In Review

For the People

By Jeffrey Johnson

Sari Nusseibeh, president of the Palestinian Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, asks Palestinians and Israelis to think deeply about what states are for: “At the end of the day, states must exist to serve people, not to rule over them” (15). In an audacious proposal, he suggests “that Israel officially annex the occupied territories, and that Palestinians in the enlarged Israel agree that the state remain Jewish in return for being granted all the civil, though not the political, rights of citizenship” (14).

Nusseibeh, also a professor of philosophy, suggests that if states were not paramount, Israelis would recognize the civil and property rights of Palestinian Arabs living in their Jewish state, providing Palestinians with “a far better life than they have had in more than forty years under military occupation or would have under another projected scenario” (14). Palestinian villagers could tend their olive trees in peace, and Israeli companies could begin directing investment into Palestinian communities, counting on expanded trade and economic markets, and the dark old story, of two societies “etched . . . into a frieze, neither able to move forward toward a single state, nor yet to separate into two” (43), would finally change.

Neither an academic study nor a point-by-point blueprint for yet more negotiations, Nusseibeh’s book is ““a set of reflections” on a conflict in which he, a Palestinian living in Jerusalem, “is both victim and protagonist” (18). Broad and reasonable in tone, the book reminded me of the spirit of my introduction to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians thirty years ago, during a college semester I spent with a dozen other students in and around Jerusalem.

We were, in our twenties, still unaware of the ways in which our lives were tethered to institutions, corporations, religious traditions, and nations. We felt that we were free and unbiased learners and thinkers. Optimistic and idealistic, with time to talk, we were eager to translate our new knowledge into solutions to the social and political problems around us. Nusseibeh writes as one who has worked with students when they are energized by new ideas, eager to offer solutions to large problems: “I see the student population as the best agency for political change—whether the issue is oppressive rule by another nation or by a home-grown authoritarian autocracy” (20). He believes that a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians lies, finally, not in high-level negotiations over the boundaries of a Palestinian state, but in a recognition by Israeli and Palestinian people of the human goals and values they share, as among young people when they are open to another’s outlook: “In a book about a conflict that has brought so much suffering and so much taking of life, it is well to highlight that human face, if only to see whether we can recognize it” (44–45).

In four short months of study abroad in Israel and the West Bank, my classmates and I learned that the holy land of legend and of Sunday school instruction was a violent place, brutally contested, locked down, and patrolled. More generally, we began to see that the truths we were learning about life were questions veined with mystery and shaded with ambiguity rather than answers. We learned that the world is small and that a tribe’s home ground might have been previously occupied by another tribe. The dry and distant Palestinian desk man who buzzed us into our hostel when we announced ourselves on the intercom said to us one evening, “Never will there be peace in Jerusalem. Peace in Jerusalem is just a line from a prayer for the world to end.” Nusseibeh faces the “tragic absurdity” of military occupation, and the shame of generations in both groups growing up in seething resentment, and tries to chart a different course.

He analyzes the terms of disagreement over land, security, and self-determination. One long-standing assumption is that the Palestinian people deserve a state; they have suffered so long without one. Nusseibeh asks: Who is a Palestinian state for? Whose needs would it satisfy? And what should be given up in a compromise for such a state? After all:

. . . states exist for us—not in the sense of our owning them . . . but in the sense of their being . . . our extended homes, familiar public spaces . . . where we feel as entitled as the next person to speak our minds, and where we can expect our general well-being to be attended to and cared for. . . . [T]he question of what states are for is ultimately about what it is to feel at home, about our inner emotions and aspirations, about who we are as human beings and how we can best live together. (85)

If a Palestinian state is declared, and granted, and Israeli and Palestinian people still fail to trust one another as neighbors, whose interests are served?

Israelis and Palestinians normally speak of each other (and others speak of them) as “sides,” assuming that each “side” has a common background and homogenous point of view. This stance encourages generalization and dehumanization. Israelis see faceless Palestinians behind bandit face wraps, prone to insane violent acts, such as suicide bombings, and influenced by terrorist organizations and unfriendly Arab regimes. Palestinians see faceless Israelis behind a brutal occupying force maintaining a bloody standoff with mortal enemies whom they have penned up behind a monstrous wall and whom they supervise like a nation of guards overlooking a prisoner-people. For half a century, world leaders and mediators have tried to make progress toward peace by attempting to steer the two “sides” to a compromise and a more satisfying political solution. All their efforts have ended in conspicuous and colossal failures.

Nusseibeh identifies and examines some of the accepted influential parties of the conflict (Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, ­Arabs, Muslims, Hamas, settlers, Fatah), including those official government parties engaged in interminable if flickering negotiation, calling them “meta-biological beings, which . . . smother the real . . . individuals who make them up” (73). Like a patient gardener, he takes up the tangle of factions within the conflict and tries to twist out the tender roots of humanity that remain in the mass of human suffering, abject poverty, mutual suspicion, and blaring enmity.

He explores the public questions of peace and security at a level below the “mysterious forces and grand players of history,” where human faces are blurred and where “political discourse comes to be articulated in terms of such questions as whether Israel is capable of changing its policy, or whether Hamas is an obstacle to peace, as if ordinary human beings no longer matter” (105). One imagines young people following Nusseibeh on a search for what he calls “a moral order based on human values”:

. . . we should discard the notion that negotiations take place among a few carefully selected people meeting behind closed doors; in its place, we should recognize that in fact real negotiations are being conducted constantly by all of us, in our homes and in the streets. . . . [which] transcend the normal lists of items typically bickered about by negotiators (settlements, roadblocks, walls, number of guns, media incitement . . . ). (191–192)

Nusseibeh names Israeli peacemakers Uri Avneri and Abie Nathan (d. 2008) as examples of those who have tried to cross religious, cultural, ethnic, and nationalistic divides to mend a social fabric between neighbors. If the negotiators on both sides of the official tables shared visions like those of Avneri and Nathan, a solution would not be so much a negotiated political agreement, based on compromise, as it would be a dynamic process, with formal goals appearing incrementally as new visions of cooperation arise through social change: “If we wish to achieve peace and stability without oppression, it is vital that we focus on the human face—both our own and those of the ‘others’—and on the values shared by all” (123).

It is hard to imagine a new perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. The shouting is so loud among the partisans, the positions of extremists on both sides so intractable and noxious to the human spirit, but in the face of all the emotional dissonance, Nusseibeh offers clear, ethical thinking based on hopes and dreams he believes are shared by Israelis and Palestinians and all other people of the earth. This approach, from a teacher, might inspire peace-building actors, especially young ones—Palestinians and Israelis—to continue their search for ways out of the miserable morass that has trapped several generations of Palestinian Arabs and Israelis alike.

The work for peace and security for both Palestinians and Israelis could be launched again, Nusseibeh argues, and “the guiding imperative here should not be winning over the other side, but winning the other side over—not making the others act against their will, but changing their will, making it congruent with your own” (202). Then, the road to peace would not be blocked by a wall of separation or by humiliating checkpoints, but would begin to look like a free society in which human aspirations of freedom and equality (even if not political equality) for all citizens would be recognized and protected by policies and laws. Then, economic enterprise, trade, and cultural interchange might develop, and a lasting peace might be shaped by growing trust and emerging visions of cooperation and prosperity:

The vision of the peaceful and prosperous future may take any of several forms: one state, two states, confederation, federation involving one country, or two, or three, and so on. But whatever form it takes, it has to be a moral political order, and its foundation must be the two elements of freedom and equality. (193)

Nusseibeh suggests that students and the next generation may be the best hope for a way out of the mortal deadlock between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis. Remembering my younger self, I tend to agree. No doubt, there are young Israelis and Palestinians being convened today by small peace organizations, or studying together at a university; these young people are uniquely poised to ponder Nusseibeh’s wisdom. As they come of age and into maturity, they might find the moral leverage to match the best wisdom of their elders and lift the people of the region to a peace beyond that imagined by anyone on the horizon today.


What Is a Palestinian State Worth? By Sari Nusseibeh. Harvard University Press, 256 pages, $14.95 paper.

Jeffrey Johnson is a Lutheran pastor in Wayland, Massachusetts.

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