Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Back on campus

Today I went to a luncheon and lecture at the Center for the Study of World Religions, part of the Harvard Divinity School. The speaker was Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds (Arabic for "the Holy") University in Jerusalem. Nusseibeh expressed hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. His talk was interesting; he said that many Palestinians have refused all contact with "the Other," but this policy needs to be reversed. The Other must not only be recognized, it must be embraced -- i.e., there must be dialogue.

I agreed with the speech, although I did not feel that it was realistic. Nusseibeh alluded to a survey that found that 60 to 70 percent of Palestinians disapproved of the recent suicide bombing outside a Tel Aviv nightclub. However, it seems that in the Gaza Strip, at least, the shahidim still have the support of their people, as documented in a New Yorker profile of Mahmoud Abbas.

It also seems that Nusseibeh's credibility has been questioned. He, too, was profiled in the New Yorker, by David Remnick; the one item in the article that sounds unsettling is his arrest, in 1991, on charges of aiding Saddam Hussein's plans to launch Scud missiles against Israel. (More recently, in 2002, he apparently expressed lukewarm criticism of suicide bombers.) However, Remnick notes that Nusseibeh has met with such Israeli political stalwarts as Shimon Peres and Binyamin Bin-Eliezer, and that it doesn't seem likely that these men would meet with someone hostile to their interests.

Many conservatives scoff at liberals for meeting with representatives of causes to which the US is opposed -- Jimmy Carter's chats with Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, for instance, or Bill Clinton's dealings with Arafat. Someone -- I think it was Peggy Noonan -- noted that you'll never see Dubya's crowd looking into the eyes of some of the dignitaries they meet (Laura with Jacques Chirac, Condolleeza Rice with Hu Jintao). Indeed, back in the 1980s, Dick Cheney called Nelson Mandela a terrorist.

Perhaps the standards for appeasement were set before and during World War II, when Neville Chamberlain coddled Hitler at Munich and Stalin took advantage of FDR at Yalta. The British should never have backed down to Hitler. Whether the US should have supported Stalin is questionable; from 1941 to 1943, the Soviet Union was essentially doing all the fighting in Europe.

I wish I had answers to the question of when does dialogue stop and hostility begin. I'm not comparing Nusseibeh to any of the dictators mentioned above. The Oslo process was well-intentioned. In the case of the Israelis and the Palestinians, where two people (4.5 million Israeli Jews, 1.5 million Israeli Arabs, and about 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) live in a land the size of New Jersey, the two sides should keep some dialogue open. Somehow, the cycle of violence must stop for everyone to live peacefully and equally.

Will it, though? Nusseibeh said that the peace process hinges on three elements: Israeli settlements, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the issue of Jerusalem. I agree with him on settlements -- Israel loses credibility when it builds them while saying that it is working toward peace. On Jerusalem, the city is so riven with ethnic and religious disagreements that agreement on it seems impossible. On the right of return, I disagree with Nusseibeh; if Israel incorporated the refugees (and it has been questioned as to whether they are all refugees), it would lose its status as a Jewish state.

What would help the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is if, somehow, their income level could rise, a situation that has happened for other peoples in exile, such as the Taiwanese or the Cubans of Miami Beach. I think both of these groups wouldn't mind staying where they are, and you don't see any activist group pushing for a Right of Return for either. Poverty may or may not breed terrorism. But it may foster a nostalgia for times past, when life was (or seemed to be) better. An increase in standard of living would remedy that.

In a completely different note: Harvard president Larry Summers has lost a vote of no confidence to his faculty. Medieval metaphors once again seem apt here. Larry looks like a new version of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Like Frederick, Larry probably considers himself a "Stupor Mundi" -- a "Wonder of the World" -- for his brilliance. Like Frederick, Larry has found himself locked in a struggle with an implacable foe; Frederick faced Pope Gregory the Great, who excommunicated him, while Larry has the Harvard faculty, who censured him. The struggle between Hohenstaufen and papacy led to the extinction of Frederick's dynasty; let us hope Larry can last at least a little longer.

Maybe Larry could borrow from the strategy of a previous Holy Roman emperor: Henry IV, who donned sackcloth and ashes to appear before another unforgiving Pope Gregory (VII) at Canossa in January 1077. Gregory had excommunicated him, and Henry's penance lifted the ban.

Come to think of it, this might make a delightful column. I'll see what I can do with it.


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