Nation & World

Tanner lecturer, peacemaker Nusseibeh in search of the improbable

5 min read

Prior to delivering the first of this year’s Tanner Lectures, political activist Sari Nusseibeh gave the audience a laugh — and a cheat sheet.

“My normal attitude in lectures is to doze off when someone is reading them,” he quipped, “so if you do doze off I just want to tell you that my message in these two lectures is very simple, very straightforward: it’s that we — people, human beings — are in charge of our lives.”

“We are in charge of our lives,” he continued, “and therefore we can make miracles.”

Nusseibeh, who is president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, spoke to a crowd in Lowell Lecture Hall last week (Nov. 5-6). His lectures, titled “Philosophical Reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian War,” addressed various ways of thinking about political history as well as the role of the human will in determining, or shaping, that history.

“This gentle professor … has become the object of hate mail and death threats,” said President Drew Faust as she introduced the lectures. “He had his office searched and welded shut. Yet his unwavering task remains to educate students to, as he has put it, ‘deconstruct their inherited mental horizons,’ to overcome what he has called ‘the inability to imagine the lives of the other,’ to struggle free of particular circumstance towards a greater humanity.”

Raised in Jerusalem, Nusseibeh studied philosophy at Oxford University and received his Ph.D. in Islamic philosophy from Harvard in 1978. He was a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study from 2004 to 2005.

An avid proponent of peace and an outspoken critic of violence, Nusseibeh has been actively involved in Middle East peace negotiations. He served as representative for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in East Jerusalem in 2003. His efforts toward peace have been honored by organizations around the world, including the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C. Nusseibeh is the author of “Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life” (2007) and co-author of “No Trumpets, No Drums: A Two-State Settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (1991).

The first of Nusseibeh’s lectures focused on the difficulties of trying to make sense of the course of history, of trying to understand why war and conflict and violence take place. Why, he asked at the outset of his lecture, should I bother to understand what’s happening, much less to worry about making a difference?

“The answer … is a sense of revulsion towards war, especially as this has dominated my life, my small world, for literally the entire duration of my existence,” he said. “You have to be blind, or totally insensitive, living in the midst of human turmoil and suffering … not to be inescapably caught up in it. Therefore, the pursuit of why war happens.”

Nusseibeh drew on the work of Lebanese scholar Nassim Taleb to argue that history moves in unexpected jumps, collapsing the well-entrenched patterns and regularities of life. Taleb called such major, improbable historical developments “black swans,” a metaphor for the impossible that nonetheless comes to pass. The metaphor is based on the discovery of black swans in Australia in the late 17th century. Until that moment, all swans were believed to be white, so the discovery came as a great shock to the public.

One can apply the black swan theory, said Nusseibeh, to evaluations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As an example, he mentioned a meeting between two leading Israeli politicians who discussed the possibility or impossibility of a two-state solution to the political crisis. One felt that “all signs indicated the two-state solution was dead,” while the other felt that peace activists “should not be misled by these so-called signs.”

For the first man, Nusseibeh said, the arrival of a two-state solution would be a black swan, because it would be an “infinitely improbable occurrence with no evidence pointing to its eventual creation.”

The trick, Nusseibeh continued, is not to be misled by surface appearances.

“We must look beyond, to play a bit with our own lenses and our own perspectives,” he said. “One must keep an eye out for the sudden materialization of black swans in our lives.”

Nusseibeh also took up the question of agency in navigating a world of black swans and unexpected conflict.

“One could simply view one’s own role as a political agent as consisting of being the human medium through which ideologies such as Zionism or Arab nationalism dictate their own moves in history,” he said. “Or one could take the opposite worldview: Guided by a vision of how life might be better if Zionism or nationalism were different, one sets out to redefine them in order to make them different, and in so doing, to make the world a better place.”

In addition to the lectures, Nusseibeh held a public seminar with three scholars: Noah Feldman, Bemis Professor of International Law at Harvard Law School; Nilüfer Göle, professor of sociology at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris; and Avashai Margalit, George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

The Tanner Lectures have been given annually at universities in the United States and abroad since 1978. The lecture series was established by industrialist and philanthropist Obert Tanner, who died in 1993. At Harvard, the Tanner Lectures are sponsored by the Office of the President and the Department of English and American Literature and Language. This year’s lectures were dedicated to the memory of Clarence Irving Lewis A.B. 1906, Ph.D. 1910 (philosophy), the Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy emeritus, 1953-1964.