Seeing things anew in the Holy Land: Philosophy and the Mideast conflict

Can philosophy forge pathways through one of the world’s most divided hot spots? Two professors of philosophy – one Palestinian, the other Israeli – weigh in.

December 31, 2016 16:47
Avishai Margalit

Avishai Margalit, Israeli professor emeritus of philosophy at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (photo credit: EDNA ULLMANN-MARGALIT/WIKIMEDIA)

Looking over what used to be the old Green Line that separated Jordanian- controlled Jerusalem from the Israeli side, Sari Nusseibeh recalls how as a boy he would peer across the guarded wasteland into the Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim and wonder about the black-clad haredim who inhabited the other side.

“Sometimes the bearded creatures looked back at me,” he says.

Before the Six Day War in 1967, this area was known as “No Man’s Land.” When the barrier opened and was dismantled after the war, Nusseibeh remembers the eerie feeling he had while walking across to the Jewish side for the first time.

“This was a journey,” he says. “Later, I came to think of this as a journey that actually applies to all aspects of one’s life. It’s a journey that you have to keep taking on a daily basis.”

I had come to see Nusseibeh after stumbling upon a book by Carlos Fraenkel, a lecturer in philosophy and Jewish studies at McGill University. In his book, “Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World,” Fraenkel asks, “Can philosophy save the Middle East?”

If the question seems premature, the book hints at a less ambitious one: How can philosophy help people here see things anew? To try and answer that question, I sought out Nusseibeh and Avishai Margalit, two of the most distinguished philosophical minds in the land. Nusseibeh, 67, is a Palestinian professor of philosophy and former president of Al-Quds University. (He also appears in Fraenkel’s book). Margalit, 77, is an Israeli professor emeritus of philosophy at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Both Jerusalemites, albeit from two sides of a city that is still divided culturally (if not geographically), the two have been influential voices for peace.

They are also longtime friends. Both men studied at Oxford in the late 1960s and soon became, as Nusseibeh put it, “sparring partners.”

Margalit told me about his student days with Nusseibeh. “We used to meet almost everyday in the cafeteria of the Anglican Church… And we usually talked about politics and carried forth these discussions from the time he was a kid ‒ he was much younger.”

Uniting them once again would have been best, but in the end, it would be separate interviews, in English, over more or less the same questions.

While Fraenkel’s book served as a starting point for our discussion, I was eager to understand what “philosophy” means to them. We spoke about its relation to religion (being as we are in the Holy Land), and whether philosophical reason and faith can coexist. We also discussed whether philosophy is more than an academic pursuit.

Can it also be a way of life? What’s striking is not what the two professors think about the conflict, a topic we inevitably discussed. Both agree the occupation should end and a viable solution be found. But they see little enthusiasm on both sides for restarting peace talks and shaking up the status quo.

Rather, it is their philosophical differences that stand out. Such differences might help us better situate our own stances – and perhaps reconsider them.

Nusseibeh would start off the discussion, and on a perfect summer day I make my way to his home in east Jerusalem. After greeting me at the door, he quickly ushers me through to a verdant terrace in the backyard where he is having tea and pastries with a former colleague from Al-Quds University.

Through some bare patches in the wall of foliage surrounding us, I recognize the light rail line off in the distance that, today, runs along the main artery between East and West Jerusalem. A few moments later, family members arrive and soon Nusseibeh – casually dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and sandals – is caught up in play with his grandson. He fills up a kiddie pool and, as the little one frolics in the sun, we begin the interview.

We first talk about philosophy as an academic subject. Nusseibeh is optimistic that it will continue to attract university students despite the almost palpable buzz today for engineering and hi-tech training. Philosophy’s great strength, he says, is that it’s “the be-all and end-all of what human beings are about.” And humans are about asking questions.

“We are by nature inquisitive, and philosophy is the primary tool of inquisition. You can apply it to any field.”

Any field includes our next topic: religion.

And it is here where we spent a good portion of our time. For, if philosophy is to provide new eyes or a fresh perspective, it must somehow confront religion or work within it.

Today, many philosophers would stress confrontation. They see philosophy’s embrace of reason as antithetical to religious faith. The late Christopher Hitchens, one of the fiercest critics of religion in our time, said it best: “Philosophy begins where religion ends.”

This clash is also sometimes expressed in metaphor – “Athens vs. Jerusalem.” Athens represents the birthplace of philosophical reason, and Jerusalem, the cradle of monotheistic faith.

I was curious about where Nusseibeh came down on this divide and what it means for the present. To find out, we had to delve into the past.

Nusseibeh has dedicated a large part of his scholarly life to understanding philosophy’s place in Islam. He himself hails from an eminent Arab-Muslim family that traces its origins back 1,300 years to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

In this arc of history, he has paid particular attention to the rise and fall of the Islamic Golden Age (usually dated from the 8th to 13th centuries). This included the period when Maimonides, arguably the greatest Jewish philosopher, and Averroes, one of the greatest Muslim thinkers, were busy turning their respective faiths into “philosophical religions.” Both studied in Muslim- ruled Spain in the 12th century.

The age is commonly understood as a time when these and other thinkers fell under the sway of ancient Greek philosophy.

What made them receptive to this tradition and its ideal of reason? “THIS IS a conventional or classical way of looking at history,” Nusseibeh responds.

He explains that although some thinkers became devotees of Aristotle, Plato and other Greek authorities, it was not the Greek influence that gave rise to the birth of reason in the Islamic world. “It was – believe it or not – the Koran.”

The book was shocking enough to make people think.

“The Koran tells you: Look at the skies and mountains; you think the mountains are solid and fixed on the ground, but verily they move around like the clouds,” he says. Now, if you believe in the Koran and the fixity of mountains, he explains, you start investigating. “This inspired or unrolled a process of reasoning in different ways.”

What came of this process? Nusseibeh says it eventually died down for a number of reasons. Along with political shifts, a key one involved a growing dispute between religious scholars and philosophers over how reason ought to be applied. Philosophers such as Averroes believed their own Greek-inspired method (deductive reasoning) was superior to the analogical (or inferential) approach of religious scholars. The philosophers soon retreated into their own style and, as a result, became evermore isolated and irrelevant.

This is how falsafa, or philosophy, became a marginal affair in the Islamic world while religious scholars became the authorities on ethical concerns and other important matters.

In a recent article, Nusseibeh describes in more detail how these two “registers” – the philosophical-secular and religious – never developed a common language. Finding it today is vital, he argues, “if modern Muslim society is to set a healthy course for itself in an ever-changing world.”

In this and other ways, Nusseibeh seeks to churn up the soil of his own tradition in search of ideas for the present. He certainly looks elsewhere and is well-versed in Western philosophy, but remains committed to his Islamic roots, exploring his tradition in the light of its highest possibilities.

At the same time, he is not blind to potential pitfalls, acknowledging that religion often has been “misused by religious captains,” and that, perhaps, Karl Marx was right when he famously said “religion is the opium of the people.”

But Nusseibeh quickly counters, “You need to see whether, even if that’s true, it can be made untrue, not through just taking the religion and dumping it, but through taking another look at its role.”

Religion, like other forms of spirituality, he explains, takes into account “something inside human nature that yearns for something over and above, or beyond, the immediate solutions for immediate problems.”

So, he asks, “Why throw out religion? Why not look at it anew?” But, he says, it is important “to make sure religion is not a force of oppression; it should be a force of liberation.”

In this, philosophy can help. He insists that its reasoning method can and should be used to understand everything, religious beliefs included. However, one should try, he adds, “to subject religious issues to a reasoning methodology that is neutral.” For the philosophical method “must be secular, it has to be, it can’t be anything else.”

The remark suggests that, for Nusseibeh, philosophy can help renew perspectives by bringing religious and secular dispositions into dialogue with each other, even if the result is a serious clash of views.

He recalls such an episode about 30 or 40 years ago when a Muslim student at a small Catholic university in Bethlehem wrote a poem attacking God. The university, “being more Catholic than the Pope,” he jokes, eventually decided to kick out the student.

“This was the occasion that made me take to the pen,” he says.

Nusseibeh, with a colleague, quickly wrote an article in the student’s defense called “Freedom of Opinion” and published it in the Al-Quds newspaper. The piece generated a tirade of angry denunciations, including one from a sheikh who later became the mufti of Jerusalem. The debate continued when Nusseibeh published a second article that was followed by more frenzied responses. “This was good,” he recollects, “it was a philosophical matter being debated in the press and we were encouraging it.”

Moving on from religion, I want to know more about Nusseibeh’s own philosophical method and whether it extends beyond the classroom. I discover that philosophy is an “involvement” in his life that does not differ substantially from what he teaches students.

He encourages people around him to think about their lives from different angles or about their positions in new ways, not as “a priest or pastor,” but as someone who encourages thinking, not what people should think.

How can the approach be useful in this divided land? “It encourages you to come out of your crucible,” Nusseibeh replies. “By that I mean out of the context or framework – cultural, linguistic, religious – in which you find yourself or grow up.” If you can look at yourself from a bird’s-eye view, he explains, and entertain second thoughts, “you can get a long way toward bringing people who belong to different contexts and crucibles closer together.” The aim is “to look beyond the scarf, or kippa or whatever, to see the human being – that is what philosophy can and should do.”

I conclude the interview by asking Nusseibeh what philosophical lessons he has learned by living in a conflict zone. He pulls out a cigarette, lights it up, and exhales the smoke slowly before giving a response.

“I discovered that if I had problems there was no way to try to solve them by looking more deeply in myself and analyzing them,” he says. “Part of solving them requires me to look at the other side’s problems. I needed to go into the other, to explore what their problems were; and if I could help solve them, insofar as that might allow me to solve my problems, then that would be a good thing.”

A FEW weeks later, I head to the Van Leer Institute in west Jerusalem to meet Prof. Avishai Margalit. He spends much of his time there researching and writing. His office is in a low-rise building concealed by trees and greenery. The contemplative setting stands in sharp contrast to the honking cars and hubbub of the adjacent streets.

After greeting me, Margalit asks if I would like a coffee. As he prepares it, I float a quick question about a list of questions I sent him in advance. “So, they are a bit broad?” “Well, they are about everything,” he answers, “I’m afraid I won’t have anything interesting to say.”

By the end of the interview, however, Margalit left me with new ideas spinning in my head ‒ ideas that I think will be swirling for some time.

Unlike Nusseibeh, Margalit is less certain about philosophy’s future as an academic subject. As a text-based discipline, like the rest of the humanities, it looks increasingly out of place in a less text-centered culture.

“There is less and less a desire for common texts that people should be intimate with,” he says. Secular Israelis of his generation were very intimate with the Hebrew Bible but “now, this is almost all gone,” he laments. “Even the most basic texts, namely newspapers, are not even shared.”

And what about books and bookstores? Margalit remembers bookstores that used to be in illustrious locations like on Broadway in New York City. “Now, you can pay rent there only if you sell heroin, not books.”

Margalit concludes that with the decline of print – what he calls “the end of the Gutenberg revolution” – we are in the midst of something we feel is momentous, but cannot yet understand.

If he is uncertain about where the death of print is taking culture, Margalit is less so about what philosophy means to him, although he disavows the label “philosopher.”

“Either you say that philosophers are elevated and great,” he says, or they partake in a “curiosity of mind like stamp collecting.”

Margalit leaves little room for doubt about his own preference. “In Hebrew, if I say I am a ‘philosopher,’ that is very arrogant and pompous. Who do you think you are? That’s an elevated notion.”

Philosophy, by contrast, is a humbler undertaking. It is, he says, “basically a negative project of trying to lead life with as minimal illusions as you can, knowing that’s a hopeless project. But this is what you should aspire to – get rid of your crutches and walk on your legs.”

Margalit calls this “critical philosophy,” and uses it throughout his writings to puncture inflated notions of all kinds.

THE APPROACH is on display when I ask him if philosophy can be a way of life. He answers in the form of an anecdote about the German philosopher Max Scheler. Born a Jew, Scheler converted to Catholicism and became a charismatic scholar with a large following. One day, the local bishop invited him for tea and thanked him for sparking a Catholic revival. But then the bishop added, “We also heard at night you are to be found in many shady places. How do you account for that?” Scheler responded, “I am the needle of the compass, but not the North.”

So, Margalit clarifies, either one points toward the North or one must be in the North Pole and practice philosophy. “People now are becoming needles rather than being in the North.”

Merely pointing north or spouting off theories was not good enough for many ancient thinkers. They believed the philosopher must live philosophically or his thinking served no purpose. In this sense, philosophy meant ethical self-training in living well and preparation for death. Margalit calls this a noble project, but says just being interested in your way of life today is more of an indulgence. The social and political nature of the modern world requires us to be engaged more broadly with others.

This also means wading into religion, the source of meaning for so many. On this front, I ask Margalit his view on Nusseibeh’s explorations of Islam and its rational strands. First, he says there is much to learn from philosophies rooted in religious traditions because they remind us of human vulnerability compared to God. Secular philosophy, on the other hand, tends to put humans at the center, making them “supermen, rather than vulnerable men.”

When it comes to Islam, “Sari may be right,” he says. “The only thing that people will listen to in the Islamic world… is to be engaged with the tradition.”

Will this carry the day in terms of influencing people? Margalit wonders. “Who knows? We know very little about the influence of things.” Now, he explains, people can be killed for depicting Muhammad but at other times in history the most celebrated art portrayed the prophet. “It was routine. Nobody worried about it.”

Margalit raises an intriguing problem.

How do ideas catch? What suddenly takes over and gains attention? Why are some things forgotten and others resurrected? “All I am saying is that we are not terribly good at predicting. No one predicted [Donald] Trump, or that Sadat will come [Anwar Sadat, the former president of Egypt, visited Israel in 1977], this war or that war, the Six Day War. We are not good at predicting.”

This is when I begin to perceive the outlines of a more profound philosophical difference between Margalit and Nusseibeh.

It hovers over the issue of how culture or history changes. Does it move in a direction or mutate randomly? THE QUESTION is complex as well as Nusseibeh’s position. At one point in our conversation a few weeks prior, Nusseibeh touched on “the black swan theory.” The idea is that in between some recognizable patterns in human life one must always be on the lookout for the rare black swan or the unpredictable. “Anything can happen at any time,” he remarked.

In other moments, however, Nusseibeh hinted at a directionality of change based on human understanding. It became evident when he touched on what he called a “conservative wave” or closed-minded tribalism in this and other parts of the world.

“One has to wait it out,” he said, for “it will pass.” He then mentioned some of history’s low points: massacres, abject poverty, bloody revolutions, Nazism and Fascism, the Holocaust. “People are learning from all this and slowly moving ahead,” he said.

“Because my own view of history,” Nusseibeh continued, “is we have always had problems like that… and every time we come back again in order to weave a human network.”

Margalit is far more uncertain about such prospects. He describes himself as neither a pessimist nor an optimist. Pessimism is still a claim about knowing something – that the world goes in a certain direction.

“I don’t even say that,” he says. “Pessimism and optimism for me is the same fallacy, namely the prior probability of the world will make it worse, or the prior probability of the world will make it better. And the prior probability is somewhere in between.

Some things will go better and some will get worse. That’s about it. We simply don’t know.”

Margalit concludes the interview with an unsettling thought. “What is important in this picture of the world is the sense of contingency.

It is a contingent world through and through.” In other words, the world is a “huge cosmic lottery.”

“Stuff happens,” Margalit says, “with no direction or guidance.” The idea is very difficult for people to grasp in a serious way. “There are very few philosophers (Hume and others) who have tried to internalize it.”

For Margalit the question then becomes how do you find your way philosophically in a thoroughly contingent world? “This is what I call secular philosophy,” he says.

“You know something – most of it you don’t know – and what you do know is only tentative and will be changed. That is the kind of creatures we are. We try to make the best of it.”

Wrapping up the interview, I ask Margalit about the most instructive lesson he has learned from living here. He takes a moment to gather his thoughts and answers, “the importance of humiliation.”

The Palestinians are often humiliated and not treated as human beings, he explains. “In daily life we have created a situation of constant humiliation. That is unbearable for me.”

THE FRENCH novelist Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” In this sense, philosophy is a form of travel. And, as such, it helps us see things anew by inviting us to embark on unique voyages through the contours of philosophical thought in those around us, contours that form the basis of our words and actions.

Nusseibeh and Margalit were infinitely helpful in this respect.

Whether it was Nusseibeh trekking across “No Man’s Land” for the first time and repeatedly thereafter, or Margalit’s liberating sense of uncertainty about the world, or their willingness to look within religion and beyond it, their ideas were, for me, equally valuable and thought-provoking, to say the least.

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