Conversations with the Palestinians of 1967: Has Anything Changed?

Just after the Six-Day War, an Israeli professor met and took notes on his discussions with Palestinian intellectuals. They reveal as much about now as about then.

Palestinians in a car checked by Israeli soldiers in July 1967. Manuel Litran/Paris Match via Getty Images.

Palestinians in a car checked by Israeli soldiers in July 1967. Manuel Litran/Paris Match via Getty Images.

Aug. 29 2016
About the author

Menahem Milson is professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where among other posts he served as head of the department of Arabic language and literature, director of the Institute of Asian and African Studies, and dean of humanities. A co-founder and academic adviser of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), he is the author of, among other books, Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo.

A former paratrooper and intelligence officer in the IDF, Milson also served as adviser on Arab affairs to the Israeli military government in the West Bank and Gaza (1976-78) and in 1981-82 headed the civil administration of Judea and Samaria.

Editor’s Note: In the period immediately following Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, Menahem Milson, then a young instructor in Arabic literature at the Hebrew University, had occasion to meet and converse at length with Palestinian writers, intellectuals, and public figures—engaging them in debate over Zionism, Israel, and the prospects of reconciliation, helping them experience Israeli life at first hand, and in some cases forming enduring personal connections.

In 2010, Milson retrieved and reconstructed his notes from those long-ago encounters and published the results in the Israeli journal Kivunim Ḥadashim (“New Directions”). To read them now in English, supplemented in a few cases by memories of later interactions with his Palestinian interlocutors, is to invite reflection on what, if anything, has changed in Arab attitudes toward Israel over the event-filled decades since 1967, and what has remained all too obdurately the same.

The Debate That Never Happened


One day in April 1967, some two months before the outbreak of the Six-Day War, I was summoned to the office of the Hebrew University’s then-rector, Nathan Rotenstreich. A distinguished professor of philosophy, Rotenstreich had recently initiated a joint student-faculty discussion forum, and he wanted me to chair a panel on the status of the Arab minority in Israel. A committee would choose the question being debated and the participants, who were required to circulate the key points of their talk in advance to allow time for the audience to prepare.

The question assigned me as chairman was: “Can Arab Intellectuals Advance in Israeli Society?” The topic had been suggested by Robert Shershevski, a member of the committee, who had also asked to be one of the speakers. An expert on the economy of developing nations, Shershevski had been born in Warsaw in 1937. His father and grandfather were murdered by the Nazis; an only child, he had survived along with his mother and grandmother and came with them to Israel in 1949. An esteemed and popular lecturer, he was also involved in public issues, including that of the Arab minority.

Chosen as a second discussant was ‘Abd al-Jabbar ‘Abd al-Qader, a third-year Arab student in the department of history. The expectation was that Shershevski would criticize Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens and ‘Abd al-Jabbar would agree and complain about the injustices suffered by them. Rotenstreich urged me to find a third speaker who might be more mindful of the complexity of the situation. Drawing a mental picture, I imagined someone who wanted Israeli Arabs to occupy positions in the civil service and be accepted as full partners in Israeli society yet who at the same time was aware of the constraints imposed by Israel’s security requirements. But none of the individuals I approached was willing to participate; as one friend explained, “If I say Arabs must be integrated in Israeli society I’ll be attacked from the right for ignoring Arab hostility, and if I speak of security concerns I’ll be attacked from the left for justifying discrimination and injustice.”

After several attempts, I gave up in frustration. In the end we decided to make do with the two speakers, assuming that members of the audience would express other viewpoints.

In early May I met with the two speakers to draft the points that would be distributed in advance of the debate, then scheduled for mid-June. I maintained that it was incumbent on us to address the root question: namely, whether and to what extent Israeli Arabs could be expected to share the core values of Israeli society. If they preferred, the question could be framed in more general terms: to what extent can people who do not share the core values of a given society occupy positions of leadership and responsibility within that society?

At the meeting, I also suggested that we try to formulate a definition acceptable to all three of us. “Can we agree that Israel, as a Jewish state, has the right to exist in its borders, free of threats and territorial demands by its neighbors?” Shershevski proposed an alternative wording: “Israel, as the state of all those living in it, has the right to exist in its borders, safe from any threat and demands by its neighbors.” When I asked ‘Abd al-Jabbar whether he would accept that phrasing, he answered “No, it’s too early. Too early. Only nineteen years” (that is, since the establishment of the state).

What did he mean? That nineteen years was not enough time for Israeli Arabs to adapt to the situation that had been imposed upon them of living as a minority alongside a Jewish majority? Or that it was too early to determine whether Israel was here to stay? Shershevski and I did not ask him to clarify. I suggested that since we couldn’t agree on a formulation, we should at least agree that the question of consensus and common national goals should be addressed in the discussion. Of this and several other points we all approved.

On May 19, I finished editing the main points and intended to submit the document for circulation. But on that very day I was called up for reserve duty. Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, the president of Egypt, had moved his army into Sinai, and tensions in the region were soaring. On my way to my military base, I dropped off the document at the rector’s office, little expecting that my reserve duty would be lengthy and that in less than three weeks we would be at war.

The debate titled “Can Arab Intellectuals Advance in Israeli Society?” did not take place in June 1967. For medical reasons, Robert Shershevski had never served in the army, but in early June 1967, with Israel’s very existence seemingly at stake and reserve troops being called up, he volunteered, explaining to friends that “Even one who hates war must defend his home.” He asked to join the reserve unit in which some of his academic colleagues were serving; the poet Haim Guri, who was company commander, agreed and gave him a gun. On the first day of the war he was killed by the bullet of an Arab sniper.


A Friendship and a Dead End


I met Raja al-‘Issa for the first time within days of the end of the June 1967 war. Several IDF units in need of offices were being housed in abandoned Arab consulates, and mine received the quarters of the Arab League delegation, which occupied half of a small, two-apartment building in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The other apartment was occupied by one of Arab Jerusalem’s most distinguished Roman Catholic families. The head of that family, Emil Safiyeh, had been a member of the Jordanian parliament; his brother Anton served as secretary of the Jerusalem municipality under Jordan; the youngest son, ‘Afif, then studying abroad, would become a member of the PLO and later serve in the diplomatic corps of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

I met the Safiyeh family a few days after we settled in. The relationship, at first merely polite, soon developed into a warm friendship. When Emil Safiyeh heard that I was in the field of Arabic literature and interested in purchasing Arab books, he offered to introduce me to their friend Raja al-‘Issa, a journalist and bookstore owner then in his mid-forties.

The name al-‘Issa was familiar to me; Raja’s father, ‘Issa al-‘Issa, had been the founding owner of the Arabic newspaper Filasteen, established in Jaffa in 1911. After his death in 1950, Raja took over as editor of the paper, which had since moved to Jerusalem. In March 1967 the Jordanian government, then tightening its supervision of the press, shuttered the paper.

Since Raja’s store catered mainly to tourists, I didn’t find there anything I was looking for, but this was an opportunity to become acquainted. Naturally, we discussed “the situation,” something that many Jews and Arabs did in the summer and fall of that year. In one of our later conversations, while I was giving him a tour of the Hebrew University campus in Givat Ram, he asked if I thought Israel would ever be willing to give up the territories it had occupied.

As it happened, I had recently spoken about this very issue with one of my colleagues, who had rejected out of hand the notion of giving up any part of Judea and Samaria. Though a religious man, this colleague did not cite the sanctity of the land of Israel or our historical connections to the biblical cities of Shiloh and Anatot; rather, he invoked security considerations, while also asserting that in any case the Arabs were opposed to holding peace negotiations. Suppose, I pressed him hypothetically, that they were in fact willing to negotiate and that our security were guaranteed by adequate measures like border adjustments, disarmament of the restored Arab territories, and so forth. “In that case, would you be willing to give up Hebron and Shechem?” He objected that my assumptions were far-fetched; when I insisted, he replied: “No, we cannot give up Hebron and Shechem.”

When Raja put his question to me, I couldn’t help being reminded of this conversation. I knew my colleague represented a sector of Israeli society that couldn’t be ignored, but I believed it was a minority, and that the number of those opposed to territorial concessions would shrink considerably if a substantial shift were to occur in the Arab position. I answered Raja that, in my opinion, if the Arabs were indeed to recognize the state of Israel and agree to negotiate, Israel would be willing to give up territory in return for peace.

Raja was skeptical. He also commented that, if the Arabs were smart, they would have put this proposition to the test, thereby exposing Israel as an imperialistic nation interested in land and not peace. I said: “I wish you would put us to the test. I am sure of the opposite, and Arab leaders have only to recognize Israel to discover how willing Israelis are to make concessions. But if you really think this is a clever tactical move that could trap us in a corner, why don’t you make it?” He answered: “Menahem, the problem is that we are simply incapable of making clever moves.”

This conversation took place before the postwar meeting of Arab states in Khartoum that issued a declaration of three categorical negatives: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.

In late September, Raja and I met in my home. Several petitions opposing Israel’s unification of Jerusalem had been circulated, signed by prominent Jerusalem figures. Raja was one of the signatories. A few days before our meeting, a terror bombing had taken place in a moshav in central Israel, killing a small boy. Raja and I spoke of mutual fears and distrust, and agreed on the need for greater understanding between the two sides.

In this context, I said it would be good if he and others signed a public statement condemning the attack. “It would increase sympathy for your position among Israelis and improve the atmosphere.” Raja looked at me, seemingly unable to grasp my meaning. Clarifying, I added: “Even if we differ in our national goals, I fail to see why you won’t denounce a terrorist action in which a child was murdered.”

Raja said: “It was indeed a very bad thing.” So I repeated, “In that case, why not condemn it publicly?” He replied: “I understand what you mean, but we cannot do this. We are under occupation, and that is why we cannot do this.”

I disagreed. Even in times of national struggle, criminal acts could be and had to be condemned. During the British Mandate, the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community, had publicly and formally denounced terrorist actions perpetrated by Jews, and most of its leaders distanced themselves from the small groups that carried out such actions. Couldn’t Palestinian Arabs take the same path? “No,” Raja repeated, “under occupation we cannot do this.” The entire notion appeared foreign to him.

After a while, we met again, this time in the Safiyeh family home. Meanwhile Raja had traveled around Israel visiting various cities and towns, and he said that what he saw had impressed him. Israel was very different from how he had imagined it. He added:

I believe there are some Israelis we could get along with. I can divide Israelis into three kinds. The good ones are people like you, Menahem: educated native-born Israelis. You resemble us in many ways, and we can get along with you easily. The second kind are less similar to us, but they are nice people, too: those who have come from America and Western Europe. They are liberal, civilized, and educated, and we can get along with them as well. But the third kind is the worst: the Middle Eastern Jews, especially those from North Africa. They are dirtier than our peasants.

He continued: “Yes, there are people among you we could get along with. I think the best solution is to have a joint country and manage it together, like Lebanon. Would that be acceptable to you, Menahem?”

He had spoken in his usual jocular tone, and was obviously speaking as a friend: “With you and those like you we can get along. You are like us.” It was meant as a compliment, and I had to respond politely. But at the same time he was expressing views that were abhorrent to me. I needed to respond immediately, and I chose an earnest reply over a friendly one. Though I wondered how he could present Lebanon as an example of different ethnic and religious groups living in peace, while ignoring the perpetual instability of the regime there and apparently forgetting the civil war of 1958, I had more important reasons to oppose his suggestion. Not only did the idea of turning Israel into another Lebanon negate its reason for being, it was also contrary to my perception of what any state was meant to be: a framework for a national community.

I said: “I cannot accept your proposal. I am fond of you, you know that. But you regard the Middle Eastern Jews as dirtier than your peasants, and I do not share your view of either the Mizraḥi Jews or the Arab peasants. We Jews are one people, we are responsible for each other and wish to build one society. We must develop our society, and you must develop yours. If you see your peasants as uneducated and uncivilized, you have much work to do in your own society.”


Confrontation in Boston


In the fall of 1968 I was on sabbatical at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. That year several other Israelis were also on leave at Harvard, among them two fairly close friends of mine: a historian from Tel Aviv University and a professor of education from Jerusalem. Quite often at the center we found ourselves called upon to defend the Israeli position in debates with Arabs or pro-Arabs.

One day I received a call from Ben Halpern, a prominent American Jewish academic and long-time Zionist thinker and historian. The World Affairs Council in Boston had invited him to debate Fayez Sayegh, a member of the PLO. Sayegh, a Christian born in Syria and raised in Tiberias, was considered the most eloquent and effective of PLO spokesmen. Since the terror organization held no recognized status in the U.S. at the time, Sayegh acted as a member of the Kuwaiti delegation to the UN. His command of English, his education, and his rhetorical skill made him an adversary whom Jewish speakers were reluctant to face.

Back then, the PLO policy was to refuse to appear in public with Israelis, which is why the council had approached the American Halpern to represent the Israeli side. Ben was wondering whether to accept. I thought it would be a mistake, lending the event a semblance of fairness that it clearly lacked. In my view, the organizers should be told that if they wanted a proper representative of the other side, it had to be an Israeli. Ben accepted this, and later informed me that the council had agreed. It was now up to us to decide who would go on our behalf; we settled on my friend the historian from Tel Aviv University.

But then the council informed Halpern that Sayegh wouldn’t debate an Israeli after all, or, as they put it, that he “preferred to give a lecture.” But if we wanted to speak with him, they’d be happy to arrange a meeting at a private dinner before the lecture. Both of my colleagues were excited at this invitation, seeing it as an important opportunity to exchange views with a prominent PLO spokesman. For myself, even if the dinner were to take place, I felt it would be of little significance. Fayez Sayegh was indeed a prominent figure, but only in the PLO’s propaganda machine. His job was to win public-opinion points for the Palestinian cause; he was not part of the inner circle of decision-makers, and a private conversation at dinner was no substitute for the opportunity to pose questions to him after his lecture. I recommended that we prepare ourselves for that.

As part of my own preparation, I remembered an Arabic pamphlet, “A Handful of Fog,” that Sayegh had written three years earlier, harshly attacking Tunisian President Bourguiba for urging Arab leaders to recognize Israel (albeit within the 1947 borders specified in the UN’s partition plan). I assumed that in his Boston address Sayegh would take a completely different line, tailored to the PLO’s then-favored public position advocating “a democratic Palestinian state in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews would live together.” The formula, adopted in 1968, was fairly effective as a propaganda ploy, especially when addressing liberal Western circles.

Several days before the lecture, we received another phone call from the council informing us that the dinner was off: “Dr. Sayegh would have no time before the lecture.” Instead, it was suggested that we meet him for coffee afterward. Although disappointed, my colleagues were still looking forward to the prospect of a meeting, and urged that in the question period we refrain from asking anything contentious lest we ruin the mood for later. I took the opposite view. The purpose of Sayegh’s visit was to influence public opinion, and we should not be deterred from asking him difficult questions at the public lecture.

My friends refused to change their minds, but also didn’t like my suggestion that we sit apart at the lecture so that any argument I might have with Sayegh would not compromise their chance of meeting him later. With the matter unresolved, I left for the lecture with a copy of “A Handful of Fog” (which I had happily found at the Harvard library) and the comments I’d prepared. As we arrived, we were met by an apologetic representative of the council: the meeting after the lecture had to be canceled since Dr. Sayegh was in a hurry to return to New York. This solved our dilemma.

Some one-hundred people filled the small lecture hall, and we could find seats only at the back. About a third of the audience was made up of Arab students and supporters of the Arab cause, members of Quaker “peace” organizations like American Friends of the Middle East and the American Friends Service Committee, and radical Jewish disciples of Noam Chomsky. Another third were pro-Israeli American Jews, and the rest elderly Bostonians hopeful of peace in the Holy Land.

Sayegh’s lecture was brilliant. He spoke of the Palestinians’ suffering and the need to restore their stolen rights and property. Zionism he described as an evil and cunning force that had uprooted the Palestinian Arabs from the land in which they had been living since antiquity. According to him, the ancient Canaanites and Amorites were Arabs. As for the solution, he proposed, as I anticipated, a unified state of Palestine in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews would live peacefully side by side.

The pro-Israel members of the audience were baffled and frustrated. They knew Israel was not the epitome of evil and the Palestinians were not innocent victims, but they lacked either the necessary facts or the skill with which to counter an experienced polemicist like Sayegh. Raising her hand, one woman asked whether there was room to consider the rights of Jews as descendants of Abraham. Sayegh dismissed the question with contempt. “Here is an example of the irrational Zionist approach that seeks to base the rights of the Jews in Palestine upon the ancient history of 4,000 years ago, while denying the right of people who have maintained a steady presence in the land for thousands of years.” Moreover, he added, “Abraham is the forefather of the Arabs, too, so if being descended from Abraham is grounds for any claim, it is also grounds for the Arab claim.” The woman’s face fell, and with it fell the spirits of most pro-Israel members of the audience.

I raised my hand. The moderator, Father R.J. McCarthy, formerly of the Jesuit University of Baghdad (whose faculty had been expelled from Iraq by the Ba’ath regime), said: “Could you please approach the stage so people can hear you?” Gladly complying with his request, I broached my question. Having heard the solution proposed by Dr. Sayegh, I said, I wished to compare it with another solution presented in the pamphlet I was holding in my hand. I quoted from it in translation: “There can be no stable peace in the Middle East until all of Palestine is Arab once again”; “what was taken by force can only be restored by force”; and several other statements in the same vein. Then I noted the radical distinction between Sayegh’s “interesting solution of a democratic Palestine in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews will live together in peace” and the sweepingly belligerent and rejectionist position expressed in the pamphlet. “The author of this pamphlet,” I said, “is none other than our lecturer today, Dr. Fayez Sayegh, and I would like to ask him if he can explain the contradiction between his two solutions. Alternatively, if he has changed his mind and no longer believes that all of Palestine must become Arab again, we will be happy to hear it.”

The atmosphere in the room changed. The Jews began to smile while the Arabs and pro-Arabs looked dismayed. Standing up to reply, Sayegh was pale, but his answer was unhesitant: “I wrote that pamphlet in one of my more poetic moments; it was written in a poetic mood. As everyone knows, Arabic is a poetic language, so I had to write my statements in the spirit of the language.” That was the whole of it, whereupon he whispered something into the ear of Father McCarthy, who announced that due to time constraints the speaker would answer no more questions, and called the evening to a halt.




Hazem al-Khalidi


Hazem al-Khalidi and I met for the first time in the fall of 1968. My friend and colleague David Farḥi, who at the time was serving in the military government in the West Bank, arranged a meeting between members of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Asian and African Studies and several public figures from east Jerusalem. The meeting took place one evening at the home of the institute head, Gabriel Baer, and included Uriel Heyd, Haim Blanc, myself, and Farḥi, who brought the Arab guests. Of the latter, the most prominent was Anwar Nusseibeh, a member of a respected and wealthy family in Jerusalem; among his senior positions in the Jordanian government, he had been minister of defense, minister of education, ambassador in London, and governor of the Jerusalem district. His brother, Hazem Nusseibeh, was at the time and for many years afterward Jordan’s ambassador to the UN.

In those days, Anwar Nusseibeh held no official position but practiced law and oversaw the family’s affairs, including a construction company managed by his younger brother Muhammad, who was also present at the meeting. A civil engineer by profession, Muhammad had been a major in the Jordanian army. Also attending were Muhammad Abu Zuluf, the editor of the newspaper al-Quds, Khalil Hammouri, a businessman originally from Hebronand Hazem al-Khalidi, head of Jordan’s tourism bureau in the West Bank.

The meeting was typical of the atmosphere during that period. Not only scholars of the Middle East and Islam like ourselves but also many others in the Israeli intelligentsia were eager to encounter Palestinian figures to see what might be done to improve relations and attain peace. On this occasion as on others, the Israeli side was represented largely by professors; although we would have been happy to meet with our academic Arab counterparts, there were as yet no institutions of higher learning in the West Bank. Western-educated Palestinian professors were instead to be found in the universities of Amman, Beirut, Riyadh, and other Arab capitals, or were pursuing careers at Western universities, especially in the U.S. and Britain.

As the senior member of the Arab group, Anwar Nusseibeh was also the first to speak. The people of Jerusalem and the West Bank, he said, could not negotiate with Israel because they were Jordanian citizens who now found themselves under Israeli occupation. Since the Arab states were the parties fighting Israel in the Six-Day War, they were the ones to whom Israel should turn. With these words, he effectively ruled out any discussion of political issues right from the start.

With politics off the table, our academic pursuits became the topic of conversation. We proceeded to describe the research and teaching activities of our institute. Some of our guests listened with interest, others out of politeness. Among the former, Hazem al-Khalidi was visibly intrigued and asked many questions. Several weeks later, he invited the Israelis to visit him at home. None of the other Arabs was present.

Hazem al-Khalidi lived in a humble rented apartment in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. He told us that, having lived abroad for many years, he had returned to Jerusalem only some eighteen months before the Six-Day War. For some of his time abroad he had worked for Shell Oil in England. He was very proud of his family lineage, descended, he said, from Khalid ibn al-Walid, a great military leader of early Islam who had been given the name Sayf Allah (Sword of Allah) by the Prophet Muhammad.

Hazem was imposing in appearance: tall, wide-shouldered, and solid, with dark skin, a large head, and a high brow. As a sign of his many years abroad, he was more comfortable discussing politics and culture in English than in Arabic. That Israeli academics were interested in Arabic and Islam made a deep impression on him, and he was curious to know more about how the heritage of his people was perceived by Jews and Israelis. Arabic and English books mentioned in our conversation drew passionate comments from him , and he gladly accepted copies of academic papers to read. More than others in his social class, he seemed eager to meet Israelis and learn about Israeli society. Indeed, he would not only try to learn Hebrew but even enrolled in an ulpan, learning the language alongside new immigrants and students from abroad.

Like most members of his social class, Hazem was not a devout Muslim. He did not pray, did not fast on Ramadan, and did not refrain from drinking alcohol. Yet Islam for him was an identity and a source of pride, and he regarded Islam and Arabism as inseparable. A champion of Arab unity, he believed that the division of the Arab world into separate states was an artificial reality imposed by the colonial powers. As the most prominent member of the Khalidi family in Jerusalem, he regarded it as his duty to represent Arabism and Islam to foreign guests. According to him, Arabism was the embodiment of honor, hospitality, and courage; as for Islam, its essence was a spirit of tolerance.

Hazem had served in the British army during World War II and for a while thereafter, eventually attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he had been in charge of bringing aid to drought-stricken areas in the southern Arabian Peninsula. In 1948, he became head of the military academy established in Syria to train officers for the Palestine Rescue Army. During Israel’s war of independence, he briefly commanded the Palestinian forces that battled the Palmaḥ near the Lebanese border. In 1967, several months after the Six-Day War, he would meet General Reḥavam Zeevi, the commander of the Israeli forces he had fought twenty years earlier, and they toured the battlefield together.

As our friendship grew, we visited each other’s homes with our families; his younger daughter was only a year older than our girls. Learning I was from Haifa, he said he wanted to visit the city, which was also his wife’s birthplace. We scheduled the trip for the first day of Passover, which I planned to spend with my family at my mother’s home. The Khalidis joined us there, and after a meal I took them on a tour of the city. Mrs. Kahlidi asked to see the house on Stanton Street where she had been born and lived until 1948. We came to the street, now called Shivat Tsiyon (“Return to Zion”), and stopped outside the house for an interlude that was fraught with emotion and tension. After the visit, Khalidi wrote my mother a letter of thanks, in Hebrew.

Despite his lineage—he used to stress that his was “the most aristocratic family in Jerusalem”—Hazem al-Khalidi was not integrated into the Jerusalem elite. Over time I came to realize how isolated he was, his many years abroad counting against his being accepted by the elite as one of their own. Not being a businessman, he was also much less wealthy than most of them. And then there were his personal traits. As one who had fought in 1948, he was contemptuous of those (that is, most of the Jerusalem elite) who had not. No less unusual in a system where bribery was the norm was the honesty of his conduct as a Jordanian official.

Khalidi had been appointed head of the Jerusalem branch of Jordan’s tourism office at the behest of then-Jordanian prime minister Wasfi al-Tal, who decades earlier had been an instructor at the military academy in Syria under Khalidi’s command. As much as Hazem was beholden to this tie with al-Tal, it also created a burden since the latter was decidedly unpopular with the West Bank Palestinians. Following the events known as “Black September,” when al-Tal played a major role in ousting the PLO from Jordan, the connection had to be shaken off. A year later, PLO operatives assassinated Wasfi al-Tal in Cairo.


It remains to be said that although Khalidi was an individualist in many senses, when it came to the Arab-Israeli conflict he was conformist to the core. Even after coming to know Israel and after meeting and befriending many Israelis, he continued to reject the notion of Israel’s existence as a sovereign state. For me, three incidents clarified this aspect of his persona.

In early 1970 I published in Davar newspaper an article titled “The Arab Position and Our Attitude toward It.” Analyzing the cultural and social components of the Arab position, I then explained the position I thought Israel should adopt in turn: namely, recognizing the existence of a Palestinian people and proposing a solution based on partition and the establishment of a Palestinian entity linked to Jordan. Shortly afterward, Mahmoud Abu Zuluf asked my permission to publish the article in Arabic in al-Quds. Of course I readily agreed. Khalidi called to congratulate me on its appearance, and was full of praise for what he called the “academic part”: that is, my analysis of the Palestinian position, with every detail of which he said he agreed. But as for the solution I proposed, based as it was on territorial compromise, this he rejected out of hand. He did not even leave room for discussion.

Several years later, I attended a talk Khalidi gave to a group of American professors, describing the strategic situation in the region as he saw it. Both sides had sources of strength: Israel’s strength derived from technological superiority and better organization, the Arabs’ strength from their numbers and their oil wealth. Asked by one of the Americans what solution would be acceptable to the Palestinians, he did not reply immediately but first clarified that he was speaking as a private individual and off the record. I was used to hearing such cautious disclaimers from Arab speakers even when the views they expressed were not in any way bold or unusual.

Then Khalidi said that he believed the Arabs could recognize Israel and make peace with it if it withdrew to the “partition borders.” Someone asked: “You mean the borders specified in the UN partition plan of 1947?” “No,” said Khalidi. “I mean the original partition plan.” Asked to clarify, he explained that he meant the British partition plan proposed by the Peel Commission of 1937. According to that plan, the Jewish state was to occupy a third of the territory assigned to it in the 1947 partition plan. When the American expressed amazement, he relented somewhat: “Perhaps some border between the 1937 partition plan and the one of 1947,” he conceded.

“And what about all the Jewish settlements that already exist in the territory that, according to your plan, will be under Arab sovereignty? Will the Jewish settlers be allowed to remain in their settlements and their homes?” Khalidi answered: “No, they will have to be evacuated.” He added: “This evacuation will not be forever. Several years after the implementation of such a peace plan, the borders will become less significant. Eventually the borders in the area will be abolished, and the entire country will become a single state in which Jews and Arabs live together.” In other words, he was trying to combine two completely different ideas: a solution of two states, with Israel giving up much of its territory, and a single-state solution of a Palestine in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews would live together—an idea that (as I noted above) had been touted by the PLO since 1968, and which meant an end to any Jewish sovereignty.

The third incident occurred in 1975. At that time, Roger Fisher of Harvard Law School was making a television series, Arabs and Jews, aimed at American audiences. Fisher was associated with the pro-Palestinian Quakers and the Quaker-sponsored American Friends Service Committee. According to him, the series would show both sides of the picture, “without bias.” For a scene in which a Jew and an Arab, both born in Jerusalem, would tour the city and discuss it and future relations between the two communities, Fisher chose Khalidi to represent the Arab side and, representing the Jewish side, Yitzḥak Navon, then a Knesset member and later to become Israel’s president.

During the tour, Navon declared that in return for peace, Israel would be willing to give back most of the territory it had occupied in the Six-Day War. In saying this, he was expressing not only his personal opinion but also the official position of the Israeli government at the time. Khalidi, for his part, insisted that the Arabs would not be able to recognize Israel and make peace with it even if it withdrew to the pre-1967 borders, since that would not solve all of the problems created by the war of 1948.

I heard about the scene from an Israeli friend who had been present at the filming. He said that Fisher had been surprised by Khalidi’s position and seemed disappointed. I wondered if he would show his American viewers “both sides” of this picture—a picture that was at once authentic and emphatically asymmetric. That afternoon I met Fisher for tea at the home of my sister and her husband, and asked him. I was not surprised when he answered, “No, I do not mean to include these statements. It’s just the usual rhetoric and contains nothing new. So I see no point in including it.” And indeed, Khalidi’s statements about the impossibility of compromise were omitted from the final cut.


Fadwa Tuqan


Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003) is a renowned Palestinian poet. Her family was well-known in Nablus both for its wealth and for the many intellectuals and public figures it produced. Her father, ‘Abd al-Fattah Tuqan, was arrested in 1937 by the Mandatory authorities in Palestine for his radical anti-British and anti-Zionist views and deported to Egypt. Her brother Ibrahim, also an esteemed poet, for several years managed the Arabic department of the Mandate’s radio station Jerusalem  Calling, but was fired in 1940 for taking the same line as his father. Her eldest brother Ahmad held senior positions in the Jordanian administration and even served as prime minister in 1970 during the anti-PLO campaign known as Black September. In the 1950s and 60s, the most famous member of the family was her cousin Qadri, a mathematician and educator, known throughout the Arab world, who served in the Jordanian parliament as representative of the Nablus district.

By 1967 Fadwa had published three collections of poems that brought her acclaim in Arab literary circles. In 1968 she became known, or rather notorious, among Jewish Israelis for a poem expressing virulent hatred for Israel. In her autobiography she describes the circumstances of its inception. Waiting to be let through for a visit to Jordan, she was standing at the Allenby Bridge border crossing. The crush of bodies, the intolerable heat (it was mid-August), the curses of the soldiers as they pushed back the crowd: the whole experience was insufferable. Fadwa, who had severe back problems, was brutally pushed by one of the soldiers—her poem calls him by a word meaning “mongrel” or “baseborn”—causing excruciating pain. She wrote:

My hate is terrible, it cuts to the depth of my soul. . . .
A thousand Hinds are inside me.
The hunger of my hate
Opens wide its maw, and nothing will satisfy it
But their livers. . . .

Appearing in Hebrew translation, the poem’s expression of brutal and intense hatred evoked furious responses in the Israeli media. Not the least shocking was the reference to Hind, the ferociously vengeful wife of a 7th-century pagan Meccan leader in the war against the forces of the Prophet Muhammad. Some readers were not so much angered as bewildered and hurt. Fadwa’s poem shattered the illusion, harbored by many Israelis, that the policy of the then-defense minister Moshe Dayan—a policy dubbed in shorthand “Dialogue of Deeds” or alternatively “Open Bridges”—had not only assured calm but also reduced hostile feelings.

In an interview with Hanna Zemer, the editor of Davar, Fadwa asserted that she had been inspired by “Nothing but Your Fierce Hounding of Us” by the great Hebrew modernist poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik. (It begins: “Nothing but your fierce hounding of us can explain it / If you turned us into beasts of prey / And with furious cruelty / We drink your blood mercilessly, / If the whole nation has awakened and risen and proclaimed: revenge!”) During her painful experience at the Allenby crossing, she said, these lines of Bialik had put her in mind of Hind and her singular act of vengeance: eating the liver of her slain nemesis, Muhammad’s uncle Hamza. Fadwa would later repeat this explanation (complete with a full Arabic translation of her interview with Zemer) in The Harder Journey, the second volume of her autobiography.

In 1969, after returning from my sabbatical at Harvard, I decided to meet Fadwa Tuqan. Since by the conventions of her society it would be impolite to phone her at home, and impolitic to reach her through friends in the military government, I opted for the traditional way: contacting her through an Arab friend. I called Hazem al-Khalidi and asked if he knew her and would be willing to set up a meeting. “It’s no problem at all,” he replied. “In fact, Fadwa and I are related by marriage.” A few days later he phoned to report that Fadwa had agreed to meet me at the National Palace Hotel in east Jerusalem. I had invited Hazem to be present for the meeting, but he declined, adding Fadwa’s stipulation that our meeting would be private and we would speak only of literature. I agreed, of course. (I would subsequently learn from her that she had never met Hazem al-Khalidi in person, though she knew his name.)

At the hotel, I asked whether she preferred to stay and talk in the lobby or would accept an invitation to my home. She readily accepted, and I drove us to Rehavia. Along the way, she complimented me on my Arabic: “You speak Arabic like an Arab. Are you an Arab Jew?”

Though I was accustomed to Arabs complimenting me on my accent, Fadwa’s words brought me special pleasure. But they also contained a question. The term “Arab Jew” was ideologically and politically loaded. Never a part of traditional Arab discourse, it had been coined for use in the polemic against Zionism and invoked to designate Jews from Arab countries. The implication was that such Jews were essentially Arabs who had been led astray by a movement sowing discord between them and other Arabs. The term reflected the perception that “Jew” was a religious identifier only; therefore, “Jews” were not entitled to designate themselves a nation and certainly had no right to exercise national sovereignty.

I told Fadwa that I understood her question and the answer was no. I had not been born in an Arab country, and neither had my parents. But as for the term “Arab Jew,” I considered it erroneous and would be happy to discuss it later. Fadwa then asked me where I was born, and I said Haifa. She replied, “So you are Palestinian.” In some respects this, too, was true, since I was born in Mandatory Palestine. But that terminology, though apparently merely descriptive, was again loaded: “You are Palestinian” meant I was not one of those Jews who, according to PLO doctrine, were to be expelled from Palestine once it was restored to its rightful owners.

Thinking it unseemly to begin an ideological argument during our drive, I again tried to postpone a deeper discussion until later. But Fadwa elaborated further: “So you are a Palestinian, not a Zionist.” She spoke in a friendly tone, as though wishing to exonerate me of a grave sin, but now I felt obliged to respond even at the risk of ruining any chance to become her friend. “No, Fadwa,” I said, “I am a Zionist.” She answered with surprise: “But the Zionists deny the rights of the Arabs and the Palestinians, do they not?” “Not at all,” I replied. “Zionism is the national movement of the Jews in the modern era. There are different Zionist parties with different views regarding the question of the territories; some oppose concessions, but most do not. I am a Zionist, and I am in favor of a solution based on partition.” Despite my intentions, our fifteen-minute trip turned into an intense debate on issues of national identity and political perceptions.

At home, as agreed, we discussed literature—at least at first. Fadwa was interested to know what was taught in the university’s Arabic department and who the students were, and was also curious about my own research. I told of my fondness for the novels and short stories of Naguib Mahfouz, about which I had recently published a paper. After a while, she said, “You know, Menahem, both of us are interested in literature, but to be honest I have more important things on my mind that I’d like to talk about. Do you agree?”

I’d been hoping for this. Fadwa proceeded to pose many questions about Israel: the Yishuv and its history, Israeli culture, and Israeli policy and politics. In particular she wanted to know why I was against the PLO’s proposal of a single state of Palestine in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians would live together. As with my other Arab interlocutors, I explained what to me was obvious: that we were a distinct national community with its own language and culture. Since she seemed unconvinced, I suggested she pay more visits to different parts of the country and familiarize herself with Israel’s cultural and social reality.

It was a pleasant conversation, held over coffee and cake. When my wife Arnona joined us, Fadwa asked about our children; in parting, on having been told we had three daughters, she wished Arnona a son—a sign of friendship and good will on her part although, as Arnona noted, it was strange for so modern, educated, and independent a woman to permit herself such a traditional and “patriarchal” sentiment.

Several weeks later, having agreed to meet again, I took her to visit the Hebrew University and introduced her to several of my departmental colleagues. On our way back to east Jerusalem, she said she’d become convinced that Israeli society was indeed a national community with unique cultural and social characteristics. I asked her: “So, Fadwa, now that you have reached this conclusion, why not express it in public? It could have an important impact on your society and pave the way to fruitful dialogue.” She answered: “Menahem, you know I can’t do that. You know how our society is and how dangerous this could be for me, personally.” Then she added something unexpected:

Several weeks ago I met Abu Amar [Yasir Arafat], and asked him: “What is the point of sending these small groups [of Fatah fighters] to the other side of the border to get killed? Do you believe they can capture an Israeli outpost, or an Israeli kibbutz, even for a single day?” Abu Amar replied: “No, I do not expect to accomplish that, but we have to continue the struggle. We are fighting not for the sake of this generation but for the sake of generations to come. I don’t think in terms of the next few years, but in terms of 200 years from now.”

Although she disagreed with this approach, Fadwa again made plain that she couldn’t say so in public.

Our friendship, however, ripened. When al-Quds translated and published my 1970 Hebrew article on “The Arab Position and Our Attitude toward It,” advocating Israel’s recognition of the existence of a Palestinian people and proposing the establishment of a Palestinian entity linked to Jordan, Fadwa called to say she had read it, was impressed with it, and had shown it to her friends. Like Hazem al-Khalidi, she was especially responsive to the fair way I had presented the Arab position and my call for peace, but was silent on my proposal.

In the same conversation, she invited Arnona and me to the Egyptian movie Miramar, then showing at the Alhambra cinema in east Jerusalem. This was a gesture of friendship in two senses: first in her willingness to be seen in public with a pair of Jewish friends and second in her choice of movie, as Miramar was based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz. A faithful adaptation of the book, it expressed harsh criticism of life under Nasser, and in watching it I could easily sense how painful it was for Fadwa and others in the theater. Arnona and I were the only non-Arabs.

In early August of the same year I was surprised to receive a letter from Fadwa during her annual visit in England. What prompted her to write—she was in a hospital being treated for her back problems—was an article by me, complete with a photo, that she had come across in a literary journal sent by a friend in Nablus. “It was a pleasant surprise,” she wrote, “to see your face smiling at me from the page.” The short letter was filled with warmth, inquiring after our health and looking forward to meeting again on her return. In a subsequent exchange she mentioned showing my work on Arabic literature to several friends, who had reported being struck by it, and she expressed the hope that our academic work “would eventually lead to joint research by Jews and Arabs that would pave the way to understanding and peace.”

Later that same year I asked Fadwa to invite several public figures from Nablus to meet with me and Carl Brown, a Princeton professor of Middle East history who was participating in a lecture series at the Van Leer Institute. We had known each other since we were both doctoral students at Harvard under Hamilton Gibb, and I had arranged his trip. To me, Brown’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict seemed balanced: sympathetic to the Palestinians but at the same time recognizing Israel’s right to exist and its complicated security problems. He asked me, as his academic host, if upon returning to the U.S. he could write some articles for the Washington Star about the situation in the West Bank; my answer, of course, was that he was free to write as he saw fit.

On our drive to Nablus, Carl expressed surprise at the small number of soldiers and checkpoints along the way. Fadwa received us at home, where we exchanged some small talk, and later invited us for lunch at the house of her late uncle, Qadri Tuqan. The most prominent person at lunch was Hikmat al-Masri, who had held several positions in the Jordanian political system, including speaker of the parliament, and was considered one of the two most important public figures in the West Bank (the other being Anwar Nusseibeh of Jerusalem). The Tuqan family was represented by two of Fadwa’s cousins, Hafez and Amin. Also present was a businessman, Walid Shaq’a, likewise from a wealthy and influential family.

Brown said he wished to hear their views on “the situation” and on a possible solution. The response was a stream of complaints about Israeli military rule. Walid Shaq’a was especially harsh: “Our lives under the Israeli occupation are like life in Europe under the Nazi occupation.” With his expression suggesting that he found this comparison distasteful, Carl asked those present why they didn’t propose negotiations with Israel to end the occupation. Walid Shaq’a said, heatedly:

We cannot do anything like that. We cannot even discuss political issues freely. Everything we do is supervised and monitored by the Israeli secret services. Anything we say reaches their ears. Agents of Israel’s security forces are everywhere.

“But here we are,” Carl countered, “talking politics, and it doesn’t look as if you’re afraid to speak. Why not take the path of Bourguiba in Tunisia, the path of negotiations?”

The question remained unanswered. Carl returned home a few days later; his impressions remained unpublished.


Herbert Marcuse in Nablus


Another visitor from America was Herbert Marcuse, the then-famous political theorist and darling of the New Left, who arrived in December 1971 as a guest of the Van Leer Institute and the Kibbutz Artzi federation. His host on behalf of the latter, Eliezer Be’eri, arranged for him and his wife to meet several Arab figures from Nablus and invited me to join them. The first meeting was with Fadwa Tuqan, who showed Marcuse that her library included three of his books in Arabic. (He was pleasantly surprised to learn that they had been translated.) Then all of us proceeded to a larger gathering hosted by the activist Raymonda Tawil and featuring other guests considered to hold leftist views.

In addition to Raymonda and Fadwa, the women present included three activists in charities and women’s organizations. Among public figures, the most prominent was Hamdi Kanaan, a former mayor of Nablus who since 1968 had veered away from pro-Jordanian circles and grown close to the PLO. Most of the talking for the Arabs was done by the physician Shawkat Kilani, an ardent PLO supporter and a very eloquent speaker.

Like Carl Brown before him, Marcuse asked those present for their view of the situation and possible solutions. The Arab speakers gave a concise presentation of the facts as they saw them: Israeli aggression supported by Western imperialism; the expulsion of the Arabs from their homes in 1948 and the resulting refugee crisis; and, in 1967, another war of aggression in which Israel occupied the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. They added that, for cruelty, the Israeli occupation rivaled that of the Nazis.

Marcuse, who had fled Germany in 1933, was clearly put off by this last comparison, but remained silent. When he spoke, he phrased his remarks with diplomatic caution. “Some of the statements made by Arabs leaders against Israel are very extreme, and probably arouse suspicion in Israel and reduce support for the Arab cause among liberal circles around the world.” Raymonda Tawil replied with a statement very similar to the one offered by Fayez Sayegh in Boston, which had apparently become a stock excuse for Palestinian extremism. “You know,” she said, “we are very emotional people. Our language is very poetic, and that’s why we tend to express ourselves in poetic terms. We are not Americans or Europeans; we are people of the East, people of emotion.”

Asked to address some of the points that had been aired, I began on an ironic note: “Arab intellectuals are known for their ability to discuss various issues in a perfectly rational manner. It is unfortunate that this ability seems to vanish when the same intellectuals address the Arab-Israeli conflict.” More seriously, I then noted that progressive Arab intellectuals—as an example I mentioned the Syrian philosopher Sadiq al-‘Azm—did not regard Israel as a genuine national community with unique characteristics but as a tool of American imperialism.

For his part, Marcuse stipulated that the occupation could not be tolerated and that Israel had to withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967 in return for peace. Shawkat Kilani responded: “Israel has already announced that the Golan will never be returned, so how can we regard it as a country that wants peace?” At this point Eliezer Be’eri intervened to explain that the Golan had served the Syrians as a base for attacks on Israel’s northern settlements, that the people of that region had been frequently targeted by Syrian artillery, and that this had to be taken into consideration.

Marcuse concluded with another statement: “I have clarified to you that I do not believe you should live under Israeli occupation. But obviously, in order to end this unfortunate situation, you must present a coherent position and hold peace negotiations with Israel.” Wise words—to which, however, Kilani immediately objected: “You know, we are not in a position to negotiate; we are not a sovereign state.” Marcuse gave this some thought, and then said:

I understand, and here is my suggestion. Let a referendum be held in the West Bank, in which you will determine which option you prefer: rejoining Jordan, establishing a separate Palestinian state, or establishing a state as part of a federation or confederation with Jordan.

This was delivered in an authoritative tone as though pronouncing the official ruling of the “global peace camp.” Then Marcuse fell silent, as if expecting enthusiastic cheers of approval. When they failed to materialize, he demanded: “Well, what do you think of the idea?”

Speaking for the Arabs present, Shawkat Kilani said:

The situation is truly complicated, and I do not think we can reply so simply, since we have many different affiliations. We are Jordanians, carrying Jordanian passports, and Jordan is a member of the UN; that is one affiliation. But there are others. There is a pan-Arab movement, which some people call the Nasserist movement, and we are affiliated with it as well. In addition, we are residents of this area. We have homes and businesses here; we have a local identity. There are also our brothers and cousins abroad, our fellow [PLO] members along the Lebanon border, and we are affiliated with them as well. We need to take all of these factors into consideration, and therefore your suggestion of a referendum seems premature.

Marcuse seemed to have run out of patience: “If you try to bring all of these factors into it,” he said, “you will never be able to make any decision and will never make any progress.” And with that he dropped the subject.

Despite their disagreement over his proposal, our Arab hosts were happy to find in Marcuse and his wife a sympathetic audience for their complaints about Israel’s injustices. Mrs. Marcuse even accepted the claim made by one of the Arab speakers (and also cited by me) that Israel was a tool of American imperialism.

A few months later an article appeared in the Lebanese literary journal Al-Adab about Marcuse’s visit to Nablus. It carried no byline, but appeared to have been written by Fadwa Tuqan, who told me about it (without explicitly saying she was the author) to show she was doing everything she could to bring Israeli views to the knowledge of Arabs abroad. It was interesting to see how the events of that meeting were presented in the journal. The article stated:

[Marcuse] said, among other things, that intellectuals from both sides must work to create an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust, and strive jointly toward finding a better way to resolve the conflict. At this point, Menahem Milson (a professor of modern Arabic literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has published many studies on the works of Naguib Mahfouz and on Arabic literature in general) said: “It is strange that Arab intellectuals remain rational until they start discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict. At that point, it seems to me, their rationality evaporates and their position becomes confused. Take for example Sadiq Al-‘Azm, a leftist thinker whose approach to Israel is based on the fact that this state is a proxy of American imperialism.”

Her account was not far from what I said, apart from a “small” change: I had mentioned Sadiq al-‘Azm as an example of Arab intellectuals who held a distorted view of Israel as a tool of American imperialism, not whose approach stemmed from the fact that Israel was a tool of American imperialism. The article also failed to stipulate the context of my remark, which was Raymonda Tawil’s claim about the Palestinians’ “emotional” nature.

In any event, the most salient quality of the conversation with Marcuse in Nablus, aside from the complaints about the oppression suffered by Palestinians, was the inability or unwillingness of the Arab interlocutors to adopt any definite political line or make even a tentative suggestion—not even in response to Marcuse’s proposal. Instead, they listed all of their various affiliations and interests, the relinquishing of any of which was unthinkable, even for the sake of achieving a beneficial political goal.


A Poem of Despair


In 1972 Fadwa Tuqan published a poem to mark the fifth anniversary of the Six-Day War. Entitled “O My People, How Long and to What End?,” it was published on the front page of the al-Quds daily and sparked an uproar. Beneath the poem’s title Fadwa quoted lines of Hind (she of the liver-eating poem) addressing the pagan warriors: “If you set forth courageously in battle, we [women] will embrace you and lay out our beds for you; but if you retreat, we will turn away from you in disgust.”

Fadwa’s poem begins:

We are still in the operating room,
Anesthetized, lying in beds of anesthesia,
As year after year goes by,
And lies cover us from head to toe.
O my people, how long and to what end?

Then comes a deeply cutting prayer:

O Vietnam, may the east wind carry
A million of your heroic warriors
To the Arab desert, where they will find
A million Arab women capable of giving birth.

Aware of the clear implication—that the Arab man is incapable—the poet immediately turns contrite:

Forgive me, members of the family,
This wish is a hurtful one,
But you have given us nothing
But the clatter of empty words.
We have lost the essentials,
And we have grown weary, my friends,
Of sprinkling sugar over death.


Personal Friendship Is One Thing, Politics Another


When the first part of her autobiography, titled A Hard Journey—A Mountainous Journey came out in 1985, Fadwa gave me an inscribed copy. My interest in it was threefold: personal, literary, and as a work of history describing the everyday life of a prominent Nablus family in the early 20th century. Thus, I learned that Fadwa’s father, upon hearing that his ten-year-old daughter had been given a flower by a boy on her way to school, shut her in the house and forbade any further schooling.

The father’s dictate was absolute; from that day forward, Fadwa not only ceased her studies but did not leave home unless accompanied by her mother or one of her brothers. The mother, too, was no loving figure: married at the age of eleven, she bore her first son before she was fifteen, followed by nine more children of whom Fadwa was the seventh. As a child Fadwa heard her mother say that this pregnancy had been unwanted and that she had repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried to abort the fetus.

It is impossible not to feel compassion for an old lady with childhood memories like these.

The second volume of her autobiography, The Harder Journey, came out in 1993, and Fadwa again sent me a copy with a warm dedication. Noticing a small piece of paper inserted like a bookmark, I turned to the passage Fadwa had marked: it was a description of Marcuse’s visit to Nablus, mentioning my presence there and adding a footnote to explain who I was:

A member of the Van Leer Institute board of directors [incorrect] and dean of humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the spring of 1989 he set out correct principles for a peace settlement: recognizing the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination; security arrangements to prevent the outbreak of a new war in the region; redirecting defense budgets for the benefit of the Middle East peoples; international involvement in consolidating and guaranteeing the political [peace] arrangement.

I do not remember the specific forum in which I presented these principles in 1989, but I’d certainly made statements to the same effect on various occasions, worded this way or that and with the addition of at least one important condition: recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state. But despite the inexact quotation, it was clear to me that the footnote was meant to express Fadwa’s commitment to our friendship, and I appreciated the gesture.

And yet, despite this friendship both with me and with several other Israelis over the years, Fadwa’s attitude toward Israel remained hostile. In her book I found no hint of a willingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist, or, for that matter, of her own acknowledgment to me in 1969 that Israeli society was indeed a national community with distinct cultural and social characteristics. To her we were foreigners who had usurped a land not our own: “foreigners who had no roots [in the land] at all.”

These last words appear on a page in which she describes a June 1967 visit to Jaffa in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War:

 On one of the city’s crowded main streets we were stopped by officers from the Israeli traffic police. With stern expressions and loathsome arrogance they ordered us to step out of the car and stand aside. Two of the policemen upended the seats and searched every nook and cranny. Then, with the same hostile looks, they ordered us to get back in the car and be on our way. In the depth of my broken soul, the words of [the great poet] al-Mutanabbi echoed: “The valiant young Arab [in a distant land]—a stranger in face and hand and tongue.” But we were not in a “distant land” or on foreign soil. On the contrary, we felt the intensity of our connection [to the city] and the pulsating blood of our Palestinian roots buried deep in this Arab land that had been stolen by force and by violence—land that was now held prisoner by foreigners who had no roots in it at all.

One can understand what prompted this burst of emotion—understand, but not necessarily justify. Assuming the veracity of the report, what exactly happened in this encounter with Israeli policemen within only a few days of a bloody conflict? They did not behave violently, nor did they even curse or raise their voices. There were “stern expressions” (not unlikely) and “loathsome arrogance” (perhaps). These may have been real, or they may have been the subjective impression of the visitors from Nablus.

But perhaps the source of Fadwa’s anger was not the policemen’s behavior, but merely the fact that they were Israelis.




The issues I discussed with my Palestinian interlocutors more than four decades ago continue to reverberate loudly today, not only between the two sides but within the Israeli public itself. Since those days, much has changed, but much has remained the same.

Despite the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO in the early 1990s, which led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, there has been no progress toward the realization of a two-state solution. The Palestinian leadership insists on the right of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their original homes in Israel, which would effectively spell the end of Jewish sovereignty. It has also rejected or failed to respond to repeated official offers from Israel to move toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

On the Israeli political scene, the view that Israel must make no territorial concessions even in return for peace, which I once believed to be held by an insignificant minority, now appears to be more prevalent. Some oppose concessions for security reasons, others on ideological grounds.

Still, like many in Israel, I continue to maintain that Israel must uphold the principle of a two-state peace settlement because it is the only solution that is both just and internationally recognized. Although it does not seem feasible at present, I am convinced it can become so if and when a Palestinian leader emerges who, like Anwar Sadat in 1977, openly and unequivocally declares his readiness to make peace with Israel and to end the conflict in return for Israeli territorial concessions. Such a move, there is reason to believe, will transform the political scene on both sides.

More about: 1967, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Six-Day War