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Susan Nathan
Edinburgh International Book Festival 2005

Austin Williams
posted 31 August 2005

Susan Nathan says that she was 'breast fed on Zionism.' Coming from a family of Latvian and Lithuanian émigrés who 'chose' to live in South Africa as it was the only boat with vacancies sailing from Europe, growing up in an educated itinerant family that finally settled in England, Nathan's is a colourful life. And a packed house listened intently to her fascinating story told in a series of evocative vignettes.

At the beginning, the chair, Claire Fox had to tease the stories out of her author, but as she got into her stride, this session developed into a vivid portrayal of a Zionist woman returning to Israel and asking herself the question: 'What is my position in the Intifada?' At a time when many (especially on the Israeli left) were pointing the finger, she 'internalised the issue' and resolved to make a stand. It was then that she started to criticise the Israeli state for its oppression of the Palestinians.

The corrosive influence of a militarised society even on liberal Jews was brilliantly drawn out in her anecdotes, much to the chagrin of some in the audience. She was accused of not recognising the work done by Jewish liberals campaigning for a consensual approach, and replied that there is no scope for consensus. Even after Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank, she said, 'Gaza will become the world's largest open air concentration camp.' Her impeccable credentials mean she is one of not many people in the West who could get away with that.

Not for her the easy and somewhat Utopian debate about a two-state solution. Nathan argues that Palestinian rights are systematically denied and that they need to be fought for. Something, she says, that the Israeli left signally fail to address. When she finds herself criticised for being a self-hating Jew - she says that it is 'precisely because I like myself that I've taken this political position.'

Nathan's presentation went some way to exposing some of the realities of life and the continuing, but seldom talked about, dangers of Zionism. Ultimately though, Nathan's criticism of Israel seemed to get a pretty easy ride from the audience at a time when Israel is being universally vilified for its fundamentalism. Nathan, maybe needs to open up her assessment from an internalised critique, to an understanding of the changed geopolitical situation in which Israel now finds itself.

Couched in personal tales and biographical anecdote, there is an intensely political programme here and at times, Nathan's presentation sounded like a future election campaign speech. Bridging the divide between Arab and Jew, she has a potent message for the region. Watch this space.


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