The Palestinian Gandhi

Sari Nusseibeh urges combatants in the local conflict to affirm their common humanity, choosing life over rocks.

nusseibeh521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While reading this book I showed the table of contents to two colleagues at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel project, a “Jewish Values Project” reconceptualizing modern Zionism. Chapters asking “What Are States For?” “Can Values Bring Us Together?” and “How Can We Move the World?” startled them. “Who wrote this?” they asked, worried that someone had “our” take. When I showed them the title page, they broke into broad, relieved smiles.
Sari Nusseibeh’s book What is a Palestinian State Worth? should be received with great joy – and relief. People seeking Middle East peace have long asked “where is the Palestinian Gandhi,” straining to hear a voice calling for civil disobedience, then peaceful reconciliation, amid the thuggish chorus championing violence and Israel’s destruction.
The spirit of Mahatma Gandhi permeates this book.
Invoking India’s prophet of peace, Nusseibeh teaches that “acts of goodwill infinitely outnumber those dictated by selfish greed and hate, which pit individuals and nations against one another.” He compares the parallel partition attempts as Britain’s empire crumbled after World War II in the Indian subcontinent and Palestine. Most important, Nusseibeh tries applying the “Gandhian imagination” to today’s Middle East, urging combatants to affirm their common humanity, choosing, as he puts it, life over rocks.
This thoughtful philosopher, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, seeks “a moral order based on human values” appreciating that “peace matter[ s] more.” Without finger-pointing, he challenges Palestinians and Israelis to envision a peaceful future freed from their parallel prisons of anger, fear and mistrust. He asks: “How much killing can a group suffer or commit before the suffering and the loss of life begin to outweigh the values on whose behalf the killing is being committed?”
Nusseibeh counters the cycle of violence with “the human imperative,” insisting that “respect for and preservation of human life, rather than violation of life in the name of any cause, should be what guides both Israelis and Palestinians in their pursuit of a just peace.” By emphasizing “core human values,” he sees just how confusing both identities are.
In one of many bold deviations from standard, simplistic Palestinian propaganda, Nusseibeh dissects Ahmed Tibi’s dueling identities. A harsh critic of Israeli rule over Palestinian Israelis, Tibi nevertheless serves in the Knesset and bristled when an Al Jazeera reporter asked him if his village, Taiba, should join the new Palestinian state he so ardently champions. “As a Palestinian, Tibi argued in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state,” Nusseibeh explains. “But as a Palestinian Israeli” he resents any attempt to sever his political connection to Israel.
In highlighting the Palestinian’s “jigsaw identity,” Tibi’s “Byzantine polemic” raises the book’s central question of what is a Palestinian state for? Taking a “utilitarian” view of states, transcending the nation-state’s conventional contours, Nusseibeh questions whether Palestinians need an army, clear boundaries, even their own currency. He would accept a demilitarized Palestinian entity with islands of control creating an “archipelago” intertwined with a more conventional Israeli state. This arrangement would address the Palestinians’ need for basic civil rights guaranteeing “peace and stability without oppression.”
“Ours is primarily a down-to-earth affair of longing to live normal lives in our homeland,” he writes, explaining that the suicide bombings of the early 2000s made him wonder “what the state we were fighting for is worth.” Valuing quality of life above all, Nusseibeh invites Palestinians – and implicitly Israelis too – to stop “looking upon their own patriotism as a religious or national cul-de-sac, and begin viewing it instead as an overarching affinity with the land and its multifaceted racial as well as religious history.”
These out-of-the-box arrangements require creativity, flexibility and trust.
In that spirit, although I disagree with some of his interpretations, Nusseibeh’s brief history of the conflict is far more balanced than the accounts most undergraduates get today in Western universities. Without citing them, he acknowledges points made by experts Palestinian propagandists target – or ignore.
Acknowledging the fluidity of the “nomad[ic]” Palestinian population and Arab identity before 1948 confirms the work of Joan Peters. Palestinian apologists have blasted her 1984 book From Time Immemorial for debunking the myth that every Palestinian in 1948 lived in the same village for centuries. And in blaming “the Nakba” on Palestinian “leaders’ mismanagement and bad planning,” Nusseibeh echoes Efraim Karsch’s important but overlooked book from 2010, Palestine Betrayed, showing how violent demagogues like Haj Amin el-Husseini undermined their own people’s dreams.
One great book does not a Gandhi make. When leaks about any Palestinian concessions trigger indignation, when popular uprisings against Arab dictators risk breeding Islamic radicalism, not democratic reason, when Nusseibeh is marginalized politically, his vision seems far-fetched. He is realistic enough to ask, in one chapter, “Who Runs the World, ‘Us,’ or Thugs?” Nevertheless, he updates Theodor Herzl’s Zionist cry “if you will it, it is no dream,” by channeling a Gandhian teaching, emphasizing “faith in human being as makers of their own destinies.” These days, simply dreaming, taking these first steps toward rethinking, is revolutionary, inspiring and brave.
Clearly, Nusseibeh has the words and concepts – in English for Harvard University Press. Can they be translated into Arabic and sold to the Palestinian street, then translated successfully into Hebrew?
The writer is professor of history at McGill University, a Shalom Hartman research fellow and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.