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In Search of a Higher State: A Short Essay Interview with Sari Nusseibeh


Sari Nusseibeh (photo by Dinu Mendrea)


In Search of a Higher State:

A Short Essay Interview with Sari Nusseibeh by David Garyan


October 8th, 2023


“Truth is white, write over it / with a crow’s ink. / Truth is black, write over it / with a mirage’s light.” So begins the fourth stanza of Mahmoud Darwish’s piece, “To a Young Poet.” With the very next lines, however, the poet raises the stakes: “If you want to duel with a falcon / soar with the falcon.” If Mahmoud Darwish is Palestine’s poet, then Sari Nusseibeh is Palestine’s philosopher. Born a mere month before the conclusion of the Arab-Israeli war in 1949, the future thinker was in a sense defined by a moment. Since the creation of Israel in 1948, he was witnessed his homeland change. Anwar Nusseibeh, his father, was shot in the leg that same year by Israeli forces. He subsequently lost the limb.


Fortunately, neither loss nor history went on to embitter the son. Having led numerous peace efforts and spoken out vehemently against the use of force, Sari Nusseibeh has not gone down the predictable road. Instead of trying to dismantle the state of Israel, Professor Nusseibeh has spent much of his life trying to understand Israel’s true aspiration. In his view, this has been a limited success. When asked what it is that Israel really wants, the philosopher seemed not so much tongue-tied, but rather frustrated with the nation’s unidentifiable essence: “answering the question ‘What is it that Israel really wants?’ for me remains something of a mystery.” A powerful statement, especially when it comes from a man whose family can speak of a 1,400-year presence in the Holy Land.


Professor Nusseibeh is a sensible man. He understands the nature of nation-states. Competing interests—along with real and supposed threats against their existence—have prompted even the most democratic ones to take heavy-handed measures. The US’s internment of its Japanese population is only one examples of this.


Thus, Nusseibeh’s frustration with trying to understand the country that holds his homeland is, to say the least, understandable: “These are questions that continue to bother me—whether we are thinking of Israel or of other places. There are two components to these questions. Does Israel (or any political organism) have a core identity and a determined path that allows the observer to predict its future? For example, one might say—next to other essential features it has—that it is a colonial enterprise, set to possess itself of what doesn’t belong to it, and to dispossess natives of what naturally belongs to them. One could then look around for concepts associated with colonialism—e.g., expansionism—that will allow us to fine-tune our diagnosis and draw help from these in an attempt to better read Israel’s future trajectory.”


Many contemporary philosophers and activists have rightly branded the country’s actions as “colonial.” Others have even referred to it as an “apartheid state.” About the matter, Professor Nusseibeh had this to say: “If it [Israel] is bound by its core identity to appropriate the land it conquered in ’67, then of course, one could dismiss its declarations about being ready to withdraw from those territories.” That is precisely what seems to be happening. Others argue that Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza runs contrary to the colonial, apartheid argument.


When looking at the facts closely, however, another picture seems to emerge. Not only was the enterprise of disengagement difficult from a logistical standpoint, it was even more gruesome from an emotional one. Many Israeli settlers—in Gush Katif, for example—refused to leave; they staged demonstrations; many broke down in tears, and some even referred to their own forces as “Nazis.” Eventually, authorities didn’t just accomplish their goals of disengagement, they also accomplished another, more important thing: They were able to make the rest of the world ask: “But at what cost was it all done?”


For better or worse, the government had made its point: The PR campaign associated not only with that specific disengagement, but disengagements in general, remains a telling story. Yet, there are more subtle issues besides land—the question of identity. Being a philosopher, Nusseibeh understands the complexities, challenges, and controversies behind the issue all too well: “the other component to this kind of question (What is Israel?) is whether Israel knows itself, i.e., knows itself to be exactly what its core identity defines it. This is a tricky issue. How do we define the ‘subject of knowledge’ here? The only measurable way for us to define this ‘subject’ in a ‘democratic’ system is by its elected governments and their actual policies. But here we come up against a difficulty that questions our initial assumptions: for many years after ’67, Israel’s labor leaders seemed willing to cede some conquered territory back to Jordan. This changed once the Likud came to power. Unless we take this change to be a mere con, what it tells us is that our definition of Israel’s core-identity was wrong: that its identity is not fixed in this respect but is changeable … for instance, that it can claim to be able to remain itself as a nation-state, even a democratic one, alongside a Palestinian state to which it cedes conquered territory. This, after all, is the creed of a sizeable part of its population.” The fact that Israel is a place where beliefs, opinions, and ideas are not homogenous is a trait it shares with many countries claiming a democratic essence. Israel, however, isn’t just another so-called democratic state—its borders also encompass the Holy Land. And so, even the seemingly straightforward issue of what to do with land (and how to use it) is something not universally agreed upon. While ceding territory may be unthinkable today, Israel is in fact no stranger to the act.


Years after its astounding success in the Six Day War, the victorious leadership eventually ceded the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Why? To make peace. The question thus becomes: Why are today’s leaders not willing to take similar steps? Perhaps, unlike Egypt, they don’t see Palestine as a formidable enough enemy. Nusseibeh seems to hint at this possibility. In his closing remarks to the question about what it is Israel really wants, he states: “But beyond trying to answer such a question, there is a yet more vexing one: perhaps Arab (military and political) failures have inexorably driven Israel (or its elected leadership) to become the voracious animal it has. If this is true, then we need to add another dimension to the problem of identity: that it is affected by the circumstances surrounding it, and therefore by the actions (or inactions) of its neighbors!”


But what about the past? The Jewish people have suffered a genocide (the Shoah). The Palestinians have suffered a catastrophe (the Nakba). I asked Professor Nusseibeh about the possibility of using this joint historical suffering as a starting point for a new “road map” for peace. His response: “I believe that the Shoah and the Nakba are incomparable, except by saying they are both causes of deep pain affecting entire communities. As an after-effect, the Nakba stripped the Palestinian people of their land. The Shoah stripped the Jewish people of existential security. The pains are thus generically different from one another. Does one party’s pain help them sympathize with that of another party? This is hard if the first party’s pain was caused by the second party. And it is also hard if the second party believes that its solution for existential insecurity consists precisely in that which they know is a cause for the pain of the first party. That is to say, their different and somehow mutually exclusive pains make it hard to use them as the stepping-stone for a reconciliation between the two. I think this leaves us with having to look elsewhere … maybe for pragmatic considerations affecting the lives of the two communities. I think practical wisdom will be needed here. As matters stand now the future does not bode well for either community. That future is what needs to be looked into, and it is perhaps future pain that must be avoided or minimized.” Sari Nusseibeh’s response offers neither optimism nor pessimism—only a sobering reality. Where do we go from here? Is Palestine destined to become the title of the brave professor’s book—“once upon a country?” Only time will tell.


************************************************

For the purpose of reference and transparency, the following questions and responses (exchanged via email during the period of April 2021 through October 2022) were used to craft the essay interview.


David Garyan: Ever since the creation of Israel in 1948, authorities there have continually instituted various measures to prevent the assimilation of non-Jews into mainstream Jewish society (mainly to ensure that Palestinians cannot participate in Israel’s political and civic process); the 2018 Nation-State Law may perhaps be considered the most outward manifestation of that policy, granting only Jews the right to pursue national self-determination in Israel, establishing Hebrew as Israel’s official language while downgrading Arabic to the level of special status, and, lastly, establishing Jewish settlement as a national value, meaning that the state can now openly promote such developments. It seems to be that Israel neither wants a two-state solution, nor even a one-state solution in which all citizens are considered equal, able to participate fully in all aspects of life—such approaches, whether we support them or not, have led newspapers like Al Jazeera and even an Israeli general to make the rather cliché yet emotionally charged parallel to Nazi Germany. While the comparison is rather inappropriate and more or less futile, it nevertheless makes sense to ask what it is that Israel really wants—and not just with regard to the Palestinians living there but also for itself, if not a two-state solution or even assimilation?


Sari Nusseibeh: These are questions that continue to bother me—whether we are thinking of Israel or of other places. There are two components to these questions. Does Israel (or any political organism) have a core identity and a determined path that allows the observer to predict its future? For example, one might say—next to other essential features it has—that it is a colonial enterprise, set to possess itself of what doesn’t belong to it, and to dispossess natives of what naturally belongs to them. One could then look around for concepts associated with colonialism—e.g., expansionism—that will allow us to fine-tune our diagnosis and draw help from these in an attempt to better read Israel’s future trajectory. If it is bound by its core identity to appropriate the land it conquered in ’67, then of course, one could dismiss its declarations about being ready to withdraw from those territories. But the other component to this kind of question (What is Israel?) is whether Israel knows itself, i.e., knows itself to be exactly what its core identity defines it. This is a tricky issue. How do we define the ‘subject of knowledge’ here? The only measurable way for us to define this ‘subject’ in a ‘democratic’ system is by its elected governments and their actual policies. But here we come up against a difficulty that questions our initial assumptions: for many years after ’67, Israel’s labor leaders seemed willing to cede some conquered territory back to Jordan. This changed once the Likud came to power. Unless we take this change to be a mere con, what it tells us is that our definition of Israel’s core-identity was wrong: that its identity is not fixed in this respect but is changeable … for instance, that it can claim to be able to remain itself as a nation-state, even a democratic one, alongside a Palestinian state to which it cedes conquered territory. This, after all, is the creed of a sizeable part of its population. So, answering the question ‘What is it that Israel really wants?’ for me remains something of a mystery. But beyond trying to answer such a question, there is a yet more vexing one: perhaps Arab (military and political) failures have inexorably driven Israel (or its elected leadership) to become the voracious animal it has. If this is true, then we need to add another dimension to the problem of identity: that it is affected by the circumstances surrounding it, and therefore by the actions (or inactions) of its neighbors!


David Garyan: Today, a word like Nakba does not capture the same cultural consciousness as Shoah. And yet, this is not a “competition.” We must look at both tragedies for what they are—unnecessary suffering. Do you see any parallels between these events, and could this shared plight perhaps serve as the foundation for a new “roadmap for peace?”


Sari Nusseibeh: I believe that the Shoah and the Nakba are incomparable, except by saying they are both causes of deep pain affecting entire communities. As an after-effect the Nakba stripped the Palestinian people of their land. The Shoah stripped the Jewish people of existential security. The pains are thus generically different from one another.


Does one party’s pain help them sympathize with that of another party? This is hard if the first party’s pain was caused by the second party. And it is also hard if the second party believes that its solution for existential insecurity consists precisely in that which they know is a cause for the pain of the first party. That is to say, their different and somehow mutually exclusive pains make it hard to use them as the stepping-stone for a reconciliation between them. I think this leaves us with having to look elsewhere … maybe for pragmatic considerations affecting the lives of the two communities. I think practical wisdom will be needed here. As matters stand now the future does not bode well for either community. That future is what needs to be looked into, and it is perhaps future pain that requires to be avoided or minimized.

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