A Liberal in Jerusalem: The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh
Arab forces held out. With ammunition running danger
ously short, Nusseibeh slipped o to Ramallah for freshsupplies. He was in the car on his way back to Jerusalem
when he was shot in the thigh. The leg was later amputated.
By the time the ghting was over a year later, the
Nusseibeh family had lost its vast property holdings in what
was now Israel. The spot where Ben Gurion International Airport now sits had been ancestral Nusseibeh land.
Sari’s mother lost far more. After her husband was
shot, she returned to her family in the Arab city of Ramlenear the coast. In June 1948, the Israeli army showed up. Yitzhak Rabin, at the time a commander of the Haganah,obeyed the tacit orders from Ben-Gurion to clear out thetown. Some of the Arabs were given transport in trucks or buses. Pregnant with Sari, Nusseibeh’s mother was forcedto travel by foot back across the demarcation lines and intoJordanian-controlled east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
History Without Rancor
This history of the rst Arab-Israeli war is important tomention because it relates directly to the most puzzlingaspect of Sari Nusseibeh’s thinking. After the war his one-legged father refused to be eaten away by rancor, melan
choly, or defeatism. He went on to become the governor of
the Jerusalem region and the Jordanian minister of defense.
After 1967, he often invited Moshe Dayan, the late Israeli
Defense Minister, and Teddy Kollek, the late Mayor of
Jerusalem, into his home to discuss practical solutions forthe problems facing east Jerusalemites in the united city.His mother, by stark contrast, could never slough o her bitterness at Israel and the Jewish people for robbingher of her homeland. Her family had owned orange groves,and she raised her children with tales of the sweetestoranges on earth growing on a plantation stretching all
the way from Ramle to the gently swelling waves of theMediterranean. To this day—she is over 90—she hasn’t
given up on her dream of “returning” to her family’s lands,even if the orange trees have long given way to an Israeli city.Like most refugees, Mrs. Nusseibeh wants justicein the form of restitution. One of Sari’s similes for thisapproach, so typical of Palestinian refugees, is of a stolencarpet that an owner nds after years of searching. Unlikethe pristine carpet in his imagination, the owner nds itcovered with furniture—or rather houses, skyscrapers,
highways, universities, an international airport, millions
of people. Disturbed by the clutter, he wants to give it a
good shake and restore it to its original state. Nusseibehhas spent years trying to tell his fellow Palestinians how
impossible, but also morally indefensible, such a fantasy is.
Returning to the paradox, how does a man raised with
the smell of the world’s most perfect orange blossomsin his imagination accept Israel’s
right to exist?Nusseibeh doesn’t doubt for a moment that his mother was wrongfully driven from her home during the 1948
ghting—clearly a brutal thing to do. And yet in his mind
the Jewish state has a moral right to remain right where it
is, on those very lands. Prima facie it seems like an impos
sible position to hold. Many Palestinians call it treason.I’ve known Nusseibeh for four years now, and Icould never square what he says about Israel’s moralright to exist with the history of his family. It was only during our recent chat that his seemingly contradic
-tory statements began to make some sense.
Philosophy Without Abstractions
What struck me most while we spoke was how he is more
of a novelist than a traditional philosopher or politi-
cian. He shies away from abstract ideas, rarely tries totrap you in a syllogism, and never comes at you with amanifesto or slogan. He has a horror for abstract moralcodes written into a sacred book or a nationalist credo. If he wants to make a philosophical point, he refuses to do
so as a professional philosopher, a member of the elite,
or an Arab prince as people like to describe him. Theonly authority I’ve ever heard him cite—with the excep
-tion of his daughter, whose literary tastes he regards
as authoritative—is that of the concrete individual. Itseems like every other sentence he refers to the “normal,average person like us.” But the funniest thing happens when you add up his statements about “normal” people:like magic, a philosophy emerges. This “normal, average
“Nusseibeh’s mother…could never sloughoff her bitterness at Israel and the Jewishpeople for robbing her of her homeland”