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One Man’s Persistent Empathy

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

One day, at the end of 1987, Sari Nusseibeh was walking out of a lecture hall at Birzeit University, just having taught his students John Locke’s concepts of liberalism and tolerance, when he was set upon by five young men in kaffiyehs who pummeled him with their fists, a broken bottle and penknives. Word had gotten out that the absentminded Palestinian philosophy professor — “luftmensch,” he sometimes called himself, using the Yiddish unselfconsciously — had engaged in shocking and ultimately failed secret peace negotiations with members of Israel’s right-wing Likud party. Just as young Palestinians were collecting rocks to wage the first intifada, Nusseibeh was sitting with Israelis and working out a draft for a two-state solution.

Speaking to the press the following day, his broken arm in a sling, Nusseibeh said that the violence committed upon him raised questions about whether it was possible to break through “the political dogma in both communities.” His own injuries, he said, resulted from the fact that “these dogmas become like a religion, and anyone who deviates from them is a heretic.”

It wasn’t the first time, and certainly not the last, that someone perceived Nusseibeh’s words or actions as heresy. For the past 25 years — from the moment he unwittingly entered Palestinian politics as a teacher’s union leader, to his position as Yasser Arafat’s personal representative in Jerusalem during the second intifada — Nusseibeh has been a paragon of empathy and, by extension, of compromise. More than any other Palestinian leader, he has tried to understand the psychology of Israelis, their fears and neuroses, and address them. It’s no mystery that he’s become a darling of the Israeli left, friend to Amos Oz and Yossi Beilin. He’s also never been afraid to speak bitter truths to his own people (and risk getting his bones broken for it). In September 2001, as the rocks in Palestinians’ hands had turned into explosive belts around their waists, he wrote an article about the need for Palestinians to abandon the delusion that they would one day return to their pre-1948 homes. “We have two rights,” he wrote in Arabic. “We have the right of return, in my opinion. But we also have the right to live in freedom and independence. And very often in life, one has to forgo the implementation of one right in order to implement the other rights.” In Palestine, you don’t get more heretical than this.

All well and good, the naysayers on the Israeli right say, but whom does Nusseibeh represent? This has always been the central question about the tweed-wearing intellectual with the mop of gray hair and the wire-rimmed glasses. In a new, plainly written, memoir that details how he went from wanting only to be left alone with his books to being the leading voice of Palestinian moderation, Nusseibeh is well aware of the criticism. In response to his latest peace initiative — a very reasonable plan drawn up with the former head of the Israeli secret service, Ami Ayalon — he imagines Israelis wondering: “Yes, yes, Sari’s a nice enough fellow. If only there were a million like him over there! But, alas, we have to deal with the Palestinian rabble. We are not making peace with him, but with them!”

Sadly, this memoir — meant, one assumes, to inspire hope — only further emphasizes Nusseibeh’s unique and solitary position in the Palestinian universe.

The son of a family whose patrician roots in Jerusalem go back to 638, when one of his ancestors entered the city with Caliph Omar and was named its first Muslim governor, Nusseibeh always had a self-admittedly princely attitude about his fellow Palestinians, to whom he often refers as “commoners” or the “man on the street.” He studied at Oxford, and was far away from the West Bank in 1967, busy falling in love with the English woman who would become his wife, when his father, a one-time Jordanian defense minister, fell under Israeli rule. Upon his return to Palestine, Nusseibeh, eager to learn about Israelis, joined an Ulpan class to learn Hebrew. He spent the summer of 1968 picking oranges on a kibbutz in the Galilee.

The first intifada, a manifestation of raw anger at life under occupation, caught Nusseibeh by surprise, shielded as he was by his “social privileges.” But the “young Buddha” soon joined the masses and became that conflict’s central intellectual leader and pamphleteer. And for once, his own tempered political vision converged with the street’s: Both focused on ending the occupation, not Israel, and through mostly nonviolent means. His increasing marginalization began once that moment ended. And while that first uprising, in his eyes, helped “exorcise [the Palestinian] demons of humiliation, inferiority and self-contempt” by the second he saw nothing more than “a catastrophic slapdash brawl without leadership, strategy or ideas; it was a ruinous and sanguinary fit of madness.”

To read this book today, with its vision of Israelis and Palestinians as “natural allies, not adversaries,” is to grieve for the thousandth time that instead of someone like Nusseibeh leading Palestine, there is a government not willing to offer even the bare minimum in compromise — recognition of Israel. If only Nusseibeh’s story of persistent empathy were also his people’s story. But it’s not. It’s one lonesome heretic’s tale.

Gal Beckerman, a regular contributor to the Forward, is writing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.


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