Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

No sentient person could fail to be deeply concerned about the future of the Middle East and the talks now taking place at the White House. However, anyone who reads the two books I've just finished will not only be concerned, but will feel a profound emotional involvement that I imagine would remain throughout life. These two books present the two sides--Israeli and Palestinian--with great power and urgency.

One of the two books is Once Upon a Country, by Sari Nusseibeh. The title alludes to the author's love of fairy stories, but it's no tall tale. It's a full history of the Holy Land in modern times from the perspective of a leading Palestinian peace activist. Nusseibeh is a member of an Arab family that traces its ancestry directly back to the 7th century, a family so old and so venerated that to this day a Nusseibeh still holds the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The second book is A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Amos Oz, a leading Israeli political leftist and a first-rate writer in any language. His book is more memoir than history, more novelistic than Nusseibeh's and much more literary, but it evokes the events of the birth of the modern nation of Israel better than anything I have ever read. It's a masterpiece on a number of levels.

I read the first half of Once Upon a Country first, then set it temporarily aside and read all of A Tale of Love and Darkness. I then returned to Nusseibeh. This turned out to be an excellent way to proceed. Nusseibeh refers to Oz's book several times in his first half. The two men met when Nusseibeh contacted Oz (having read his book) and was invited to visit him in his desert home. They were dumbfounded to learn that they had grown up in Jerusalem only 100 yards from each other, but knowing nothing whatever of the other's world. After that meeting they became comrades in the struggle for peace, and Oz wrote a blurb for Once Upon a Country.

One of the advantages of reading the second half of Once Upon a Country is that it very clearly presents the "Destination Map" drawn up by Nusseibeh and a few colleagues, a response to George W. Bush's Road Map. It lays out the issues most disputed and calls for a two-state solution based upon sacrifices made by each side. Most impressively, it asks the Palestinians to give up the right of return--no small concession. The Israelis would yield East Jerusalem, end the occupation, and stop building settlements. There is a lot more to the Destination Plan than this, of course, but this gives the idea. Because of his positions, Nusseibeh is hated by factions on both sides, and for years has had to employ bodyguards.

Both of these men are extraordinarily courageous, in their different ways, morally and (especially Nusseibeh) physically. Both draw upon their respective traditions for inspiration and resolve. I found myself wondering if Nusseibeh's warmly compelling images of Islam weren't a bit rosy, but even if they are, he presents the faith in such a beguiling light that one can't help being impressed. How much did Christianity seep into his thought (he was educated at Oxford and Harvard)? He makes a couple of serious mistakes in referring to Christianity, but there was a story about him in The New Yorker a few years ago that I have never forgotten; he actually said to an uncomprehending David Remnick that the Palestinians should absorb more of the spirit of Christ. He hasn't regretted saying this; he quotes it again in Once Upon a Country. and strengthens it with a story about his mother (a most wonderful person) and her spontaneous compassion for the Other.

I recommend these two books--in tandem--with no reservations.