The parallels that Nathan draws between Israel and the old South Africa are based on long periods of her youth spent there with relatives, although she acknowledges that Israel does not enforce the same brutal apartheid. In fact, she even points out that her first real meetings with Palestinians occurred in the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, where her cancer was being treated. In the days before the intifada, Jews and Arabs lay in beds alongside each other.

"Of course, Jews and Arabs travel on buses together and watch films in the same cinemas. The apartheid in Israel is not formalised and legalised like it was in South Africa; it is sophisticated, hidden and emotional. It is based on a culture of fear of the Other, which is fed by the Zionist propaganda machine."

The real problem, she says, lies in the different nature of citizenship for Jews and Arabs. It starts with the founding principles of the state such as the law of return, which allows Jews anywhere in the world - such as Nathan herself - to claim a right to migrate to Israel; but at the same time it denies millions of Palestinians the right to claim the homes they and their parents were dispossessed of 55 years ago.

And it continues in the discrimination in employment, local council budgets, access to the media and control of the government. "Where are the Arab heads of banks, the civil service, the rectors of universities?"

But most of all, she says, apartheid is shaped by the battle for territory. "It is revealed in the fact that the state can confiscate hundreds of thousands of acres of Arab-owned land and then refuse even to lease it back to the original owners; that the state has refused to build a single new Arab community in its 55 years, even though the population has grown eightfold."

Dotted around Tamra are land-hungry farm collectives (the kibbutz) and luxury communities reserved exclusively for Jews. "Where are the people of Tamra supposed to live? They are being choked. By making life unbearable here is the state not trying to bring about a quiet form of transfer, of ethnic cleansing? People who have the money or connections to move abroad do so."

She is working on projects to expose the similarities between Israeli and former South African apartheid, including regularly travelling to South Africa to work with the Tutu Foundation. But she remains pessimistic about the future. "You can't run a country without offering the people a future, a path forward. Here, the way is blocked in all directions and sooner or later it will catch up with them - just as it did in South Africa."