Abie Nathan was an Iranian-born Jew of Yemeni extraction who was educated in British India, flew for the Royal Air Force, bombed Galilee villages and the Egyptian Army on behalf of his adopted Israel during the 1948 Arab—Israeli War, and went on to introduce Israelis to the pleasures of the hamburger through his Tel Aviv restaurant, the California. In 1966, having made it his mission to end the hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbors, he flew a biplane over enemy Egyptian territory and landed at Port Said; there, he requested an audience with President Gamal Abdel Nasser and was politely deported. In 1973, Nathan founded an offshore radio station, the Voice of Peace, that broadcast from a ship “somewhere in the Mediterranean” in English, French, Hebrew, and Arabic to nearly 30 million listeners. Although twice jailed for having unauthorized contact with the enemy (including a meeting with Yasir Arafat), Nathan was unrepentant, arguing that “it will be impossible to heal the wounds, whether among the Arabs or the Jews, unless we decide to sit with each other.” In 1993, after the Oslo Accords were signed, he shut down the Voice of Peace, believing that his work was finally done.
If Nathan’s effect on the Arab-Israeli conflict was immaterial, fleeting, and impossible to measure, and if his compatriots looked on him as something between a joker and a knave, his example has nonetheless been significant to the Palestinian philosopher and sometime PLO official Sari Nusseibeh, who wrote about him in his 2011 book What Is a Palestinian State Worth? Nusseibeh has also written about another admirable figure who persisted in seeing the humanity of his adversary: Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Harvard-educated Palestinian doctor who lost three daughters to Israeli shells during the obliteration of Gaza in 2008–9, but who, like Nathan, continued to insist that Israelis and Palestinians needed to teach each other love and respect. Here was “a modern-day Job,” in the words of one journalist, who “continues to speak the language of peace.”
The better natures of Nathan and Abuelaish seem to flow into a course that has been cut by human reason; they exhibit what Nusseibeh calls a unified, or “conjunctive,” account of the way we behave. In opposition to the classical dialectic that pits the physis, the brutal and atavistic side of behavior, against the nomos, or reason-based laws, in Nusseibeh’s telling human conduct is informed by a single compound of gut and nous.
It’s easy to see how people whose political positions were formed by a yearning to reconcile the superficially irreconcilable would attract the attention of this eminently civilized member of the old Jerusalem aristocracy (a Nusseibeh has held the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on and off since the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 637). It’s also easy to see how they might be attractive to a philosopher and educator who has spent a long and ambivalently pursued public career with his finger jammed painfully in a dyke behind which the hate has accumulated. A man who has given his life to education and philosophical contemplation, on the one hand, and to the Palestinian cause whose essential justice has often been tainted by peculation and Islamist militancy, on the other, and who moves between churning East Jerusalem and the millponds of Harvard, Nusseibeh is someone who knows all about contrasts and contradictions.
In 2001, during a brief stint as Arafat’s representative in Jerusalem, Nusseibeh tried to smother the biggest contradiction of them all when he announced to a packed hall at the Hebrew University that Israelis and Palestinians were not enemies at all, but rather strategic allies: “Our mutual interest that the future be better than the present,” he wrote later, “creates an objective alliance between us.”