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A Liberal in Jerusalem: The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh

A Liberal in Jerusalem: The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh



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Published by Z Word
In this essay for Z Word (www.z-word.com), Anthony David profiles leading Palestinian political thinker Sari Nusseibeh.
In this essay for Z Word (www.z-word.com), Anthony David profiles leading Palestinian political thinker Sari Nusseibeh.

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Published by: Z Word on Oct 07, 2008
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 A Liberal in Jerusalem:The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh
By Anthony David April 2008
Heart of a paradox: Arabs and Jews in east Jerusalem
Photo credit: Jill Granberg 
the fteen minute drive
between west Jerusalem and Sari Nusseibeh’s oce
at Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem is a trip into the heart of a paradox, or
rather a number of them. To begin with, there is the municipal paradox of adivided city where the obvious divisions can camouage as strange forms of 
Nusseibeh’s oce is in largely middle class neighborhood of Beit Hanina.
The neighborhood is unmistakably Arab, a stronghold of Fatah movement,
and center to the Arab intelligentsia of Jerusalem. One thing you notice whiledriving to the edge of town is the construction of a new light rail line that willtake the residents to the gates of the Old City in minutes. The locals will tell youthat the only reason this expensive piece of modern mass transport is being built
is to bind the Jewish settlements in the area to west Jerusalem, guaranteeing
that east Jerusalem will forever be a part of the “Eternal Capital” of Israel. Whatever the motives of the politicians, it is easily to imagine that one day the train will be packed on Friday mornings with Palestinian worshippersheaded to the Dome of the Rock, the most poignant symbol of their nationalidentity and of their struggle against Israeli control. Jewish and Arab na
tionalists will thus be riding the same train, each with their respective ags,
ESSaYabout thE author
 Anthony David is a writer and translator.
He is the co-author with Sari Nusseibeh
Once Upon a Country: A PalestinianLife
and the editor and Translator of 
Lamentations of Youth: The Diaries of Gershom Scholem, 1913-1919
His biography of the Israeli-American arms smugglerand entrepreneur, Al Schwimmer, willshortly be published by Schocken Books
in Tel Aviv.
 Anthony David
about ZWorDCrEDItS
Z Word is an online journal focusing onthe contemporary debate over Zionism,
anti-Zionism, antisemitism and relatedareas. Editorially independent, Z Word
identies and challenges anti-Zionistorthodoxies in mainstream politicalexchange.Z Word is supported by the AmericanJewish Committee. To learn more about
Z Word, visit us online at:
 www.z-word.comor contact the editors at:info@z-word.com© Copyright the American JewishCommittee (AJC). All contentherein, unless otherwise specied, isowned solely by the AJC and may not
disseminated in any way without prior
 written consent from the AJC. All rights
 A Liberal in Jerusalem: The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh
heading to a city both claim for themselves. They will betogether in their seemingly irreconcilable dierences.
Meeting with Dr. Nusseibeh brings up paradoxes
of the more human sort. He is the sort of man who
always has a string of worry beads in his hands, and yetdoesn’t betray any worry. The beads seem to work.
 When I arrived in early April Nusseibeh told me hehad just canceled a scheduled trip to New York City.The rabbi who had invited him was backing out. Wasn’t
 worth it. Got too many death threats. So who would
 want to target a rabbi? I asked him. “Other Jews,” hesaid with a slight lilt to his voice, rubbing his beads. “Thedear man got ten threats in as many days. Imaginethat.” I assumed the rabbi was left-wing, but I was wrong. It was a right-winger who got the death threatsfor inviting an Arab intellectual to his synagogue.Nusseibeh, who was once Yasser Arafat’s PLO’s rep
resentative in Jerusalem, has become a celebrity amongmany Jewish intellectuals worldwide. Abe Foxman andPaul Wolfowitz have praised his courage and vision. The
has called him a “paragon of empathy and, by extension, of compromise.” His
Once Upon a Country
  was the most popular book at the Jewish book fair in
London. The Hebrew translation of the book is imminent.Not all Israelis or Jews are so attering, of course.Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organizationof America, once referred to him as a “wolf in sheep’sclothing.” There were many people in the Israeli security services that obviously had similar suspicions whenthey arrested him during the rst Gulf War. And yet
remarkably enough, the only time he has been physi-
cally attacked was by Palestinian militants, and for thecrime of negotiating with Israelis. More recently, hegot his own stack of death threats after he poured cold
 water on the notion of the right of return of the 1948refugees to their former villages inside the Jewish state.
The Moral Basis for Israel’s Existence
That a Palestinian should be feted by Jews and attacked
 by fellow Arabs is not in itself so anomalous. The paradox
appears when you take a closer look at his position. Unlikeother Palestinian or Arab intellectuals, Nusseibeh doesnot simply accept the political reality of Israel because the Arabs are too weak to snatch back from the Israelis whatthey lost in 1948. He accepts the
right of the Jewsto stay put—though without paying for his moderation
 by ignoring his people’s plight. Better than most he isacutely aware of the steep price Palestinians paid in 1948
for the Jewish people to have their own independent state.
This melancholy story of the past sixty years is not anabstraction for Nusseibeh; it cuts close to the bone. TheUN decision to partition Palestine into two Jewish and Arab states in November 1947 triggered a bitter civil warin Jerusalem. Each side sniped and tossed bombs at theother. In the months until the declaration of Israeli inde
pendence in May 1948, Arab irregulars operating in themountains between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cut o supplies
to Jewish neighborhoods in West Jerusalem, strangling
the city. In Jerusalem itself, however, the Haganah and the
other Jewish militia groups were better armed than the
 Arabs, had superior training, and with the Holocaust so
fresh in everyone’s memory, were vastly more motivated. Anwar Nusseibeh, Sari’s father, was a judge at the
time. He and his friends feared that if they didn’t put upan eective defense, the Old City would be lost. To defend
their homes and heritage, they formed a militia run by men who had mostly never held guns before, let along
red at other human beings. The head of the group was aretired inspector of education. Its members laid no bombs,planned no attacks. Their group was defensive in nature. Anwar Nusseibeh’s job was to scrape together weaponry.Sari was conceived during one of his shopping trips toBeirut. After a brief rendezvous with Sari’s mother, who was in Beirut due to the ghting, he returned to Jerusalem just in time for the British to announce the end of their rulein Palestine. On May 14 David Ben-Gurion announced thatafter two thousand years, the “foreign rule” of Palestine was over, once and for all. Jewish forces immediately took
over the Arab neighborhoods of Talbieh, the German
Colony, and Baqa. In the Old City there were attacks at Jaa
Gate, New Gate, and Zion Gate. For four days the ragtag
“Nusseibeh accepts the
right of theJews to stay put—though without payingfor his moderation by ignoring his people’splight”
 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”

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