Jerusalem is the 'easiest' issue to solve, says Amos Oz

Oz and Sari Nusseibeh recall growing up in a divided city and propose a shared Israeli-Palestinian rule for its future.

amos oz 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
amos oz 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Author Amos Oz muses that if he had known Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh as a child, he would have tried to convert him to Zionism. He imagines that Nusseibeh would have smiled but would have been unswayed by the "militant" Zionist ideas that captivated Oz as a young boy. Oz, who has spent his adult life as a left-wing advocate, smiled at his own folly as he relayed this fantasy vision to a Jerusalem audience at the YMCA on Thursday night. In real life, the two men met back in the 1970s, and their relationship grew as a result of their joint participation in left-wing rallies and debates. Oz said his understanding of the Palestinians had deepened from his conversations with Nusseibeh, who is the president of Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem. Nusseibeh, in turn, said his newly published autobiography, Once Upon a Country, was inspired by Oz's love of writing and storytelling. On Thursday, the two men held a public talk, hosted by Seeds of Peace, to celebrate the release of Nusseibeh's book. A week before the 40th anniversary of Jerusalem's reunification, they reflected on their childhoods, spent in the capital city that has been one of the more divisive points of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and which has served as a literary setting for both men. In his book, Nusseibeh wrote that that he had been struck by how Oz's autobiographical A Tale of Love and Darkness was devoid of the Arab Jerusalem which had been Nusseibeh's first home. "He [Oz] knew nothing of the ancient cobbled lanes of the Old City or the Haram el-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, where Muhammad had touched down with al-Burak," wrote Nusseibeh. This was true, Nusseibeh added, even though he "was raised no more than a hundred feet away from where Oz lived out his childhood, just on the other side of the fortified no-man's-land established in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli War." Nusseibeh, who was born in 1949, recalled how he grew up in a city that was physically divided by a barbed-wire barrier. All he knew of Israel and Jews was the brief glimpses he could see across the no-man's land by the Mandelbaum Gate. On the other side, he now knows, was the haredi neighborhood of Mea She'arim. "The people looked to me very terrifying, standing on the street looking back at me, sometimes in groups and sometimes pointing their fingers," Nusseibeh told the YMCA audience. Oz, who was born 10 years before Nusseibeh, in 1939, said that the divisions between Jews and Palestinians in the city had existed even before the barrier was constructed. Occasionally, he and his father would walk through an Arab neighborhood, recalled Oz. There was fear and insecurity, but "no real dialogue, at least not between my family and the other Jerusalem." Looking back, he added that he was "aware of how my own childhood in Jerusalem was constricted because we had no real contact with the other Jerusalem, just a few hundred meters away." While many believe the future of Jerusalem will be one of most difficult challenges of a final-status solution between Israelis and Palestinians, Oz said he thought the answer was obvious. "The problem of Jerusalem is the easiest one to solve," said Oz. "Everyone knows that at the end of the day Jerusalem will be the capital of both Israelis and Palestinians," as part of an overall two-state solution, he said. Nusseibeh said that the Palestinians are looking to hear Israel take responsibility for the pain it has caused the Palestinian people. "It seems that it is very hard for Israelis to come to terms with this particular issue," he said. Oz said that Israelis, in turn, are looking to the Palestinians to realize that "we are real and we have no other place to go. The rest can be dealt with." Part of the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is that both groups hold the other responsible for centuries of oppression endured at the hands of Christian Europe. "The Arabs were victims of [Europe] through colonialization and imperialism, and the Jews through persecution and discrimination," said Oz. "Each sees in the other the image of their past oppressor." Shedding those past stereotypes is made difficult by the tangible problem of dividing a small region, Oz added. "Sentimentalist Europeans" are of the belief that the problem can be solved by bringing Israelis and Palestinians together for coffee, as if the conflict were a misunderstanding that would go away with some group therapy, Oz said. "Rivers of coffee...can't extinguish the tragedy of two nations rightly claiming the same country as their one and only homeland. What we need is not coffee, but compromise." He predicted that such a compromise would indeed occur. Oz prophesized that in the future there would be a Palestinian embassy in west Jerusalem and an Israeli one in east Jerusalem - short distances from each other, so that both ambassadors could meet each other for coffee.