29 April 2007 - Sari Nusseibeh: the power of empathy and complexity
An article in this week’s Brandeis Hoot says everything you need to know about Norman Finkelstein and anti-Israel activists like Harvard’s own Sara Roy. Roy “. . . claimed that Finkelstein cut through ‘the artificial web of complexity’ surrounding the Middle East Conflict.” To this claim Finkelstein added, describing the charge of Israeli “apartheid”: “[W]hat’s most striking is how uncontroversial this is.”
To Roy and Finkelstein, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clear and simple. Its facts are undisputed; its guilty and innocent parties easily identified; its human dilemmas easily sorted out. It’s an odd claim for two children of Holocaust survivors who have spent their careers opposing Israel to make; you’d think that if they were sincere, they’d at least be alive to the complexities of their own position.
But there’s no room for complexity here, only blame. Roy and Finkelstein exemplify something my friend Theo refers to as “psychological concretism,” which I understand as the inability to grasp nuance. They are, in fact, deeply suspicious of nuance, seeing it as a kind of smokescreen. They add disclaimers about terrorism and the two-state solution but attack compromise as a form of corruption.
That, I believe, is why Finkelstein evokes so much hostility. To be a thinking, feeling human being, and to be confronted with the archetypal “right versus right” conflict of ancient tragedy, and then to be told that good lies exclusively with one side and evil solely with another, and that if you fail to agree then you are aligned with the evil—that is, in fact, profoundly dehumanizing.
People often attack Finkelstein by focusing on his distortion of facts. But that is not the core of what’s wrong with his approach. What Roy and Finkelstein lack is empathy—equal empathy for both sides. That is the key, regardless of whether you lean toward the Israeli or the Palestinian camp. Without that basic human empathy, no progress is possible—only blame, and, ultimately, vengeance.
Contrast that approach with that of Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, who came to Harvard last Friday to talk about his new memoir, Once Upon a Country. As Leon Wieseltier wrote in a review in the New York Times, Nusseibeh “exhilaratingly declares that ‘a Manichean view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with one side all light, the other all darkness, is impossible to take.’
Nusseibeh spoke about the conflict between mind and body for Palestinians under occupation—how, prior to the first intifada, the Palestinians were becoming Israeli in body by consuming Israel exports and working Israeli jobs, but remained Palestinian in mind by nurturing their own aspirations. This created an intense internal conflict, he said, whose resolution he could not predict.
He told the story of how he had enjoyed a swim at a pool in an Israeli settlement, and then wondered why Palestinians didn’t demand the right to live in the settlements. It would, he said, have led Palestinians to demand equal rights to Israelis, which would have made Israelis realize that the occupation was not only costly but undermining the very essence of the Zionist dream of a Jewish state.
These are the words of a champion of the Palestinian cause who realizes that peace must come through dialogue—and that, in fact, non-violence can be a far greater threat, a far more powerful tool of persuasion, than terror. They are the words of someone who understands that complexity is not an illusion but a reality—and often, at times, a deeply subversive one.
The moderator of the discussion at Harvard’s Center for the Humanities, Prof. Homi Bhabha, kept trying to push Nusseibeh in a more radical political direction—or even to undermine his approach. Was there growing support for an anti-apartheid-style movement? Was his attitude the result of an aristocratic upbringing? What was it like to be “in the struggle” and to reconcile mind and body?
Nusseibeh deflected these questions—but none more brilliantly than the last. He abruptly announced that he had to go to the bathroom, and left the room for five minutes while Bhabha struggled to fill time. He returned, and told his interlocutor: “You see, sometimes body and mind are irreconcilable, but we still move on,” or words to that effect. I’m not sure Bhabha got the joke, or the point.
(The other interesting point that emerged from Nusseibeh’s bathroom break came when Bhabha turned to Nusseibeh’s wife to answer questions about Hamas in his stead. No, she replied to Bhabha’s query about the group’s supposed moderation, she had not seen evidence that Hamas was becoming more peaceful, except for a few individuals, perhaps. Palestinians were, in fact, turning to civil society for answers, she said, out of frustration with Hamas.)
The questions continued along the same lines, from Bhabha and the audience, with Nusseibeh defending brilliantly. Why did he refer to Hamas as “Islamist loonies”? I was not referring to the people who voted for them, he said, but to their use of force. Wasn’t force the only way to keep the Palestinian cause on the agenda? If any history teaches that force does not work, it is Palestinian history, he said.
What about the Israelis—didn’t force work for them? Not really, he said. In 1967 they won the West Bank and Gaza—and now they are an occupying force struggling to get out. Every time they build a settlement, they “win,” because they can do it, but they also lose because they slowly erode the foundations of the Zionist project. His performance was brilliant; he simply shone above the Harvard critics.
I managed to ask him a question. Let’s take your swimming pool story, I said, and tell a similarly subversive tale, but for constructive reasons. What if Palestinians were to say to Israeli settlers that they could be free Palestinian citizens and remain where they are? Doing so would create strategic pressure on Israel to withdraw, and would also lay the foundation for creating a pluralistic, tolerant Palestinian society.
Nusseibeh agreed, and said simply—and sadly: “It’s a brilliant idea. I wish our leaders would do that. Unfortunately, our leaders do not do everything that they should do.” Bhabha then asked me exactly what I meant, and I tried to clarify my question. I didn’t know how it could possibly have been clearer. I think he was just taken aback by it. Imagine that: asking a Palestinian state to uphold human rights!
Nusseibeh said something I had heard Rob Malley say the day before—that despite the violence, the two sides are getting closer to peace. But he did so in a wonderful narrative style, referring to a fairy tale in his book about “Mr. Seems,” the man who is not quite what he appears to be. Bhabha busied himself with labels, calling Nusseibeh an “existentialist humanist nationalist.” Nusseibeh just nodded, amused.
It was really such an amazing event that I leapt up to buy Nusseibeh’s book and get it signed by the author, which is something I have never done before. The Jewish Daily Forward wrote: “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.” I hope it’s more than that. I hope it’s a real way forward, past the reductionist radicals, and into the future.