Sari Nusseibeh, the new Palestinian commissioner for Jerusalem, tells an interesting story:
Once, driving under pressure because he was late for a lecture at Bir Zeit University, he inadvertently hit a woman crossing the road to catch a bus. He stopped, of course, helped the woman up and offered to take her to hospital. But she told him that she was quite alright and in a hurry to catch the bus. So he gave her his name and phone number, as well as the name of his insurance company, and forgot all about it.
Weeks later his father, the former Jordanian minister Anwar Nusseibeh, returned from abroad. He called his son and said: “You have done a very bad thing.”
When Sari understood that his father was alluding to the almost-forgotten incident, he told him that it was not his fault and that the woman was not hurt, also that he had given her his phone number and the address of the insurance company. But the father said: “You have not done the main thing: apologized. In fact, you impugned the honor of their family and ours.”
The father took his son, collected a few dozens notables and led a large convoy of cars to the village where the woman was living. Her family received them politely and graciously accepted their apologies. The honor of the aggrieved family was restored and everybody was satisfied.
Nusseibeh applies the lessons of this episode to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Let’s assume that everything happened unintentionally,” he said, “The Jews were fleeing from Europe and did not intend to hurt the Arabs. All they thought about was to set up a state of their own after all they had suffered. But the Arabs were hurt. Hundred thousands of Palestinians lost their all and became refugees. You must first of all honor them by asking for their forgiveness.”
I remember similar things being said by the great British historian, the late Arnold Toynbee, some 40 years ago. He sent me the copy of a speech which, he believed, the President of Israel should address to the Palestinians. In it he was to ask for their pardon for the harm done to them, emphasizing that the Jews did not mean to cause it.
What we have here is a difference of cultures. Sari himself was educated in England (where his father served as Jordanian ambassador) and behaved as Europeans and Israelis would: exchange personal data and leave the rest to the insurance companies. It saves time and trouble, so one can rush on, as demanded by a technological society.
Arab culture is different. In it, honor plays a role, as part of an ancient and wise tradition, designed to prevent blood feuds and bloodshed that can go on for generations.
Nusseibeh has another instructive story. He was asked to join a delegation of notables after an accidental killing. The delegation, numbering some 70 persons, went to the home of the bereaved family, requested forgiveness and asked how much money the family demanded as consolation. The father of the man killed asked for 10 million dinars, a huge sum that the other family was, of course, quite unable to raise. But it was all a part of the ceremony.
“I relinquish 5 millions in the honor of President Yasser Arafat,” the father continued, “I relinquish 1 million in honor ofé” and so on, until it came down to a reasonable sum. Agreement was reached and bloodshed avoided.
The whole procedure is called Suluh Asha’iri, or tribal conciliation. The “Hudneh”, which President Katzav proposed to offer in Ramallah (an initiative aborted by Sharon and Peres), is a part of this process. But this runs counter to the mentality of Israelis, especially Ashkenazis, which goes: “Never apologize, always deny everything, otherwise you will be asked to pay.”
Clearly the Zionist enterprise, which sought to save the Jews and create a Jewish homeland, has caused grievous harm to the Palestinian people. The historian Isaac Deutscher tried to describe the course of events by giving an example: “A man lived in the upper floor of a building which caught fire. To save his life, he jumped out of the window and landed on a passer-by below, wounding him badly. Since then, there has been a bloody quarrel between them.”
Even if this is not a perfect analogy (as no analogy can be), it is clear that the jumper must recognize the suffering he has caused and apologize to the man hurt. The Palestinian refugees, whose honor was trampled and who lost all, need this very much. An apology is a prerequisite to any practical solution. As the Bible tells us (Proverbs 28, 13): “Whoso confesseth and forsaketh (his sins) shall have mercy.”
But this is the most difficult thing for Israelis to do. They are afraid to admit that they even inadvertently caused harm. They want to forget the whole thing and leave it to their insurance company (the United States) to pay compensations.
The insult felt by the Palestinians because of our ignoring the disaster we brought on them is one of the basic reasons of the blood feud, that goes on from generation to generation. It is still killing every day.