Philosopher & Statesman

Although Sari Nusseibeh first met the distinguished Israeli novelist Amos Oz in 1978, it was not until he read Oz’s autobiography in 2004 that he realized they had been boyhood neighbors in a divided Jerusalem. “I was raised no more than a hundred feet away from where Oz lived out his childhood, just on the other side of the fortified ‘No Man’s Land’ established in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli War.” Despite his proximity to Jerusalem’s Arab sector, Oz’s narrative of boyhood included almost no Arabs “and not a hint of the world” Nusseibeh knew as a child. Haunted by terrifying memories of the Holocaust, as a boy Oz was an ardent Zionist. Arabs were present in his consciousness simply as the enemy. He had no sense at all of the grievances nursed by the nearby Nusseibeh family, some of whose ancestral properties had been expropriated by the Israeli government during and after the 1948 war.

To Nusseibeh’s credit, his meditations on Oz’s story do not end at this point. “I had to think about my own upbringing.” As a boy, had he not been equally insulated against the realities of Jewish life? His parents, for all their education and liberal convictions, dwelled almost exclusively on their own deep injuries rather than their Jewish neighbors’ psychic wounds. To what extent had they really known about the death camps and the crime committed in the heart of Europe for which Palestinians were now being forced to make reparation? “Weren’t both sides of the conflict totally immersed in their own tragedies, each one oblivious to, or even antagonistic toward, the narrative of the other? Isn’t this inability to imagine the lives of the ‘other’ at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” Nusseibeh emerges as a man worth listening to.

Although Sari was born in Damascus in 1949, the Nusseibeh family-perhaps “clan” would be a better word-has ancient roots in Jerusalem. A Nusseibeh was governor of Jerusalem in the seventh century; since that time, Nusseibehs have been locally prominent as judges, scholars, politicians, and-oddly enough-doorkeepers to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Sari’s father, a well-known secular nationalist, held several major government posts between 1951 and 1967 in Jordanian-administered Palestine-after losing a leg in the 1948 war. A lawyer trained in Britain, he educated his sons in England, too. Sari spent an unhappy year at Rugby before attending Oxford University, where he read philosophy and met his wife Lucy, daughter of philosopher John Austin. (Lucy converted upon her marriage to the same humanistic variety of Islam that her husband professes.) In 1978, after Sari received a PhD in philosophy from Harvard, the couple returned to a Jerusalem now completely under Israeli control. For Arab residents, no matter how deep their local roots, this meant military occupation and its inevitable trappings-checkpoints, identity documents, and sometimes bullying soldiers.

Occupation also meant the construction of Israeli settlements in East Je¬r¬u¬sa¬lem and its Arab hinterland. “This, combined with the fact that it was nearly impossible for Arabs to get building permits, led me to conclude that the long-term Israeli plan was to degrade Arab Jerusalem into a ghetto of a greater Jewish city.” Convinced that Jerusalem was for Palestinians the symbol and source of their cultural, religious, and national identity, the still-young Sari-by this time teaching at impoverished Birzeit University in the West Bank-began to reconsider his dream of a secular state harmoniously peopled by Palestinians and Jews. Creating such a state would mean undoing the Zionist project-hence its attraction for non-Islamist Palestinian militants-but it would also vindicate the Enlightenment values Sari Nusseibeh had been raised to revere. A two-state solution, which he ultimately embraced, was attractive simply because it was workable. Israel rightly feared the demographic timebomb on its doorstep: the Jewish birthrate was falling far below that of the Palestinians. Palestinians desperately needed to control their own destinies-to develop the institutions of civil society and to govern themselves. A two-state solution, which would require Israel to leave the territory acquired during the 1967 war, would address the needs of both sides. It would also restore the integrity of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods.

Sari Nusseibeh eventually became one of the most prominent Palestinian advocates of a two-state solution, and one of the few willing to be honest about Palestinian claims to land within Israel itself. Palestinians do have a right to the properties taken from their families, he argues. But they also have a right to self-government and a prosperous future. If Palestinians insist on the “right of return,” they will never have either independence or economic security. Sometimes one right must be renounced in service of another, he argues. The formulation suggests a formidable political talent. As Nusseibeh tells it, however, he would have much preferred a life outside the political arena, being by temperament an intellectual and intensely private man. This presumably explains the remarkably varied pattern of his public career. Deeply involved in the leadership of the first Intifada in the late 1980s, he spent much of the 1990s in academic pursuits, particularly the resurrection of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, of which he is president. Jailed by the Israelis during the first Gulf War, he read proofs in his cell for a book-co-authored with an Israeli scholar-on the specifics of a two-state solution.

Once Upon a Country is largely a chronicle of Sari Nusseibeh’s public life. As such, it is also a chronicle of the Arab-Israeli conflict told from what I can only call a rational Palestinian point of view. Nusseibeh, who speaks Hebrew, pays periodic tribute to Israel’s social achievements and its tolerance of dissent. He acknowledges the many failures of the Palestinian leadership, especially the notoriously corrupt and inefficient Palestinian Authority, born of the Oslo Accords. But in terms of its emotional logic and impact, the narrative is frequently hostile to Israel, at times unfairly so. Israeli crimes against Palestinians are related in heart-rending detail. Palestinian outrages are treated far more laconically. And Nusseibeh’s version of the 1948 war, in which Israel is treated as the aggressor, bears little resemblance to what I learned in graduate school.

Having said this, I must also say that the book is an admirable and necessary one. Americans need to hear the Palestinian story told in terms that they can relate to, given how deeply their pro-Israel biases tend to run. Urgent issues of justice are at stake, not to mention U.S. self-interest. Even more important, Sari Nusseibeh is a man committed not just to reason and nonviolence but to hope. Given the situation in the Middle East today, he had no choice but to close his narrative against a backdrop of suicide bombers and a West Bank divided by a land-gobbling wall. And yet he insists that a two-state solution is still possible. Even more remarkable, he insists that religion, frequently demonized as a principal source of division in the region, holds the key to healing. “The only hope comes when we listen to the wisdom of tradition, and acknowledge that Jerusalem cannot be conquered or kept through violence. It is a city of three faiths and it is open to the world.”

Published in the 2007-10-12 issue: 
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Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.

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