Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Two books, two perspectives: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from both sides

In order to get a grip on the greatest political tragedy of modern times, one could hardly do better than read two books from opposing perspectives. Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life by Sari Nusseibeh sets out the history of the conflict in the Holy Land from the perspective of a politically savvy (if not quite activist) philosopher-scholar from an ancient Arab family. He has been president of Al-Quds University, the Arab university in Jerusalem, since 1995 and, indeed, was responsible for bringing it into being as a creditable institution against formidable odds. His book is suffused with love for his people, the humanist heritage of Islam, Arab Jerusalem, and his family’s history (they have held the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since Caliph Omar “the Just” gave it to their forebear in the 7th century). At the same time he is relentlessly honest and forthcoming about Palestinian failings, follies, inertia, and self-deluded behavior.

From the Israeli side, A Tale of Love and Darkness is a memoir by Amos Oz, one of today’s great writers by any standard. The brilliant English translation from the original Hebrew is by Nicholas de Lange. Oz, originally surnamed Klausner, was the high-strung, astonishingly gifted son of parents whose relatives in Poland and Russia had been swallowed up by the Holocaust. Highly personal, the book depicts the struggle of the young Jewish boy, an only child, to free himself from the grip of his pedantic father, desperate mother, and smothering family by escaping into a kibbutz. A major event in the boy’s life was the birth of the nation of Israel and the ensuing War of Independence (1947-9). The reader will never forget the depiction of the night of November 29, 1947, when the UN (meeting at Lake Success, New York) voted to give statehood to Israel.

These two authors, as boys, lived 100 yards apart in Jerusalem but might as well have been on different continents at that time. When they were both adults, however, they met and became friends. Oz had become a famous writer and Nusseibeh “read everything of his I could get my hands on, partly because of his genius and partly because my Israeli friends had always spoken very highly of him as a man of integrity and the conscience of the Israeli people.” Nusseibeh contacted Oz and was invited to visit in his home. They met and forged bonds with one another in adulthood, and Oz provided a blurb for Once Upon a Country.

The two books could hardly be more different. Oz’s book is the work of a poet and novelist, a literary masterpiece by any standard. Nusseibeh’s is more workmanlike, offering a good deal more actual historical information. His book details his struggles on many fronts to persuade not only the Israelis but also, and especially, his own people that the way of violence and confrontation is fruitless. Academic life was his calling; he truly hated being a political activist, and yet again and again, though he was imprisoned for 90 days and many on both sides of the conflict sought his life, he returned to the political fray. He was declared “the most dangerous Palestinian alive” by the right-wing Israelis, and Hamas hates him, so that he has had to employ bodyguards for years. His story is therefore one of extraordinary moral courage, requiring more sustained quiet heroism than an action on the battlefield.

Both these men, Oz now in his 70s, Nusseibeh a decade younger, are dedicated to the seemingly endless struggle for sanity, rationality, and peace among Arabs and Israelis. They have continued to meet “at peace rallies, demonstrations, and debates between Palestinian and Jewish intellectuals” (Nusseibeh, p. 11) but with few concrete results as the struggle has become ever more vain over the decades. With a Jewish colleague, Mark Hiller, Nusseibeh wrote a proposal ("No Trumpets, No Drums") for achieving a two-state solution. It seems to a disinterested observer to make perfect sense, but it does not seem to have gained any traction.

Nusseibeh has believed for decades that the two peoples should be strategic allies, not enemies. He has persisted in this view, and in trying to persuade the Palestinians to give up violence. Once Upon a Country is an excellent introduction to the Palestinian point of view, causing the reader to care deeply about the Arabs and their hopes; at the same time, Nusseibeh is without illusions; his depictions of Palestinian haplessness, incompetence, corruption, and magical thinking are devastating.

Note: the seeker after interfaith cooperation should be aware: There is not an ounce of theology in either of these books. Both men love their respective religious traditions and speak with great respect for them; and yet neither one of them shows the slightest sign of believing in either YHWH or Allah. Indeed, they both go out of their way to show how secular they are. That is one of the baffling aspects of modern-day Judaism, in particular; many Christians find it puzzling that so many American Jews are ultra-loyal to their culture and community without seeming to have much commitment to, or even interest in, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.