I once lived in Oakland, California, in a rather nice parsonage on the edge of the hills. Then we lucked out and got an urban homesteading house of our own- an abandoned house, with boarded up windows and an FBI notice tacked on the front. It was one of hundreds in East Oakland. Comments included, “Be sure to roll up your car windows and lock the car doors in that neighborhood.” (On my bike?!) And one relative said not a word after seeing it. Silence. And one never visited because it was “too dangerous.”
It was the other side of Oakland.
I was reminded of this when I read The Other Side of Israel, a description of life in an Arab Israeli village, by Susan Nathan, a Jewish Israeli, who moved there after the image-shattering realization that she lived, in Tel Aviv, in a different world from fellow citizens of the state of Israel who are Arab.
In both examples there are two slightly different groups of citizens with very different life opportunities. I say slightly different because my first stay in the US was in Vallejo, down the street from a High School with racial tensions which I couldn’t understand as all the kids involved just seemed so American, so different from Brits that I was confused. I soon learned that there was a difference and it wasn’t just skin color. The black part of the city had had dirt roads much later than the white areas, and the houses were bought by a strange scheme that meant that a single missed payment- after years of payments-forfeited the house. My husband was invited to lead worship in an all black church, which was truly welcoming, and that was my first awareness of the strength and vitality of black churches and their worship. I so missed that when we left Oakland many years later.
Similarities with Susan Nathan’s experience abound. The precarious home ownership in most Arab villages, the proximity of kibbutzim and new settlers with much more land, better water access etc, not to mention the unequal education and job possibilities, all these are comparable. She had grown up with the phrase “A land without people for a people without land” and did not become aware until years after moving to Israel (through the Right of Return) that there had been many inhabitants dispossessed, and many still present but marginalized. Like many Jews she had contributed to funds to plant trees in Israel, visualizing it as a barren land made green only by the new inhabitants, but found the beautiful pine and cypress forests on mount Carmel had been planted where Arab villagers had had olive, carob and fruit trees. (In my studies of Ancient Greece I remember their horror at the war crime of destroying olive groves, taking away people’s livelihood.)
Her book is very wide ranging, and well worth reading to gain more insight into the complexities of life in that uneasy country. She has a wealth of experience and many contacts across the political spectrum of Israel. One chapter deals with the way ahead- one state or two state solutions, and workable ways of living in a crowded land.
I also thought about Greek and Turkish Cyprus, Northern Ireland, apartheid South Africa, as well as the relationship of the mostly white newer immigrants in the United States with Native Americans, black Americans and, in California especially, Latinos. Racism is not just face to face hostility, wariness or intolerance but legally enforced different status. Racism is systemic.
There are some signs of hope in the book for the future in Israel. I heard a presentation about relationships with the Bedouin, in Temple Beth El in Eureka, several years ago. I also heard a presentation from two students, one Jewish and the other Arab Israeli, from the joint village of Neve Shalom, mentioned in this book. It is an experiment which needs to be replicated, not merely permitted, though it seems only possible right now because the village is on land which is owned by the Catholic church. My church in Oakland, and the Black churches in the area, did much to make the area safer and more inviting. I loved my years there.
Nathan’s book ends with the words.”To embrace the Other, who is really ourselves.”