Looking At Israel from the Other Side

Review by Miriam Garfinkle

Sharon and my Mother-in-Law: Ramallah
Suad Amiry
Granta, New York/London, 2003, 194 pages

The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide
Susan Nathan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, New York, 2005. 310 pages

“I wonder what your reaction would have been if you had lived under occupation for as many years as I had, or if your shopping rights, like all your other rights, were violated day and night, or if the olive trees in your grandfather’s orchards had been uprooted, or if your village had been bulldozed, or if your house had been demolished, or if your sister could not reach her school, or if your brother had been given three life sentences, or if your mother had given birth at a checkpoint, or if you had stood in line for days in the hot August summers waiting for your work permit, or if you could not reach your beloved ones in Arab East Jerusalem?”

So asks Suad Amiry in Sharon and My Mother–in–Law, a book that certainly got under my skin with its depiction of everday life under the occupation in the West Bank. In her prologue Amiry reveals that these diaries were her self–defence against the “senselessness of the moment … of the Israeli occupation of our lives and souls.” I, like Amiry, felt like screaming with the utter frustration and humiliation of it all, not to mention the constant fearfulness. I am amazed at her and her fellow Palestinians’ resilience. Living with Kafkaesque absurdities and injustices, she is able to maintain incredible humour and a deep sense of humanity. She shares with us a multitude of stories at which one can laugh and weep.

Her mother–in–law is trapped in her home in the state of siege near the Arafat compound in Ramallah. She is 92 and has been under curfew and without electricity for almost two weeks. The curfew is lifted for a few hours and Amiry desperately goes to get her to bring her home as quickly as possible to take care of her during the siege. She has a very short window of time to fetch her. Her–mother–in–law is wondering what to bring and takes up precious time searching for the yellow top that nicely matches her purple skirt. Amiry is exasperated until her mother–in–law says that the last time she had to evacuate a place she was told it would be for a short time and she never returned to her home. That was in 1948. At this point her mother–in–law’s quest for her possessions takes on a new and sad meaning for Amiry and her annoyance turns to a quiet and resigned patience.

I can’t quite picture the amount of destruction that Amiry describes. She, an historical architect, is particularly bereaved by the extensive destruction of buildings. She can hardly think about the destruction in Nablus, and is quite relieved when her journey to witness it fails. She feels guilty about her concern over the total demolition of the ancient, still used, olive soapmaking factory in Ramallah which for a brief moment overrides her concern for the demolition of the adjacent family’s home.

She shares a small vision of peace when she complains about the Israeli army’s coffee, which tastes like mud. She learns that its deterioration is because they have no time to properly boil the water. “If they stopped harassing us, they might end up with a better life and a good cup of coffee rather than mud. Look at the Italians, the Turks and the French: they all have good coffee, now that they have realized it’s possible to have a good life without occupying others”.

Susan Nathan’s book takes us into Israel itself and explores the unequal treatment of Arabs (Palestinians) living in Israel as “citizens.” Nathan is an English–born Jew with a Zionist background who emigrated to Israel at the age of 50. Involved with a group for the underprivileged, both Jews and Arabs, she begins a quest to explore the human rights situation of Arabs in Israel. She decides to live in an Arab town in the Galilee called Tamra and so begins her discovery of what life is really like for Arabs in Israel.

I found Nathan’s book also excruciating to read, perhaps more so than Amiry’s. Many of us are aware of the atrocities of the occupation, but the situation of Arabs in Israel is much less transparent, more invisible. It is also perhaps more contentious. If we are to come to terms with the structural and institutionalized inequalities that Nathan reveals in this book, we need to question the very essence of Israel’s claim to be a democracy, and see it as a state which is actually theocratic and inherently discriminatory, indeed racist.

One example of discrimination, of the many given here, is the amount of money spent on education per student by the state. Israel spends four times more on a Jewish student than it spends on an Arab student, and twelve times more on religious Jewish education, which also receives public funding. Moreover, Arab students in Israel are forbidden to learn about any issues relating to Palestinian history or culture in their curriculum. Being cut off from one’s own history can be very psychologically damaging. Daphna Golan from B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, is quoted as saying, “We [Jews] are a people who, because of our history, have attached so much importance to memory, the act of remembering, and yet we refuse to allow another people, the Palestinians, their own memory and their own feelings about the past.”

Nathan’s criticisms of the Israeli state and its discriminatory policies are not well received even among many on the left. Indeed, she is quite disappointed in the Israeli left for failing to address issues other than the occupation. There are a few shining lights, however. One is a Waldorf teacher who purposely defies the rules and teaches Jewish Israeli adolescents in her citizenship class about the “Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the fleeing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948. She also acknowledges, of course, the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust. She does not equate the sufferings, but says that what each suffered was bad enough. “To lose your village and to lose your land is bad enough. It creates an ideal atmosphere for breeding hate and violence and war: And the combination of their hate and fear and our hate and fear is lethal. To heal this problem, we have to notice and understand the Other and to stop thinking about our own suffering all the time …. There is a fear and it’s all right to admit that I’m afraid because then I can do something with that fear. I can educate other people, I can meet and share my fears with other people. To ignore it and say it is not there is a lie. But if I can work with it, at least there is hope.”

This understanding of Other is for me what these books offer us as Jews. One of Nathan’s supporters was an ultra–Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem who sought her out to tell her, regarding her quest for equal human rights for Arab (Palestinian) Israelis: “What you are doing is the most extreme form of Judaism …. It encapsulates the very essence of what Judaism is about.” We as Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora, must take a deep look inside our souls and take responsibility for what we are doing to the Other, and take action.

Miriam Garfinkle a medical doctor who works at an inner city community health centre and at an immigrant women’s health centre in Toronto. She has been involved in various peace initiatives in Toronto, including the displaying of the Middle East Peace Quilt in 2002 at the Winchevsky Centre. She is currently a board member of Zatoun, a non–profit Toronto–based project which sells fair trade Palestinian olive oil from the West Bank and raises funds for various peace–oriented efforts such as “Project Hope,” an educational project in the West Bank for Palestinian children, and “Trees for Life,” a project for reforestation of olive trees.