Philosopher & Statesman

Once Upon a Country
A Palestinian Life
Sari Nusseibeh, with Anthony David
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.50, 560 pp.

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...

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About the Author

Leslie Woodcock Tentler, author of Catholics and Contraception: A History, is professor of history at the Catholic University of America.