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Khaled Nusseibeh, where are you?

Refusing to lose faith that Jews and Palestinians will meet each other in genuine dialogue

I was a twenty one year old junior in college when I met Khaled. We were both undergraduates at Columbia University in New York, where we took the same psychology course and became lab partners. My memories of him and our brief friendship are now quite old and likely distorted. Still, Khaled made enough of an impression upon me, a sheltered Jewish boy from New York City, that some recollections stand out with clarity.

I learned pretty quickly that the Nusseibehs are a very old, large and prominent Arab family from Jerusalem, though I do not remember Khaled speaking about his pedigree with anything but quiet, respectful modesty. During the year that I knew him, we would meet from time to time to study for class, mostly over coffee on or near the campus. I make friends easily and he was easy to get along with. A soft spoken person whose speech was inflected with a rich Middle Eastern accent, Khaled was polite and thoughtful, and he was happy to spend time talking with me. I recall that we talked a lot about Jews, Israel and Arabs. I grew up in a home that instilled in me tremendous pride and love for Israel and the Jewish people, as well as a strong commitment to multiculturalism. However, in heated arguments with friends and family, I never quite got the multiplicity and subtlety of perspectives on history, politics and culture, especially when talking about Jews and Palestinians. I remember that he tolerated my many poorly developed questions and ideas about the Middle East, for I lacked a great deal of sophistication about the world at that point in my life.

To this day I wonder with some shame if I was drawn to Khaled because it was somehow exotic and liberal-chic for me to add one of the supposed “enemy,” to my collection of friends. I would like to believe my motivations were more noble. Khaled was a really interesting person, and at twenty one I was looking to push myself beyond the narrow comfort zones of my Jewish life and community. Most important in our conversations, Khaled introduced me to his life as a Palestinian, exposing me to a personal identity that was simultaneously threatening and intriguing to me. After our class ended and we prepared to go our separate ways, we sat one more time over coffee. I remember saying to him with genuine sincerity, “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know someone who considers himself a Palestinian.” I cannot forget the look of mild exasperation on his face as he said, “No, Dan, someone who is a Palestinian.” “Oh, right,” I mumbled back.

I knew that Khaled lived in Amman, Jordan, and many years later I tried to contact him through a letter carried by a friend who was traveling there. However, I never heard from him again. I still reflect with some sadness upon my poor choice of words that day, that might have made him think, “What is it with you? Can you not grasp that other people’s experiences create indelible identities that you do not get to scrutinize, no matter how much you dislike them?”

I believe that my old friend still lives in Amman, though Google and Wikipedia searches reveal no more than words served up with a smattering of wishful thinking. I have learned over the years that people’s personal and group identities stubbornly defy the fact checking skepticism of scholars and scoffers alike. As I think more about it, my blunder that day paradoxically made a lot of sense. Palestinians are Palestinians and Jews are Jews precisely because we each consider ourselves to be so, based upon our separate but intertwined histories of homelessness, political aspiration, grief and hope. What complicates these identity politics is that we Jews and Palestinians deeply influence each others’ self perceptions because we are so enmeshed.

Palestinian rejectionists will not let go anytime soon of their hateful narrative that Jews have no claim to sovereignty in the land of Israel, a belief upon which they act with anti-Semitic violence. Our own rejectionists will continue to wield oppressive political power to try to deny Palestinians the legitimacy of their identities that only they should get to choose. In this dangerous setting, and as Egypt and Syria explode in Israel’s backyards, the newest round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians inches forward. As the new year approaches, we all ask if this is truly our last chance to make peace. I am not naive the way I was, yet I refuse to lose faith that we Jews and Palestinians will meet each other in genuine dialogue.

To be successful, we will need to honor our respective narratives of personal identity beneath the politics, as Khaled and I once tried to do. I truly believe that the time for teshuva – literal re-turning – is happening now. We are chipping gingerly at the threatening old narratives of mistrust and resentment, inevitably exposing tender nerves. Hopefully soon we will chant a new version of Ashamnu, the Yom Kippur liturgy confessing wrongdoing, that reflects our mutual will to reconcile and forgive. Perhaps soon, Khaled and I will meet at a Jerusalem cafe over coffee, beneficiaries of a new, shared respect and a genuine peace.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.