Traumatic Country

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Review of 'The Other Side of Israel', Susan Nathan, Harper Collins £18.99

Susan Nathan's book is a gripping and fascinating account of her life in Tamra - a town of 25,000 Israeli Arabs situated in Galilee. She transcends her daily experience through a polemical discourse expressing her anguish and disillusion with the realities of the Arab-Israeli divide and the discrimination she has encountered throughout her daily life.

Nathan made Aliya in 1999 - taking up the 'Law of Return' which grants an automatic Israeli citizenship to Jews who emigrate to Israel. Having been born to an ardent Zionist father in London and 'being raised on stirring stories of the great and glorious Jewish state', she was shocked to find that 20 percent of the population are Israeli Arabs who are remnants of the Palestinian inhabitants driven out in the 1948 'war of independence'. Throughout her work of caring for disadvantaged communities in Israel, Nathan came into contact with Arab families in Galilee. Having seen their plight, she decided to move to 'the other side of Israel' where 'the roads are not signposted... a place you rarely read about in your newspapers or hear about from your television set. It is all but invisible to most Israelis.'

As Nathan eloquently points out, 'It is the height of irony, given our history, that the Jewish state has so little concern about the ghetto living it has forced on its Arab citizens.' These ghettos' living conditions are chronicled in detail throughout Nathan's book, starting with the military administration established by Israel (1948-1966) in order to restrict the movement of Israeli Arabs.

Perhaps the most telling overt discrimination against Israeli Arabs is the citizenship law which demonstrates a pervasive and systematic bias against non-Jews. This culminated recently (2002) in a new law which denies citizenship status for Palestinians from the Occupied Territories who marry Israeli Muslims. Above all Nathan's book depicts in detail the latent and blatant discrimination against Israeli Arabs in distribution of resources, access to education, jobs, the media, housing, land and property ownership - all of which she encountered throughout her daily life in Tamra.

Nathan is equally aware of the plight of the Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Territories, and the impact of the occupation on Israeli society. In a section entitled 'A Traumatic Society' she portrays the mental shock young Israeli soldiers have faced in serving as a force of occupation - a traumatic experience which has led many of them to taking drugs and being pushed 'over the edge'. A significant number of young soldiers raised on the doctrine of the 'purity of arms' have started to question the morality behind the occupation. In 1982 the Refusenik movement was established following Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Today it amounts to more than 1,600 dissidents, including high ranking officers, pilots, and young school leavers.

Nathan may not have immediate solutions to the decline and demoralisation confronting Israeli society, but she empathically feels that the Israelis have 'to face tough moral questions raised by the way Israel was founded in 1948... They have to be reconciled to their past and be prepared to apologise for it.' This may sound somewhat unrealistic in the deadlocked current situation, but such an acknowledgement is likely to build the trust lost in a conflict in which there are no winners.

In summary, this book is a revelation to anyone who still views Israel as a vibrant democracy which strives to 'uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex' (Israel's Declaration of Independence - May 1948).