The risks of diaspora blinkers on Israel
Date: Friday, November 25th, 2005
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle
The Other Side of Israel
In 1999, Susan Nathan, a newly divorced Londoner in her 50s, made aliyah. For a while, she marvelled as she watched the Zionistic stories that inspired her as a child come dramatically to life.
A few months later, she moved to Tamra, an Israeli Arab town in Galilee. This book is an account of her experience there and, for the first few chapters, she brings the residents vividly to life, describing everything from the hospitality of the extended family structure and the warmth of the Muslim festivals to the political rivalry between the town’s clans, the general poverty and the neglected infrastructure.
Considering how little most diaspora Jews — and indeed Jewish Is-raelis — know (and often, care) about the million Israeli Arabs, her book could have done much to build bridges, if only it had continued in this vein.
Fairly quickly, however, Nathan descends into an anti-Zionist rant. Instead of documenting objectively the injustices Arab Israelis certainly do face, she swallows the Arab narrative of Israeli history hook, line and sinker.
She argues that the establishment of the state of Israel was a terrible mistake. “The material and emotional losses sustained by the Palestinians in 1948,” she writes, “are the true root of the Middle East conflict” — a truth, moreover, which Israelis ruthlessly suppress, and rely on “naked Jewish power” to sustain.
Her version of Israel is an ap-artheid state and she, along with the Palestinians, marks the anniversary of the establishment of Israel in 1948 as the “Nakba” — catastrophe.
Those looking for an education in anti-Zionist rhetoric can find more authentic teachers than Nathan, so at this point her book loses much of its interest and her important message about the discrimination faced within the Israeli Arab sector is drowned out.
There is, however, a poignant and completely unexpected lesson in her writing, which emerges from the conundrum of how such an avid Zionist turned into such a rabid anti-Zionist within months of landing in the promised land. Nathan’s change of heart began when she happened across some Israeli Arabs during a visit to a hospital. Amazingly, she had no inkling that such people existed: “The Jewish state was clearly a lot less ethnically pure than I had been led to believe,” she writes.
A religious settler telling her that East Jerusalem belongs to the Jews further undermines her belief in Zionism and when, a few months later, she is asked to join an organisation working with Israeli Arabs, she decides that she “could not live long in ignorance.” She moves to Tamra, and as she becomes more familiar with the systematic discrimination facing the Arab sector, her anti-Zion-ism grows.
Nathan explicitly blames her Jewish/Zionist education in the diaspora for presenting her with a false picture of Israeli society and history and the encounter with the “real,” rather than the idealised Israel clearly tips her over the edge. It might seem, on the face of it, that any Jew who is so astoundingly ignorant as not to realise that Israel has Arab citizens — and is responsible for many injustices towards them — and who sees Israeli history through a haze of mythology, is simply a fool.
Unfortunately, however, Nathan is far from the only diaspora Jew who expects to be greeted, on landing at Ben-Gurion airport, by a kibbutznik in a kova tembel driving a tractor across the runway. Many otherwise sophisticated people profess to be shocked when they discover the less-than-perfect sides of Israeli life. Most can cope; many are, to varying ex-tents, irrevocably disillusioned.
Clearly, it is no simple task for diaspora educators to strike a balance between instilling a love of Israel in people who are exposed to it mostly from a distance, and giving them a fair picture of the realities of life there. And dreams are more comfortable than reality.
But, by now, with the Jewish state at the end of its sixth decade, a comprehensive education about Israel should gently deal with its problems as well as its achievements. As the case of Susan Nathan illustrates, the risk of painting a too-idealistic picture of Israel is that the further one climbs, the further one has to fall.
Miriam Shaviv is a senior JC journalist