Two men – Israeli Jews – sit terrified in the removal truck, unwilling to unload Susan Nathan's furniture. Nathan is moving to the Arab-Israeli town of Tamra. Her supposedly left-wing Israeli friends have warned her that she's likely to be raped and killed. “You know,” said one, “the Arabs are friendly to start with, but they'll turn on you.” Another offered her a special telephone number so that the army could come and rescue her in an emergency. Her taxi driver, who planned their route to Tamra carefully, was utterly mystified: Did she work for the secret service? Did she not at least carry a gun?

Three years earlier, at the age of 50, Nathan fulfilled a secret childhood dream by making aliya from Britain – proudly alighting at Ben-Gurion airport with an “I've come home” badge. Now Tamra is her home. However, this book is not about a physical place or even a culture – though the author makes many interesting observations about food, customs and the rhythm of life in the Arab community. It is substantially concerned with the plight of Israel's Palestinian citizens: over one million people who are almost unknown both to the international media and most Israeli Jews. More than that, it is a deeply personal and engrossing account of Nathan's psychological journey through the mountainous mental landscape of Zionism.

Nathan is English by birth, her family background typical of the Jewish Diaspora: her grandparents escaped a pogrom in Lithuania in the 19th century by going to South Africa; her father studied medicine in Dublin where he became a Zionist under the influence of Chaim Herzog (father of Israel's first president) and then worked in London. Nathan was influenced by the time the family spent in South Africa, where her father Samuel Levy would later set up a clinic for the black community. Her relationship with her father was a difficult one, her ill health evidently taken as an embarrassing slight on his abilities. Her consequent poor academic performance led to beatings and banishment to a boarding school. Nevertheless, he instilled a strong appreciation in her of Jewish ethics through his dedication to his work and his belief in an individual's wider social responsibilities; also interested in psychology, Nathan later worked as an AIDS counsellor in London – at a time when such a career choice elicited revulsion among many of those in her and her husband's social circle.

The 1950s Britain in which she grew up is described as being tinged with anti-Semitism: she would be asked about her name and, at school, had a sense of being different, an outsider. At the age of 11 she found out about the Holocaust. The sense of alienation from the country of her birth was only increased by the knowledge that Holocaust survivors were turned back from Palestine by the British. When Nathan describes her emotional grounding in Zionism – the renewed self-image, the pride in Israel, the sense of historic justice that it evoked of a persecuted people “rising phoenix-like from the ashes of the gas chambers” – it is all the more difficult not to find sympathy with it precisely because she asks for none; instead, she analyzes her own feelings with unsparing honesty, admitting glorification in the military triumphs of 1948 and 1967.

When she goes to Israel, the place where she is finally one of the majority group, Nathan describes the feeling as thrilling. She still has no awareness of the Palestinian population: when she sees the primitive life of the Bedouin, she assumes they are “resisting the best efforts of Israel to bring them into the twentieth century”; when she picnics in a national park she, like many Israelis, has no idea that the fast-growing pines were planted to obliterate evidence of the villages from which Palestinians were ethnically cleansed in 1948. So well insulated from ordinary Israeli life and discourse are such issues that it is only after two years, provoked by curiosity at some chance encounters, that she begins to wonder about the mysteriously invisible Arab Israelis, one fifth of Israel's inhabitants. Where do they live?

Though it is a town of 25,000 Israeli citizens, Tamra is at first glance like a refugee camp: a cramped ghetto where buildings crowd into every available space. The inhabitants own land outside the town but the blue line of Israeli planning law encircles it tightly, preventing any expansion and forcing young couples to build illegally. Massive fines are paid periodically to the Israeli authorities to ward off threats of demolition; in the mornings, people leave homes in which they have invested their life savings not knowing if they and their children will return to find only rubble. Meanwhile, Israeli Jews live in villas with spacious gardens in nearby Mitzpe Aviv. Mitzpe Aviv is an outlook settlement, so called because its function is to overlook the Arab town of Tamra and ensure the natives don't attempt to use or reclaim any of the land which has been confiscated from them – and, just as in the occupied territories, the pressure to claim more land from the Palestinian town is relentless. The town not only resembles a refugee camp, it turns out to be one: one third of the people in Tamra are internally displaced from nearby villages like Ein Hod; given to a colony of Jewish artists, Ein Hod is now visited by tourists who are told nothing of the people who lived there for centuries. Even worse off than Tamra are the dozens of villages unrecognized by the state where Ottoman-era title deeds are little protection. In one, the villagers are forced to disguise the kindergarten they have built for fear of Israeli spotter planes.

Unlike apartheid South Africa, Israel lacks some of the obvious signs of apartheid: there are no segregated toilets or buses. Nonetheless discrimination against its Palestinian citizens is state-sanctioned and pervasive; laws are simply drafted to disguise it. For example, the Israel Lands Authority can claim that there is nothing in its rules that discriminates against Arabs; however, to lease a plot of state land, it requires paperwork from the Jewish Agency – and to that, no Arab need apply. Similarly, a whole raft of positions in the public and private sectors are open only to people who have done military service – from which Arabs (excepting Bedouin) are barred. Regulations on unemployment benefit are also carefully tailored to prevent Israel's Palestinian citizens from claiming it. A separate education system for Arab children, justified in apartheid-style language and controlled by the Shin Bet, receives far less per capita funding than the Jewish system.

The above is merely the beginning of her discoveries. Nathan had sincerely believed the romantic myths of Zionist history; as they evaporate away, she is left shocked and dizzy. Unable in conscience to live in a position of ethnic privilege, to be part of a system she saw and despised in South Africa, she decides to challenge the prejudice and hatred in Israeli society by moving to Tamra. Nathan's Jewish friends desert her. While hurt and disillusioned by their attitude, she understands this as a herd instinct, perhaps deriving from the Holocaust: stepping outside the consensus threatens and weakens the group.

In Tamra, she is welcomed and forms strong friendships, becoming in effect a member of the family from whom she rents an apartment. But here too, Nathan finds she is not at first trusted by all her new neighbours. While one woman speaks politely, Nathan sees suppressed anger in her eyes. Then there are the children who demand to know whether she is Jewish (“Yes, but she is a good Jew”) and who throw (harmlessly) small stones and bunches of leaves at her. To this she responds not with indignation but with the same understanding she has for hostile but misguided co-religionists, recalling in this case the atrocities committed in Jenin and elsewhere in her name. Her patient dignity and strength of character win them over.

An ultra-Orthodox rabbi commends Nathan, describing her work as “the very essence of what Judaism is about.” Among Israeli Jews, however, she is one of only a tiny minority of genuinely radical advocates for peace and justice: those who support the right of return of the refugees. Like Nathan, they fit the archetype of the wounded healer: one woman, traumatized by the abuses she was a part of while doing her military service, describes feeling “like I had lost all my skin, that there was no skin around me anymore”; she is now a teacher who makes sure to tell the children in her classes about the Nakba. The high suicide rate in the army is testament to the fact that others deal with the contradiction between orders and morality less well. Nathan talks with a young woman just beginning her army service in the occupied territories: Bar's idealistic intention was to show the Palestinians under occupation “a human side to Israelis, not just the inhuman side they are used to.” However, the other soldiers in her unit are filled with hatred for the Palestinians. The tensions of Bar's position and the duties she is obliged to carry out are already tearing her apart.

Written with an extraordinary depth of self-awareness, empathy and integrity, this book deserves the widest possible audience. For supporters of Israel and for many of its own Jewish citizens it will be an eye-opener. For outsiders critical of the only remaining apartheid state, most of us the comfortable products of normal environments, it is also a reminder of the exceptional qualities needed to be a good person in a bad society.

Book review © 2007 Michael Breen