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Zionism: myth and reality

Zionism misled many Jewish workers with its promise of a "homeland for Jews". A recent book examines the fate of the million or so non-Jews in the state Zionism established.

In 1999 when Susan Nathan went to live in Israel under the Law of Return her head was "full of romantic notions of Zionism and the Jewish state." Some three years later she moved from Tel Aviv to live, as the only Jew, in the Arab town of Tamra in the Galilee. Her book, The Other Side of Israel (published by Harper Collins last year), tells the story of her "journey across the Jewish-Arab divide", and gives a rare insight into the Jewish state from the perspective of the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens.

The journey began when she was a patient in the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, where she was surprised to find Israelis and Palestinians sharing the same ward, and Palestinians who were Israeli citizens: Israeli Arabs. The real shock came when an Orthodox woman was visited by her husband who had "a pistol on one hip and a rifle slung casually over his shoulder" - no one else seemed surprised by the presence of an armed civilian. He told Susan Nathan in a strong American accent that he had requisitioned an Arab home in East Jerusalem and never left home without a weapon. The reply to her suggestion that he would be better off in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was "All of East Jerusalem belongs to the Jews."

More questioning came a few months later when she was invited to help with a student organisation - Mahapach, in connection with their work for disadvantaged communities in Israel, "particularly the indigenous Arab population and the community of Jews of Middle Eastern descent...the Mizrahim." She knew of the latter but where did the Arabs live? Why had they been invisible to her during her first two years in Israel?

She was to learn that one million Arabs share the state, and that about a quarter of them are internal refugees. She was "profoundly shaken" by her first visit to an Arab area - the town of Tamra, made as part of the research for Mahapach. It was strikingly different from any Jewish area she had seen, with obvious, chronic overcrowding.

At the home of Dr Asad Ghanem (head of politics at Haifa University) she heard about the discrimination exercised against the Arab population "in all spheres of Israeli life." In Arab communities there are thousands of homes judged illegal by the state and under the threat of demolition: in Tamra there are 150 such homes. The authorities' version is that the widespread illegal building is the act of law breakers, people squatting on land or not wanting to pay for a licence. So the police bring bulldozers "at crack of dawn" to destroy illegal homes. 500 hundred Arab homes were destroyed in 2003.

Arab families are forced to build illegally because the state refuses to issue them with a building permit. Even when, as in Dr Ghanem's case, the home is built on land owned by his family for generations the permit is still refused: he pays regular heavy fines to ward off demolition. He asked Susan Nathan if she had made aliya, and it was difficult to answer. Her privileges as a Jewish immigrant were at the expense of his people, "sitting in his home the reality finally hit me. The intoxicating power trip had come to an abrupt halt." And the task of becoming informed had begun: the unlearning of her "lifelong Zionist training."

The Zionist myth is that the "Jews had reclaimed an empty, barren land - 'a land without people for a people without land'- we had made the desert bloom, we had filled an uninhabited piece of the Middle East with Kibbutzim, the collective farms that were the pioneering backbone of the state in its early years." Prior to 1948 there had been aggressive colonising of the land by Jewish immigrants, and a campaign of land purchases funded by the Jewish National Fund, but only 7 percent of Palestine had been purchased.

The other side of Israeli Independence in 1948 is for the Palestinians the Nakba (the catastrophe) the loss of their homeland to the Jewish state. 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and country. A map in the book marks the position of the 400 villages which were emptied and then destroyed by the army. The Kibbutzim were built on the land of destroyed villages. Around a hundred villages survived, as did Tamra because it was not on the main route of the Israeli army and was a small community providing "a useful pool of cheap labour in the area." The original village had a population of 2,000 the number was swelled by refugees cleared from other villages. Photographs exist from 1948 which show "a sea of Red Cross tents" in which the refugees were housed for some years. One third of the present inhabitants of Tamra are internal refugees. A sizeable number of the 150,000 Palestinians who remained in the country and became Israeli citizens ("by accident rather than design"), were classified as "present absentees", and had their homes, land and bank accounts appropriated by the Custodian of  Absentee Property. There is no instance of any property being restored to former Arab owners or compensation paid.

Apartheid

Dispossession still continues in various ways. Planning laws restrict Arab communities both in number - to the 123 listed in 1965 - and in area, even though the population has increased. Israel is an apartheid state which enforces policies of ethnic segregation. Dr Uri Davies a Jew who, like Susan Nathan, lives in an Arab town is quoted as applying the term apartheid in a specific sense to mean "the regulation and enforcement of racism and xenophobia in law." He defines the core element of an apartheid state as "the structure of laws that allows the colonising population to exploit the resources of the state - mainly land - to the disadvantage of the native population."

Though it is not publicly admitted "racist employment practices and the exclusion of Arabs from wealth generating sectors of the economy are the bedrock of state planning policies." Most computer systems do not list Arab communities. Arabic is the second official language, yet people are not allowed to use it at work - a woman was sacked from McDonalds for doing so.

There are two separate school systems, with much less money spent on Arab children. There is intensive surveillance of the Arab education system, teachers are effectively "banned from teaching about the Nakba…or about their people's connection to Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza" and the refugee camps in other countries. In Haifa the Arab Parents' Forum failed in an attempt to register their children at Jewish schools for 2004: Arab pupils are in a separate registration area.

Susan Nathan believes that what happened in the 1948 war is at the root of conflict in the Middle East. The price of creating a homeland was to inflict the "Jewish story of dispossession and wandering on another people - the Palestinians." She makes a distinction between making a comparison, quantitative judgements about the degree of suffering, and drawing a parallel which suggests "one set of events can echo another." Zionist organisations, she says, like the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency should be disbanded and the apartheid system ended; there should be equality between all citizens.

An old man told her of the time when it was possible to travel by train from the Galilee to all of the region's biggest cities "when the borders existed as no more than the lines on maps produced by the area's British and French rulers." Socialists never supported Zionism but opposed it as yet another nationalist delusion as what we aspire to is a world without national frontiers in which free movement is possible and where all people live together as equals.

Apartheid

Dispossession still continues in various ways. Planning laws restrict Arab communities both in number - to the 123 listed in 1965 - and in area, even though the population has increased. Israel is an apartheid state which enforces policies of ethnic segregation. Dr Uri Davies a Jew who, like Susan Nathan, lives in an Arab town is quoted as applying the term apartheid in a specific sense to mean "the regulation and enforcement of racism and xenophobia in law." He defines the core element of an apartheid state as "the structure of laws that allows the colonising population to exploit the resources of the state - mainly land - to the disadvantage of the native population."

Though it is not publicly admitted "racist employment practices and the exclusion of Arabs from wealth generating sectors of the economy are the bedrock of state planning policies." Most computer systems do not list Arab communities. Arabic is the second official language, yet people are not allowed to use it at work - a woman was sacked from McDonalds for doing so.

There are two separate school systems, with much less money spent on Arab children. There is intensive surveillance of the Arab education system, teachers are effectively "banned from teaching about the Nakba…or about their people's connection to Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza" and the refugee camps in other countries. In Haifa the Arab Parents' Forum failed in an attempt to register their children at Jewish schools for 2004: Arab pupils are in a separate registration area.

Susan Nathan believes that what happened in the 1948 war is at the root of conflict in the Middle East. The price of creating a homeland was to inflict the "Jewish story of dispossession and wandering on another people - the Palestinians." She makes a distinction between making a comparison, quantitative judgements about the degree of suffering, and drawing a parallel which suggests "one set of events can echo another." Zionist organisations, she says, like the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency should be disbanded and the apartheid system ended; there should be equality between all citizens.

An old man told her of the time when it was possible to travel by train from the Galilee to all of the region's biggest cities "when the borders existed as no more than the lines on maps produced by the area's British and French rulers." Socialists never supported Zionism but opposed it as yet another nationalist delusion as what we aspire to is a world without national frontiers in which free movement is possible and where all people live together as equals.

PAT DEUTZ