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What is a Sari Nusseibeh For?

[Cover of [Cover of "What's a Palestinian State Worth?"]

Sari Nusseibeh, What is a Palestinian State Worth? Cambridge, MA: Harvard Belknap Press, 2011.

Among Palestinians there may well be a more fundamental underlying cultural or religious disposition to believe in the reality of death so strongly as to view life as being on a par with death, or even of far less value. (189)

Late-style Benny Morris? Thomas Friedman? That would be Sari Nusseibeh, President of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem and professor of philosophy. It comes in what purports to be, inter alia, a work of political philosophy, published under the aegis of Harvard University Press, and replete with the usual reductions of Gandhi and invocations of the powers of faith, love, and compassion to “move the world towards peace.”

“What is a Palestinian state worth?” – rather, what, and whom, is it for – has always been potentially a good question: especially for the refugees, especially in, say, Lebanon – and arguably never more so than now. If whatever it is that the Ramallah PA’s Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (latest election score: two percent) is willing to call a state – i.e. whatever Israel is willing to design for him that keeps the signifier void – does nothing for those in Lebanon, what exactly would be Palestinian about it? Another, historically-minded Palestinian philosophy professor, Azmi Bishara, had no need to wait for Oslo to fail to answer that question. He warned in the early 1990s that “‘the fetishism of the Palestinian state should stop. It’s a very young slogan. I have brochures from the PLO Research Center in Beirut from the 1970s speaking about the Zionist conspiracy of the Palestinian state. Or: "one of the things we should start to think aloud about is whether a Palestinian state is any longer a viable aim for achieving Palestinian self determination . . . Why is the option of Palestinian statehood passé? Because a Palestinian state that is the sum total of its collective bantustans will never be able to solve the refugee question.”

Palestinians, as Bishara said then and has repeated again and again since, have a need for “a state as an expression of justice, not for a state as an alternative to justice.” Worse, with the establishment of a state, “the urgency, the sting, that the Palestinian national issue had as a colonial issue would be taken away.” The most minimal historical consciousness, then – not to mention the most minimal moral one – begs recalling that "the Palestinian national movement arose as a refugee movement, as a movement of return. It is not a movement of 'self-determination in a state that occupies part of Palestine." Much less, of course, is it a movement of "self-determination" in the police non-state now developing in the West Bank: what Bishara called a Palestinian state "as an Israeli demand."

Nusseibeh’s answer to the question of why a Palestinian state might be passé lies elsewhere, in another pithy phrase: “electorally nondemocratic.” In full:

One future path that, I believe, deserves serious consideration by both Palestinians and Israelis is a one-state but electorally nondemocratic consensual arrangement: that is, a mutually agreed-upon conferral by Israel of a form of “second-class citizenship” on all Palestinians who wish to accept it . . . belonging to the state without being its co-owners – even while continuing to feel they owned the country . . . Simply put, in this scenario the Jews could run the country while the Arabs could live in it. (144/6)

There may be a reason why this sounds like straight colonial subjecthood. Or, as Nusseibeh has it, the ‘“second-class citizenship” model proposed above “in which people voluntarily partake of civil but not political rights” has certain “disadvantages.” These “would include . . . having to make do, psychologically, with being subjects rather than citizens in their own country” (emphasis, helpfully, his.) On his account, though, “several quite hefty benefits” would recommend this state of affairs (147-8). Having dropped any demand for political rights, refugees might be able to return - not, of course, that Israel would ever take the risk of allowing them to even then.) Palestinians could bask in the, well, biological survival that a Palestinian state to Israeli specifications might not be able to provide to its “citizens.” It is no surprise that the only tangible precedent for such a status that Nusseibeh can invoke here – the storied, nakedly colonial others being none too convenient – is a previous Israeli invention: the “permanent resident” status bestowed upon Palestinians in annexed East Jerusalem, who, recent experience suggests, persist in getting on little better today than their fellow Palestinians.

There is, ostensibly, a catch. Nusseibeh has a history as a provocateur, or rather as what he and his admirers self-admiringly think of as such. His bright ideas begin with his 1980s proposal that Israel annex the occupied territories all the way through his notorious stand against the right of return from the early 2000s on. There is, in anything he writes and says, a persistent presumption that he is playing a tactical game. Everything is always a “thought experiment,” free of the responsibility for negative consequences (even while it requires full confidence that there might be positive ones): a “ruse aimed at waking up the Israelis,” as he described his annexation proposal. If Nusseibeh is willing to have political philosophy that would shame an undergraduate published under his name, one hopes that he will tell us some day (not that it would matter) that it was in the selfless service of the Palestinian common good.

This book’s saner reviewers have given Nusseibeh the “credit” of calling his bluff – and of taking it for granted that it is bluff. (The less sane ones have, predictably, lapped it up unconditionally: the Jerusalem Post received "with great joy – and relief” the idea that “Nusseibeh would accept a demilitarized Palestinian entity with islands of control creating an ‘archipelago’ intertwined with a more conventional Israeli state,” concluding that: “This arrangement would address the Palestinians' need for basic civil rights guaranteeing ‘peace and stability without oppression.’” Hurrah!) David Shulman in the New York Review of Books deemed the proposal “disingenuous”; Elliott Abrams in Commentary called it "bizarre" - and it is no surprise that these should be the two poles of the crowd quickest to latch onto the book, since they are the only target audience one can imagine having the slightest patience with it. 

As ever with Nusseibeh, the main – the only – difficulty lies in telling faux naïf from naïf. If he indeed thinks of himself as playing a game, he is, more than ever, playing with himself. Less forgivable is the absence of any notion that his game, if indeed it is one this time, might slow down rather than speed up the geologically slow turning of the American liberal Zionist mind. But Nusseibeh is supremely confident that the best way to speed that process is to calm the very nervousness about apartheid that prompts it in the first place. (Apartheid needing to be, like the “demographic threat,” or the end of the two-state solution, always “around the corner,” never quite already here.)

Nusseibeh has been, for rather too long now for it to be incidental, every “liberal Zionist’s” favorite Palestinian – short perhaps, these days, of Fayyad. And it will not do to protest, as he occasionally does, that “of course, one day, in the near or further future, all this will be one binational state. It's just a question of how we get there.” To quote the great pop-philosopher himself, “one cannot both have one’s cake and eat it, as the saying goes.” The self-help continues:

Where the pursuit of individual rights is clearly an obstacle to the realization of the public good, and where, also, the public in question is made up of the very individuals who are claiming those rights – under such circumstances, the rational conclusion is that it is better for those rights to be forfeited . . . even for individuals themselves, the exercise of their rights may not be always for their own good, as in the case of smoking. (141-2)

Let’s repeat: self-determination is like smoking. You may like it; but if it proves bad for you, you shouldn’t inhale. Self-determination kills. Self-determination is addictive: don’t start. Quitting self-determination now may greatly reduce risks to your health. Self-determination causes fatal lung cancer. (That much is surely true, inasmuch as being deprived of self-determination sure makes you smoke: ask Gazans. And once you have fatal lung cancer, good luck getting Israel to let you out to treat it.) Get help to stop self-determination! Consult your (quack-) doctor, Sari Nusseibeh.

It will be objected that smoking is individual, and self-determination collective. But Nusseibeh knows of no collective whose qualities (dignity, this kind of thing, raised here – a line from Kant – only to be dismissed) are not trumped, in the eternal present, by the top prize of individual “human well-being.” Not only states but all forms of collective organization, susceptible to produce politics, are, in Nusseibeh’s jargon, mere “meta-biological entities.” And what, he may well ask, could a Palestinian meta-biological entity possibly be worth? Some may find preaching this particular brand of post-nationalism to the dispossessed “courageous.” Some may not. (For all this, needless to say, Nusseibeh must rehearse ad nauseam his infantile and infantilizing portrayal of the right of return as a literal desire to “re-create the pre-Israel past” – in his older formulation, to "return sixty years back in time," “a goal that is in fact impossible” – rather than precisely as the incarnation of, say, Edward Said’s “return to history” and historicity.)

Azmi Bishara famously made a discourse of equal citizenship (“a state of all its citizens”) into a uniquely terrifying answer to the question of Palestine for Israelis – the reason he now, hounded out of Israel, plies his trade on Al-Jazeera as, happily, perhaps the Arab world’s foremost public intellectual. Nusseibeh’s latest answer to the same question is neo-colonial subjecthood. His autobiography is full of protestations: ‘I am speaking tongue-in-cheek. Palestinians should only be playing games they can win.’ By now his tongue has drilled through his cheek to French-kiss Friedman’s moustache. They may deserve each other.

2 comments for "What is a Sari Nusseibeh For?"

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This struck me as an unduly tendentious and mean-spirited review, utterly lacking what in philosophy is termed a "principle of charity." It hardly does justice to either the depth or range of topics treated.

Characterizing discussions in the book as "replete with the usual reductions of Gandhi and invocations of the powers of faith, love, and compassion to 'move the world towards peace,'" are misleading and completely fail to capture either the letter or spirit of his reflections. In particular, the mention of Gandhi involves several ideas from his life and work (e.g., his understanding of 'Indian nationalism') that are not at all "the usual reductions.*

As a philosopher, Nusseibeh is willing to engage in "thought experiments," to think aloud about things others often thoughtlessly dismiss or ignore, to engage in counterfactual speculation, to think of the "big picture" in a way that is often neglected in the hurly burly of daily life and the exegincies of politics, to re-examine cherished assumptions or rigid thinking, and so forth and so on.

I hope to respond at length to this review at at Ratio Juris at some point (other commitments preclude a more timely response), so suffice for now a plea to readers to read the book for themselves and not be put off by what, alas and to use a cliche, is in essnce a hatchet job.

*I say this in light of having studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for close to three decades now (largely as an ardent amateur), in addition to being well acquainted with the life and writings of and about Gandhi. On the latter, for instance, see here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2011/01/life-and-thought-of-mahatma-gandhi.html

I can send my bibliography of titles (in English) for the Israeli-Palestinian to anyone on request.

Patrick S. O'Donnell wrote on March 14, 2011 at 09:05 AM
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Thank you for the reading list, which I hope to get to. One doesn't alas, though, need to know much if anything about Gandhi to find the uses Nusseibeh puts him to here distasteful at best - reductions like: 'If Palestinians were to take their cue from Gandhi... they would have to transform their vision of a free Palestine from that of a princedom to be ruled by Arab Palestinian 'princes' to that of a land of a free people living by moral values . . . In this light, a philosophy of renouncing the use of force means . . . renouncing our underlying assumptions of what the conflict is about.' (200-1) One either thinks these 'assumptions' (borne, for Palestinians, of systematic experience) worth 'renouncing' - or one doesn't. Using Gandhi to caricature a famously sophisticated nationalism trivializes both, no less than do Times versions of them.

Given his (recent) history Nusseibeh's essay can only seriously be read as aspiring to political provocation in philosophical garb - thus the tone of the review. It would be dispiriting if even the lines cited there merited charity from any but the Zionist quarters for whom the book is intended.

Tom H. wrote on March 24, 2011 at 04:18 PM

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