I was a twenty-one year old junior in college when I met Khaled Nusseibeh. We were both undergraduates at Columbia University in New York thirty years ago, and 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 young Jewish man 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, 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 voicing 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.
Khaled was a truly interesting, friendly and patient person, and as a young man looking to push myself beyond the narrow comfort zones of my Jewish life and community I enjoyed his friendship. Most important in our conversations, he introduced me to his life as a Palestinian, exposing me to a personal identity that was simultaneously threatening and intriguing to me. At the end of the year, as we prepared to go our separate ways, we sat one more time over coffee. I remember saying to him with genuine sincerity, "I have 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. Some years later I tried to contact Khaled, who lives in Jordan, however I never heard back from him. I still reflect with some sadness upon my poor choice of words that day that I imagine 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?"
Paradoxically, my somewhat simplistic observation to Khaled that day made sense. Palestinians, Jews, and all people are who we are precisely because of how we see ourselves, based upon our experiences, our narratives, and our accrued values. Through the power of the internet, Khaled and I are now in contact again, and we are preparing to restart our dialogue of respectful agreement and disagreement. So too, Israel and the Palestinian people are once again inching slowly toward possible peace in the midst of an extremely dangerous Middle East. Beneath the myriad negotiating details, the great challenge to both our peoples will be to transcend our mutual narratives of deep mistrust and hurt that deny the legitimacy of one another’s national identity. Hopefully, our peoples can start to move past seeing only “the Other” even if we are not entirely prepared to see a potential sister or brother as we sit across the bargaining table. Maybe one day, Khaled Nusseibeh and I will meet again in person over coffee in New York, Amman, Jordan, or Jerusalem, whose name means “City of peace.”
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY.
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