An elder states­man

The Pales­tinian philoso­pher, key to the first in­tifada, has evolved. By Daniella Peled

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

THERE IS an un­ex­pected air of de­tach­ment run­ning through much of Pales­tinian philoso­pher and ac­tivist Sari Nus­seibeh’s new mem­oir. One can imag­ine him, a scruffy and be­mused aca­demic with a slight smile on his face, ob­serv­ing key mo­ments of his peo­ple’s nar­ra­tive, from a Jerusalem child­hood to his time as one of the or­gan­is­ers of the first in­tifada and as a se­cu­rity pris­oner.

Per­haps it is this de­tach­ment that has al­lowed him to keep so fun­da­men­tally mod­er­ate through decades deeply in­volved in the bit­ter twists and turns of the Arab-Pales­tinian con­flict. “Maybe be­cause, right from the be­gin­ning, I was very in­tro­verted, self-cen­tred,” he says, sip­ping cof­fee into which he ap­pears to have poured the con­tents of at least a dozen sugar sa­chets.

Un­like many of his con­tem­po­raries, Nus­seibeh’s po­lit­i­cal stance was not forged from the hard­ships of the vi­o­lent strug­gle. Born in Da­m­as­cus in 1949 into one of Jerusalem’s old­est dy­nas­ties (his fam­ily are the tra­di­tional guardians of the key of the Church of the Holy Sepul­chre), he had a priv­i­leged up­bring­ing which in­cluded an ed­u­ca­tion at Rugby, Ox­ford, and Har­vard.

But from the boy­hood days when he peered across no-man’s-land to catch glimpses of the in­hab­i­tants of a place only ever re­ferred to as “the Zion­ist En­tity”, to his cur­rent vo­cal op­po­si­tion to an aca­demic boy­cott of Is­rael, Nus­seibeh has al­ways sought his own, eq­ui­table path: “In a sense, I was more in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing my own per­sonal thoughts and ques­tions than in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing those hap­pen­ing out­side,” he says. “I only got in­volved in na­tion­al­ist is­sues be­cause of is­sues which touched my in­di­vid­ual life.”

In­deed, his early stance was that na­tion­al­ist projects failed to make much sense. At first, he was an avid sup­porter of a one-state so­lu­tion. Only later, he says, did he re­alise that two states for two peo­ples was “the only way we can even­tu­ally achieve ba­sic val­ues im­por­tant in the life of an in­di­vid­ual”.

Nus­seibeh — cur­rently pres­i­dent of Jerusalem’s al-Quds univer­sity — is not un­crit­i­cal of his own peo­ple’s mis­takes. “To­day, we are very dis­ap­pointed with our­selves,” he says, gen­tly click­ing his ever-present string of worry-beads. “We have not suc­ceeded in the past 10 or 15 years in cre­at­ing a gov­ern­ment, or man­ag­ing to ad­dress our pri­mary con­cerns of dig­nity, self-re­spect, equal worth — all of pri­mary con­cern for the life of an in­di­vid­ual. I’ve never called my­self a na­tion­al­ist in an ide­o­log­i­cal sense. I don’t call for the state be­cause it in it­self is some­thing fan­tas­tic. It is a means to an end.”

This idio­syn­cratic approach has made him as many en­e­mies as friends. Dur­ing the first in­tifada, Is­rael claimed he was act­ing as a con­duit for PLO money, closed down the news ser­vice he was run­ning, and banned his weekly news­let­ter. Dur­ing the first Gulf War, he spent time in an Is­raeli jail af­ter be­ing ac­cused of act­ing as an Iraqi agent, al­though he was re­leased with­out charge af­ter 90 days.

His own side has also ac­cused him of be­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tor, for meet­ing Is­raelis when di­a­logue was con­sid­ered trai­tor­ous (not to men­tion teach­ing classes at He­brew Univer­sity), for ac­cept­ing that com­pro­mise had to be reached over the refugees’ right to re­turn, and most re­cently for vig­or­ously op­pos­ing the aca­demic boy­cott.

“I am still un­der a lot of at­tack for this, but one has to be con­sis­tent,” he says. “It’s an ex­treme para­dox that, out of all the re­la­tion­ships, the one that comes un­der at­tack from Pales­tini­ans is the only one where we stand to ben­e­fit, and not as clients.”

He re­mains com­mit­ted to the jus­tice of his cause. Not so much out of op­ti­mism, he says, but out of con­vic­tion of “our abil­ity to make things bet­ter”. The present Ha­mas-Fatah stand-off will be re­solved, he main­tains. “They will make them­selves right again and sta­bilise.”

And his vi­sion of the fu­ture Pales­tine? “First of all, we have to have a state. Se­condly, we have to have ex­cel­lent man­age­ment, in a sense. We have to run our af­fairs of state in a way that would make our neigh­bours in Is­rael jeal­ous and our neigh­bours in the Arab world jeal­ous — and make them look for our as­sis­tance.” Once Upon A Coun­try: A Pales­tinian Life, by Sari Nus­seibeh (with An­thony David) is pub­lished by Hal­ban Pub­lish­ing (£20)

PHO­TO­GRAPH: HEESOON YIM

Sari Nus­seibeh: “We need to make our neigh­bours in Is­rael jeal­ous”

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