Sari Nusseibeh, a Jerusalemite who can trace his family’s lineage in the city back at least 13 centuries, has worn many hats throughout his career: professor of philosophy, union cofounder and leader, political activist, university president, and founder of organizations. His political positions on matters of national significance, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, were controversial, but he maintains that his public acts, including discussions with Israeli political figures, were always conducted after clearance with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). As president of Al-Quds University, he expanded the university’s offerings and put it on more solid financial footing.
Sari Nusseibeh’s family traces its lineage in Jerusalem back 13 centuries to a female warrior named Nusaybeh (from the tribe of al-Khazraj) who pledged allegiance to the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.1 Her kinsmen accompanied Caliph Omar to Jerusalem and remained there, beginning the line of Jerusalem Nusseibehs. For nearly 10 centuries, the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been in the possession of a Nusseibeh family member, who unlocks the door to Jerusalem’s most important church each morning, and then locks it at the end of the day. (The ancients thought that putting the key in the hands of a Muslim family would be one way to avoid conflict among Christian sects, and their resolution has stood the test of time.)
Sari was the fourth of six children born to Anwar Nusseibeh, a British-educated lawyer and political figure who featured prominently in Palestinian national affairs, and Nuzha Ghussein, from a landowning Ramleh family. Sari was born in Damascus on February 12, 1949; his mother had sought refuge there during the 1948 War, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced into exile.2 His name, associated with the Prophet Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem, was also chosen by his father to honor the son of Khalil Sakakini, who died young.
The Nusseibeh family returned to East Jerusalem in 1951, by then under Jordanian control, and lived a comfortable, middle-class life. Their home bordered No Man’s Land, the expanse that separated Jordanian- and Israeli-controlled Jerusalem (see The West Side Story and What Is Jerusalem?).
Nusseibeh attended St. George’s, an Anglican school. He describes a childhood in which he was fascinated by riddles, explored the alleys of the Old City, and enjoyed family outings to Jericho and the Dead Sea. His father held important positions in the Jordanian government and often hosted guests for animated political discussions. Young Sari had little interest in these conversations, however, and retreated into his imagination, spending many hours reading in the British Consul library.
After graduating, Nusseibeh went to London to take his A level exams. He was there when the 1967 War broke out, and fearing being unable to return, he applied for a visa home from the Israeli embassy. The drive from Tel Aviv Airport to Jerusalem—through lands that he had never seen before but were familiar to his refugee parents—presented a landscape wiped clean of traces of Arab habitation. With the removal of the No Man’s Land barbed wire separating East and West Jerusalem after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, he realized that “Defeat had given me back my homeland.”3
Preparing for an Academic Life
Nusseibeh enrolled in the University of Oxford to study philosophy in the fall of 1967; his research would lead him deeper into Islamic philosophy, his focus in graduate school. At Oxford, he became involved in student politics and started to take an interest in political activism. During his student years, he was recruited to the Palestinian faction Fatah, remaining loosely affiliated with it throughout his adult life. He also debated politics with Israeli students and other Israelis—conversations that resulted in joint statements—a practice he continued later in life.
He graduated from Oxford and then enrolled in the Warburg Institute to study Islamic philosophy for a year. In 1973, he headed for Abu Dhabi, to work at an oil company briefly in order to save a little money so that he could afford to set up a household. One year later, he married Lucy Austin, a British philosophy student he had met at Oxford whose father, J. L. Austin, had been a prominent philosophy professor at the university there. The two headed to Harvard University for graduate work and stayed there for the next four years.
In 1978, the couple returned to Jerusalem and accepted teaching positions at Birzeit University. They also opened a café and art gallery near their home that became a meeting place for young people—Palestinians, Israelis, and Western tourists.
Professor and Political Maverick
During his decade or so at Birzeit University, Nusseibeh built up the philosophy offerings, allowing for a philosophy minor, and taught cultural studies, a four-course program required for graduation. He helped to establish a union for university faculty and employees and was its first president; he cofounded the Federation of Employees in the Education Sector for the entire West Bank. His memoir describes countless conversations with students outside of class on a range of topics, including academic issues but also current affairs and political aspirations for the future. He found that the experiences that his students brought to the discussion affected his understanding of philosophical questions. Because the Israeli authorities closed the university periodically during those years—the last closure would occur during the First Intifada and extend for four years—many of those discussions occurred in homes and cafés.
During these years, “The single largest center of resistance to occupation was the university campus.”4 Nusseibeh’s memoir recounts many acts of resistance against Israeli attempts to control the university. Military Order 854, for one, gave the Israeli authorities almost absolute control of faculty appointments, student vetting, curriculum, and other matters and also required foreign faculty to pledge not to deal with hostile organizations, Israel’s code for the PLO. The union opposed the order as an infringement on academic freedom; others urged compliance. Nusseibeh was among those who discussed the matter with the PLO in Jordan; they were able to secure the approval of Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) to defy the order. The universities ignored the order, and Israel quietly dropped it.
During the 1980s, Nusseibeh was frequently invited to meet with Israelis who were considered “leftist Zionists” to discuss their visions for the future. Such meetings were controversial at the time; they also violated union policy, and he had to resign from the union to be able to participate. His willingness to promote minority positions that were at odds with the community—arguing for nonviolence, for example, or for a two-state solution or the abandonment of the right of return—often led to standoffs with students and once to bodily harm by Fatah activists who considered his actions treason. (In 1987, he and others including Faisal Husseini engaged in a political dialogue with Israeli MK (Likud) Moshe Amirav, who was later expelled from the Likud Party as a result. As Ashrawi recalls, the PLO had cleared the meeting in advance but was slow to issue a statement to exonerate Nusseibeh.5)
During these years he worked closely with Husseini, founder of the Arab Studies Society and the PLO’s unofficial representative in Jerusalem. The association made it clear to the public that Nusseibeh was not acting on his own; his activities, including the meetings with Israelis, were officially sanctioned by the PLO.
Tongue in cheek, Nusseibeh also made the case for annexation of the territories. He argued in 1986 that annexation and equal rights would be preferable to autonomy. The argument created a stir, which was the point: It was in Israel’s interests to give Palestinians a state because “the present Zionist system was incapable of granting us full rights. Either the system has to be replaced, or the Israelis would have to grant us independence.”6 The Israelis, he argued, would be better off with a Palestinian state nearby than to contend with a battle for equal rights. Predictably, his advocacy of these positions and his willingness to talk to Israelis of all political stripes led to attention from the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence service.
During the First Intifada, Nusseibeh was among a handful of professors and intellectuals who wrote guidance leaflets distributed to the public. The strategy they devised, described in a “Jerusalem Document,” “outlined a campaign for civil disobedience.”7 Nusseibeh set up the Holy Land Press Service, and he and his wife started to produce The Monday Report, a weekly publication for the diplomatic community that analyzed events and developments and provided translations of the leaflets. (In 1990, Israeli authorities sealed the publication’s doors after boxing and carting off all its files, despite it being already dormant.) During this charged period, Nusseibeh also helped distribute PLO funds to activists and find safe places to sleep for activists on the run.
But by August 1991 or so, he writes in his memoir, “The intifada was over for me. My office had been welded shut, my cover blown, and the intifada had drifted away from its nonviolent moorings.”8 At about this time, he was approached about writing a book with Israeli Canadian Mark Heller to outline their idea of what a two-state solution would look like. The result was No Trumpets, No Drums, published in 1991. Nusseibeh reports that he sent each chapter to an advisor to PLO leader Yasser Arafat for review.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Nusseibeh joined with a Peace Now activist to issue a statement condemning the use of violence, demanding that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait, and insisting that Israel’s occupation must end. In late January 1991, he was arrested and spent three months in detention at Ramle Prison; he was accused of being an Iraqi spy because he described to someone he was talking to on the phone where an Iraqi missile had landed.9 (Iraq fired 38 Scud missiles into Israel after the US and allies went to war against it.) Nusseibeh was released three months later, possibly because his detention had been questioned by US and British officials and Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience.
By April, plans were underway for the Madrid Conference. When the Palestinian delegation left for Madrid, Nusseibeh remained in Jerusalem and worked to set up political committees throughout the territories to build popular support for the talks. When the delegates returned to the territories, he was assigned another task: creating technical committees. He began to identify experts on critical issues—water, refugees, education, and so on—whose committees would provide “the infrastructure for a future Palestinian administration.”10
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian delegation, wrote a memoir that details preparations for Madrid. She recalls one occasion in which she walked into a meeting that had already begun, only to find Husseini and Nusseibeh clearly agitated. She soon learned that they had disagreed with Arafat about the names of participants and whether US Secretary of State James Baker should be given the list. The disagreement riled Arafat, who accused them of trying to usurp his authority.11 Her comments about Nusseibeh as a colleague in the negotiations team are worth noting:
[He] maintained an ambivalent relationship with [the Political Committee], similar to his on-again, off-again relationship to the negotiations. At times he would propose creative and daring political initiatives, and at others he would go by the literal factional book. Sometimes he would propose taking bold unilateral decisions, and at other times he would insist that we were only an information committee not empowered to deal with politics.12
In her view, Arafat simultaneously held Nusseibeh in high regard and took him for granted, as he did other Fatah cadres.
A Break from Palestine
In spring 1992, Nusseibeh decided that he needed a break from political work. His fourth child (and only daughter) had just been born, and the idea of living out of the spotlight became more and more appealing. He accepted an offer from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, and moved there with his family in 1993, just weeks after the talks that led to the Oslo Accords were made public. In his memoir, he recalls Palestinian jubilation at the news—even though high-profile figures (including himself) had not read the agreement, “No one at the Orient House that evening had the slightest doubt that our work had paid off. We had finally achieved our objective of peace.”13 They had lived to see an agreement between Israel and the PLO.
At the center, he worked on a book on the concept of freedom. Yet the break from Palestine’s politics was only intermittent; Arafat still reached out to him with occasional requests to attend a meeting or head an institution.
At the Helm of Al-Quds University
Nusseibeh and his family returned to Jerusalem in 1994, and by January 1995 he had been hired as president of Al-Quds University. When he was approached for the position, he regarded it as a challenge and as a laboratory for his ideas about forging national liberty and political will. “If an effective modern administration could turn al-Quds around, on a national level such an administration could also dramatically improve the lives of the Palestinian masses, and eventually usher in political liberty.”14 He would lead that institution until 2014.
When Nusseibeh took over Al-Quds, it consisted of four colleges that had nominally come together but not really assumed an identity as one entity with a common vision. The biggest problem facing the university was financial; tuition covered a small fraction of the operating expenses. He faced opposition from board members who disapproved of his political history. Students were accustomed to rote learning rather than free intellectual inquiry.
During his tenure, funding sources were identified and tapped. The nursing school, one of the original four colleges that made up the university, was expanded to become a medical school. A business school, a center to promote peace and democracy, and a media institute soon followed. The affiliated Institute for Jerusalem Studies was opened in the Old City. A desire to preserve the heritage of Palestinian prisoners led to establishing a center for political prisoner affairs; it carried the name of Abu Jihad, the assassinated senior PLO leader who had a close, trusting relationship with Nusseibeh and valued Palestinian civic society. With US government funding, the university opened an American Studies Center. It had a cooperation agreement with Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv and with Brandeis University in Boston.
The university also came into conflict with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and with Israel. The Ministry of Higher Education wanted to bring the medical school under its jurisdiction. Nusseibeh resisted the efforts to do that, arguing that the PA had no jurisdiction over Jerusalem. When Arafat turned the matter over to a committee for arbitration, the issue fizzled out. The Israelis required that the university be accredited and licensed, but when the university demanded that it be provided an Arabic language application, the matter also was not brought up again, possibly because the state was reluctant to recognize a major Palestinian institution when it was doing everything it could to rid Jerusalem of Palestinian influence.
A Jerusalem Leadership Role
The death of Husseini in May 2001 was a personal blow for Nusseibeh. The two had worked closely for more than two decades and had developed a deep mutual respect and understanding. A few months later, the closure of the Orient House, with all that it symbolized and represented of Palestinian national presence in the city, followed.
Not surprisingly, Arafat tapped Nusseibeh to replace Husseini. In Nusseibeh’s memoir, he recalls speaking publicly about the need for Israelis and Palestinians to see themselves as allies. He spoke out against violence at the height of the Second Intifada. And he worked with a team to develop a financial plan for East Jerusalem and delivered it to Arafat. (It was never mentioned again, and Nusseibeh concluded that it was filed and forgotten.) He also spoke out against the right of return, which drew outrage from Palestinians. Nusseibeh put considerable energy into working with Peace Now and other Israeli organizations. By the end of 2002, Arafat had relieved him of the Jerusalem portfolio.15
The document that would come to be known as the Destination Map was the outcome of talks initiated by former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon with Nusseibeh.The two publicly proposed a plan for two states along the 1967 borders, a demilitarized Palestine, the return of refugees only to the Palestinian state (and Jewish immigrants to the Jewish state), a shared Jerusalem, an international fund for compensation and rehabilitation, and a renunciation of all claims after the agreement is signed. Probably the biggest difference between this proposal and the Oslo Accords is that it addressed the difficult issues head on, while the Oslo process deferred them.16 In another break from precedent, the initiators planned to attain popular support, which would give the plan legitimacy—rather than announcing it as a done deal. The plan, pushed by an organization they created called People’s Voice, got about 153,000 signatories but had no effect at all on negotiations.17 The initiative foundered after the hardline Ariel Sharon and Likud Party won Israel’s elections in 2003.
Israel under Sharon began to build the Separation Wall, which among other things separated Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. As originally planned, it would split Al-Quds University’s soccer field right down the middle. Nusseibeh convinced the student body to use the field in protest, and they did, playing one soccer match after another for 34 days, preventing the bulldozers from operating. News of the protest reportedly reached US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who raised the issue with Israeli officials in Washington. After that, Israel built the wall next to the campus, cutting off access to the rest of the West Bank.
In 2003, Al-Quds University partnered with Brandeis University, a private US institution with Jewish roots. The relationship was intended to foster staff, student, and faculty educational exchanges and help to build Palestinian civil society infrastructure. The partnership was terminated by Brandeis in 2013, however, after a student protest on Al-Quds’ campus. Brandeis objected to images circulated by a far-right Israeli watchdog group that depicted figures in fatigues with covered faces raising Nazi salutes and carrying fake weapons. Nusseibeh issued a statement that Brandeis did not consider sufficiently condemnatory.18 He resigned from Al-Quds the following year.
Throughout his career, Nusseibeh has worked to foster critical and independent thinking and encouraged respectful debate. Something of a maverick, he has expressed controversial opinions to force national conversations and consistently opposed the militarization of the Second Intifada. One idea that generated local opposition was the notion that the right of return would have to be dropped in order to facilitate independent statehood. His positions have evolved over the years; initially he supported a two-state solution but has also expressed support for a binational state. He has also built major institutions with an eye to developing the human capacity and infrastructure required to achieve statehood.
Ashrawi, Hanan. This Side of Peace: A Personal Account. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
“Brandeis University Suspends Its Partnership with Al-Quds University Effective Immediately.” BrandeisNow, November 18, 2013.
Kaiser, Charles. “Friendly Fire Review: Israeli Warrior Ami Ayalon Makes His Plea for Peace.” Guardian, May 13, 2021.
Nusseibeh, Sari, with Anthony David. Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
“Sari Nusseibeh.” Palestinian Biographies.
“Sari Nusseibeh.” Google Docs.
Sari Nusseibeh website.
[Profile photo: terrasanta.net]
Many of the biographical details in this essay are taken from Nusseibeh’s memoir (written with Anthony David), Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
Nusseibeh, Once Upon a Country, 98.
Nusseibeh, Once Upon a Country, 188.
Hanan Ashrawi, This Side of Peace: A Personal Account (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 175.
Nusseibeh, Once Upon a Country, 245.
Nusseibeh, Once Upon a Country, 275.
Nusseibeh, Once Upon a Country, 315.
Ashrawi, This Side of Peace, 77.
Nusseibeh, Once Upon a Country, 356.
Ashrawi, This Side of Peace, 126.
Ashrawi, This Side of Peace, 175–76.
Nusseibeh, Once Upon a Country, 372.
Nusseibeh, Once Upon a Country, 386.
“Sari Nusseibeh,” Palestinian Biographies.
Nusseibeh, Once Upon a Country, 488–89.
Charles Kaiser, “Friendly Fire Review: Israeli Warrior Ami Ayalon Makes His Plea for Peace,” Guardian, May 13, 2021.
“Brandeis University Suspends Its Partnership with Al-Quds University Effective Immediately,” BrandeisNow, November 18, 2013.