about thE author


Anthony David
Anthony David is a writer and translator. He is the co-author with Sari Nusseibeh of Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life and the editor and Translator of
Lamentations of Youth: The Diaries of Gershom Scholem, 1913-1919. His biography

A Liberal in Jerusalem: The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh
By Anthony David April 2008

of the Israeli-American arms smuggler and entrepreneur, Al Schwimmer, will shortly be published by Schocken Books in Tel Aviv.
about ZWorD

Z Word is an online journal focusing on the contemporary debate over Zionism, anti-Zionism, antisemitism and related areas. Editorially independent, Z Word identifies and challenges anti-Zionist orthodoxies in mainstream political exchange. Z Word is supported by the American Jewish Committee. To learn more about Z Word, visit us online at: www.z-word.com or contact the editors at: info@z-word.com

Heart of a paradox: Arabs and Jews in east Jerusalem
Photo credit: Jill Granberg

© Copyright the American Jewish Committee (AJC). All content herein, unless otherwise specified, is owned solely by the AJC and may not disseminated in any way without prior written consent from the AJC. All rights reserved.

the fifteen minute drive between west Jerusalem and Sari Nusseibeh’s office 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 a divided city where the obvious divisions can camouflage as strange forms of togetherness. Nusseibeh’s office 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 while driving to the edge of town is the construction of a new light rail line that will take the residents to the gates of the Old City in minutes. The locals will tell you that 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 worshippers headed to the Dome of the Rock, the most poignant symbol of their national identity and of their struggle against Israeli control. Jewish and Arab nationalists will thus be riding the same train, each with their respective flags,

heading to a city both claim for themselves. They will be together in their seemingly irreconcilable differences. 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 yet doesn’t betray any worry. The beads seem to work. When I arrived in early April Nusseibeh told me he had 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,” he said with a slight lilt to his voice, rubbing his beads. “The dear man got ten threats in as many days. Imagine that.” I assumed the rabbi was left-wing, but I was wrong. It was a right-winger who got the death threats for inviting an Arab intellectual to his synagogue.

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. Unlike other Palestinian or Arab intellectuals, Nusseibeh does not simply accept the political reality of Israel because the Arabs are too weak to snatch back from the Israelis what they lost in 1948. He accepts the moral right of the Jews to stay put—though without paying for his moderation by ignoring his people’s plight. Better than most he is acutely 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 an abstraction for Nusseibeh; it cuts close to the bone. The UN decision to partition Palestine into two Jewish and Arab states in November 1947 triggered a bitter civil war in Jerusalem. Each side sniped and tossed bombs at the other. In the months until the declaration of Israeli independence in May 1948, Arab irregulars operating in the mountains between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cut off 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 up an effective 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 fired at other human beings. The head of the group was a retired 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 to Beirut. After a brief rendezvous with Sari’s mother, who was in Beirut due to the fighting, he returned to Jerusalem just in time for the British to announce the end of their rule in Palestine. On May 14 David Ben-Gurion announced that after 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 Jaffa Gate, New Gate, and Zion Gate. For four days the ragtag

“Nusseibeh accepts the moral right of the Jews to stay put—though without paying for his moderation by ignoring his people’s plight”
Nusseibeh, who was once Yasser Arafat’s PLO’s representative in Jerusalem, has become a celebrity among many Jewish intellectuals worldwide. Abe Foxman and Paul Wolfowitz have praised his courage and vision. The Forward 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 flattering, of course. Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, once referred to him as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” There were many people in the Israeli security services that obviously had similar suspicions when they arrested him during the first Gulf War. And yet remarkably enough, the only time he has been physically attacked was by Palestinian militants, and for the crime of negotiating with Israelis. More recently, he got his own stack of death threats after he poured cold water on the notion of the right of return of the 1948 refugees to their former villages inside the Jewish state.

A Liberal in Jerusalem: The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh 2

Arab forces held out. With ammunition running dangerously short, Nusseibeh slipped off to Ramallah for fresh supplies. 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 fighting 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.

“Nusseibeh’s mother…could never slough off her bitterness at Israel and the Jewish people for robbing her of her homeland”

Sari’s mother lost far more. After her husband was shot, she returned to her family in the Arab city of Ramle near 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 the town. Some of the Arabs were given transport in trucks or buses. Pregnant with Sari, Nusseibeh’s mother was forced to travel by foot back across the demarcation lines and into Jordanian-controlled east Jerusalem and the West Bank. History Without Rancor

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 justice in the form of restitution. One of Sari’s similes for this approach, so typical of Palestinian refugees, is of a stolen carpet that an owner finds after years of searching. Unlike the pristine carpet in his imagination, the owner finds it covered 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. Nusseibeh has 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 blossoms in his imagination accept Israel’s moral right to exist? Nusseibeh doesn’t doubt for a moment that his mother was wrongfully driven from her home during the 1948 fighting—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 impossible position to hold. Many Palestinians call it treason. I’ve known Nusseibeh for four years now, and I could never square what he says about Israel’s moral right to exist with the history of his family. It was only during our recent chat that his seemingly contradictory statements began to make some sense. Philosophy Without Abstractions

This history of the first Arab-Israeli war is important to mention because it relates directly to the most puzzling aspect of Sari Nusseibeh’s thinking. After the war his onelegged father refused to be eaten away by rancor, melancholy, 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 for the problems facing east Jerusalemites in the united city. His mother, by stark contrast, could never slough off her bitterness at Israel and the Jewish people for robbing her of her homeland. Her family had owned orange groves, and she raised her children with tales of the sweetest oranges on earth growing on a plantation stretching all the way from Ramle to the gently swelling waves of the Mediterranean. To this day—she is over 90—she hasn’t

What struck me most while we spoke was how he is more of a novelist than a traditional philosopher or politician. He shies away from abstract ideas, rarely tries to trap you in a syllogism, and never comes at you with a manifesto or slogan. He has a horror for abstract moral codes 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. The only authority I’ve ever heard him cite—with the exception of his daughter, whose literary tastes he regards as authoritative—is that of the concrete individual. It seems 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
A Liberal in Jerusalem: The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh 3

person” functions as a heuristic device keeping the various components of his “system”—nation, memory, identity, justice, dialogue, and finally peace—from flying into pieces. Every age gets the political theory it deserves, or needs. The English Civil War produced Thomas Hobbes elevation of the all-powerful state as the defender of life and property; like a genie from a bottle, the age of European colonial global expansion conjured up Smith’s Invisible Hand, Hegel’s Weltgeist, and Marx’s international Working Class. Sari’s “normal, average person” can be seen as his philosophical response to our contemporary situation of peoples, tribes, and ethnic groups demanding historical justice, and citing a litany of real or imagined past grievances to boost their case. What makes our point in history particularly perilous—just think of Gaza—is how easy it is for groups seeking to “shake the carpet,” as it were, to get their hands on modern weaponry. The ghosts of past injustices have never been so well armed.

Because Israelis as individuals have the moral right to life and liberty, so does the state that represents them. The Lives of Others “The inability to understand the life of the Other is what keeps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict going,” Nusseibeh told me. What is needed to solve the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict is for both sides to develop a sense of empathy for actual people. Palestinians must recognize the Israeli Jew’s right to exist—his right to life, freedom, dignity, security, and so on—as the Israelis must recognize the Palestinian Arab’s. The minute people climb down from their abstractions and distant memories to see the humanity in the Other, the demons of ’48 can be banned, and two states, one Jewish and the other Palestinian, can exist in peace side by side. “Olmert and Abbas could go into a room, and come out an hour later with a deal. I’m sure of it,” he says. Nusseibeh first realized the importance of empathy during the bloodletting of the Second Intifada, a time of suicide bombing and Israeli reprisals. He was Arafat’s Jerusalem man, a thankless job that earned him threats from Israelis and Palestinian militants alike. To calm his nerves one day he read a book about two Jewish philosophers in Vienna after the Nazi Anschluss in 1938. In reading he began to identify with the two men’s suffocating sense of doom and terror due to their problems with citizenship, residency papers, travel documents, venal bureaucracies, the threat of property confiscation, and arrest. Suddenly the dry historical facts of Nazi antisemitism were infused with real emotions. The tale of these two Viennese philosophers gave him an empathic insight into their fate. He understood emotionally why Jews felt they needed Palestine as a refuge. What “average, normal” Palestinian could deny them this? Nusseibeh decided to conduct a thought experiment. His mother was his test case. Just suppose, he asked her during a visit, that in the early years of the century an elderly and learned Jewish gentleman from Europe had come to her father to consult with him on an urgent matter. “And suppose this gentleman told him that an unimaginable catastrophe was about to befall the Jews of Europe. And suppose he threw in that, as an Abrahamic cousin with historic ties to Palestine, he wanted to prevent the coming genocide by seeking permission for his people to return to the shared homeland, to provide

“Nusseibeh can accept Israel’s moral right to exist despite the events of 1948 because he interprets history through the real needs of the ‘normal, average person’”
It has also become all too easy to kill in the name of justice. Inevitably, the people who have caused the harm turn into spectral embodiments of injustice, bondage, and repression. The gun-toting settler appears in the mind of the refugee as the incarnation of a hundred years of bitterness. Of course, it is much easier to shoot at a walking idea than a flesh and blood human being like yourself. What dreams of perfect justice will never do is lead to real freedom. The political leaders and demagogues who like promising the moon might benefit from slogans. The “average, normal person” will remain in his squalid camp, or crumbling school or prison. The “average, normal person” gets lost in the pursuit of absolute justice. Nusseibeh can accept Israel’s moral right to exist despite the events of 1948 because he interprets history through the real needs of the “normal, average person.” History has to serve life, not cripple it. The person, not the political paradigm, is what interests him.

A Liberal in Jerusalem: The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh 4

them with safety and refuge. What did she think he would have said?” he asked her. “Would he have permitted a wholesale return of the Jewish people to Palestine?” Her reply was surprising. Nusseibeh had braced himself for a string of conditions and clauses and caveats, and in so many words, a resounding “No.” Instead she responded straightaway with a wave of her hand, “How can you even ask such a question? He NEVER would have refused them refuge.” Just by changing the terms of reference, from the orange blossoms to the desperation of the Jewish people, over half a century of pain and resentment was wiped away. Nusseibeh’s catalogue of “average, normal” rights includes, inter alia, respect for a person’s dignity; a sense of equality; the right of movement; security; and the space to develop and practice one’s abilities. Unsurprisingly, one of his favorite lines from the political-philosophical canon is “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In some ways this catalogue resembles what traditional liberals, from John Locke to John Rawls, have always said. The difference between Nusseibeh and these other philosophers, and the reason his approach makes more sense in our sloppy world of ethnic and religious conflicts, is that his “average, normal person” still bears the welts from handcuffs. The real history and identity of a person are not stripped away in the process of looking for universal values; rather, universal rights become the prism through which past grievances are projected, and life-affirming identities are formed.

The university has a history department, where the history of the conflict is taught. There is even a history museum dedicated to the memory of PLO military commander Abu Jihad, a ’48 refugee who is regarded by many Palestinians as their own Che Guevara. But in the museum, as in the history department, the emphasis is on self-empowerment rather than revanchism; on individual dignity, not ressentiment; on the ability to take control of history and tragedy rather than being a helpless victim. The uniqueness, even sheer audacity, of this liberal political philosophy can best be appreciated when compared to the prevailing attitudes among Palestinian intellectuals, politicians, and especially the Islamists, who regard the “Naqba” of 1948 rather than individual rights as their starting point, making compromise with the Jewish state at best a tactical maneuver borne out of weakness. The Justice of Two States Self-empowerment is the real underlying logic behind Nusseibeh’s work as an educator and a philosopher. At his university he has introduced an Israeli studies program, and no one in Palestine has cooperated so actively with Israeli institutions. Making cooperation with Israel into an aspect of self-empowerment, however, should be profoundly disturbing to those Israelis who insist on maintaining control of the West Bank and Gaza. If flags, historical memory, and so-called eternal rights are secondary to the concrete rights of the individual’s freedom and dignity, then the state form—the color of a flag, the faces on the currency - becomes secondary. An independent Palestinian state is important only to the degree in which it can guarantee the rights and liberty of the individual. If the “average person” can derive greater freedom within a bi-national Arab-Jewish state than through a dysfunctional Palestinian Authority without true sovereignty, then that is what Palestinians and all those who seek a humane solution to the conflict should fight for. Yet, herein lies the greatest paradox of all. The socalled “One State solution,” being the direct by-product of a failed Palestinian state, naturally puts into question the moral underpinnings of the Jewish state. To avoid this from happening, the fervent Palestinian nationalist and the equally fervent Israeli Zionist, both as it were riding the same train to the same sacred city of Jerusalem, become allies in advocating for a successful
A Liberal in Jerusalem: The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh 5

“Self-empowerment is the real underlying logic behind Nusseibeh’s work as an educator and a philosopher”

A good example of this theory in action is Al Quds University. Though himself a child of the 1960s—back then Nusseibeh loved attending demonstrations—if you visit the campus of Al Quds you won’t see many banners denouncing the Occupation, the settlements, the closures and the separation wall, all things Nusseibeh and his students naturally detest. The task of the university, as he sees it, is to actualize the needs of his 10,000 students.

Palestinian state in which individual Palestinians enjoy basic political and economic rights and freedoms on their side of the Green Line, including East Jerusalem.

“As Nusseibeh told an audience at the Hebrew University shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks…‘Israelis and Palestinians. If anything, we are strategic allies’”

In this scenario, the Palestinians will get their state— and the sole responsibility to manage it in a rational, transparent, demilitarized, and democratic manner—and the Israelis will be assured that future Palestinians will not put to question the Jewish state through a one-manone-vote campaign or the insistence on the right of return. As Nusseibeh told an audience at the Hebrew University shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, when talk of the “clash of civilizations” was in the air: “Our shared future has to provide Israel with a secure guarantee for its existence as a Jewish state, but it has also to provide Palestinians with a secure guarantee for their freedom and independence in their own state. Israelis and Palestinians. If anything, we are strategic allies.”

A Liberal in Jerusalem: The Paradoxes of Sari Nusseibeh 6

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