The Emirati power family steeped in Jewish learning

Colin Shindler recalls teaching 'brilliant student' Lana Nusseibeh, who was instrumental to the Israel-UAE peace agreement

August 20, 2020 10:12

Last Monday the UAE Ambassador and its Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Lana Nusseibeh, was rapturously greeted by the American Jewish Committee in New York.

It was a celebration of the decision of Israel and the United Arab Emirates to proceed towards a normalisation of diplomatic relations.

While it was clearly different from the decisions of the frontline states, Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 — who had fought bitter wars with Israel — to establish ties with their neighbour, the decision by the UAE to make official already-existing links is undoubtedly an historic event of symbolic importance. President Rivlin has already invited the Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed to visit Jerusalem.

The UAE’s move was in tandem with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s u-turn regarding his plan to annex a section of the West Bank. It persuaded the White House to shelve the Trump plan in which it had invested such considerable time and energy. It complemented the efforts of a significant number of British Jews who vocally opposed annexation.

For Lana Nusseibeh, who was instrumental in bringing about the agreement, it was the end of a long road which started many years ago at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies when she took a newly instituted MA in Israeli Studies.

She was a brilliant student who wrote some wonderfully insightful and incisive essays on Zionism and Israeli history.

She deserved the distinction that was awarded to her.

At that time, Israel Studies at SOAS was strongly supported by its then director, the late Paul Webley. It was however buffeted on one side by the proponents of public advocacy who saw it as an arm of hasbarah and on the other by the supporters of BDS who viewed it as an integral part of the Zionist conspiracy.

Yet Lana Nusseibeh and many others saw beyond the slogans and soundbites from outsiders — Israel in all its aspects was a fascinating subject to study.

The Nusseibeh clan have been in Jerusalem for over a millennium. 

Lana’s grandfather, Anwar Nusseibeh, was educated at Cambridge and was deeply involved in the Palestinian cause. An advocate of the parliamentary path, he opposed Nazism and the expulsion of Jews from Arab 

After 1948, when Jordan occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Anwar Nusseibeh held numerous posts in King Hussein’s government and was appointed ambassador to London in the 1960s. Following the Six-Day War, he supported King Hussein in his military conflict with Yasser Arafat and the PLO in September 1970.

His son, Sari Nusseibeh, a philosophy professor, was appointed the representative of the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem by Arafat in 2001. Opposing the Islamist suicide bombers during the al-Aqsa Intifada, he was a leading exponent of the Palestinian peace camp who worked with figures such as Moshe Amirav and Ami Ayalon in trying to forge a reconciliation between the two sides.

His other son, Zaki, — Lana’s father — trod a different path and left for the Gulf in 1968 where he became a trusted advisor to the rulers of the Emirates and was truly a builder of the powerhouse that it is today. An intellectual and a respected government minister, he has translated Arab poetry into English and promoted the cause of Arabic culture in the Gulf internationally.

He has the Encyclopaedia Judaica and many books on Jewish history in his extensive personal library, which I was able to peruse on a visit to Abu Dhabi last year.

For any academic, there is always a great interest in the subsequent path in life of your students and a great pride in all their achievements.

I am no exception and take great delight in observing the odyssey of my students, regardless of their background and views, whether to the United Nations or to working for the cause of our people in our community.

My friend, the late Felek Scharf, a disciple of Jabotinsky in pre-war Poland, once told me that it was always important to speak to audiences of all kinds.

“Who knows”, he said, “they may take away some of your words — and change the world!”.

This week I have begun to understand the meaning of Felek’s words.

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, London

August 20, 2020 10:12

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive