Belonging and Possession.

A Few Comment on Human Values and Concerns

Sari Nusseibeh, 74, is a prominent Palestinian philosopher who, after studying at Harvard, was president of the Arab University in Jerusalem. A former PLO representative in Jerusalem and a longtime player in negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his books include What Is a Palestinian State Worth?[1] and The Story of Reason in Islam[2]. In his paper delivered on January 24 in Jerusalem at the symposium “Martin Buber and His Legacy” organized by the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Letters, he offers a philosophical analysis of the verbs “to belong” and “to possess” – in the context of the unique equation that in Israel-Palestine sees two peoples for one land.

>>> Read, as an introduction to Sari Nusseibeh’s text, “What We Hold on”, by Bruno Karsenti.


Negev desert, Wikipedia Commons

‘Belonging’ is an associative or relational but ambivalent word that we use -apart from when talking as a third party about a relationship between two people or two items that we think go together- to denote both a feeling I or we have to something, as well as a feeling of possession of something that belongs to me or to us. It is not clear if these two contrasted senses of the word are at first undifferentiated and cognized simultaneously as one in a child or at an early period – for example when I feel both that I belong to my mother and that my mother belongs just to me – but we can surmise they are both clearly very basic instincts in the early development of the associative self. While the distinction between the two senses of the term as possessive and affective is later made clear in our language it is nonetheless often blurred as when the sense of the Jewish belonging to Zion for example becomes collated with or translated into the sense of Zion belonging, or belonging exclusively to the Jewish people; or, similarly, when the sense of Palestinians belonging to Palestine becomes collated with or translated into that of Palestine belonging or belonging exclusively to the Palestinian people. But whereas affective belonging seems to be something two different people and strangers can share for what has a hold on them -a city or a country, for example- possessive belonging has the contrary meaning of what a person or a people have in their hold, or what they view as their own, as when I say this item belongs exclusively to me. A further ambivalence is nested in the term and needs to be unraveled when either singular or plural pronouns are used -whether I am talking about myself as a Palestinian or a Jew, or about my people -the conversion here from affective belonging to possessive belonging either implying in one case a shared possession of what both a Jew and a Palestinian as individuals belong to, or in the other case an exclusivist possession by one people or the other of what they respectively feel belongs to them. ‘Feels’ is the key word to keep in mind here and in what follows, as I shall be staying clear from addressing the meta-question of what ownership or property or even ‘rights’ mean.

Another interesting feature of the word ‘belonging’ is its embeddedness of the verb ‘to long for’, when this expresses a primary desire or want I have for what I feel I belong to or belongs to me but is somehow beyond my reach.  I may or may not long for that which belongs to me, but longing for what I belong to and is not or no longer my belonging or mine makes perfectly good sense. That would explain a pre-Israel Jewish longing for Zion as a physical place as well as a present-day Palestinian longing for Palestine. As is hopefully clear, apart from such feelings as I may experience as an infant for my mother, or ‘the suited to each other’ special sense of belonging said of a couple, the emphasis so far in all the above examples on longing and belonging is on lands, or things, or place, the subject in all these examples being the individual or group. 

Then there is my personal longing for and the belonging to community. While connected with place this kind of belonging is more complex. It is not a demographic classification, or only that. I may have a thin or deep sense of belonging to a community, like being Palestinian or Arab or Muslim or Jew, but long nonetheless for that community to be more as I believe it can or should be, or as what its real but buried nature is, than for it as it now happens to be or as it currently displays itself. Here my belonging to a living community -who the people are and their way of life- seems more to be a belonging to an idea of this community than to the community itself, for example to my idea of the Jewish community and of being Jewish, or the idea of Palestinian nationalism and being a nationalist. These two -what I think ought to be or really is on the one hand, and what actually is on the other- may at some point be so apart and even contrary to one another that I may find myself in a predicament: either to stand up and fully engage myself in an attempt to make my community closer to the idealistic version I have of it; or to turn, in disillusionment, elsewhere or everywhere for communal comfort; or- as is more common- to decide to sit back and melt myself in the crowd simply by peeling off what I may come to decide to be excessive ideological yearnings I have. 

But, unlike the belonging associated with a physical place or items which can have both possessive and affective meanings, that associating myself with a community typically only has an affective meaning: to say this is my community is not literally a claim to own it but perhaps to amplify or emphasize its affective meaning- my belonging to it, or my self-identification with its collective identity. Stretched even further, or viewed in its primal mode, this affective meaning can also be assumptive, or empathetic, as when one instinctually takes on anyone else’s plight in one’s community, feeling it to be one’s own, or even putting it before one’s own, the heartbeat of one in the community naturally thumping in the heart of the other. With the community stretched farther, this instinctual assumptive sense of belonging to community may transform itself into a duty I become bounded by, or a submission to a collective communal assertion of authority over me- that of a family, a tribe, and that, ultimately, of a State. But by the time this assumptive sense of belonging turns into a formal duty it stands to split into different and opposite directions: a blind loyalty to the community or State on the one hand, or a break-down of its affective sense altogether, and a growing sense of alienation from the group or State that comes to replace it on the other. Typically, alienation is when an individual who is an objective member of a group comes to feel she no longer belongs to it. Less typically, that individual’s sense of belonging to the group hides beneath it an unconscious alienation from herself, or from what would have been her affective state if she had confronted herself in a genuine act of self-reflection. One may think of this state as that of an illusory belonging. It is a state where one unconsciously allows oneself to be part of the herd.

Last but not least there is God, of course, or the Semitic ideas we have of Him, and what belonging in this context means. Significantly, we have come to entertain or experience feelings about God that are more alike to place than to community, many of us believing both we belong to God and that God belongs to, or for us! Our belonging relation with Him is thus both affective and possessive. For example, we may feel that we belong to a God who is transcendent over everything and everyone, but also that this transcendent God favors us or belongs to us more than to anyone else. What is significant -even striking- about this is that we come in effect to liken these mutual feelings about Him therefore to those about place that we can possess, as opposed to likening them to people or community. Place and God hand thus come to seem closer to one another in our eyes than people and God. In effect we come to value place, or to regard this to be more sacred, than we value people. We need only consider the massacres committed in this Holy Land in the name of God to realize how true that is. 

There seems however, to be another possessive sense of belonging in the case of God -an offshoot, perhaps of the main one- where ‘belonging to’ comes to be seen as ‘belonging in’. This kind of possessive belonging can get round that which sets people and God apart from one another, and that puts place above people. The story is told about the sufi al-Hallaj from the 9th century claiming he did not need to go to Mecca on pilgrimage to God since God was already within him, and that the pilgrimage he therefore needed to make in order to reach God was the pilgrimage into himself. He was clearly not claiming exclusive ownership of God but emphasizing that God dwells in us as human beings rather than in some specific place on earth, however holy we may have come to regard that location. Also, in sufi tradition, he in all likelihood viewed the Islam he belonged to as a spiritual medium for discovering God in our selves rather than as a system defined entirely by its mundane rituals and beliefs. Believing what he did al-Hallaj felt compelled to agitate for his views, naturally addressing his own community and drawing on mystic vignettes in its own religious tradition to support them. But agitating in his milieu in the manner he did he only brought about his eventual execution by the established authorities. To them it seemed he was claiming that he himself was God. In a sense, they were of course right. For to them our belonging is to a transcendent God ruling over us, and favoring us over others, whereas to him belonging to God fuses into His dwelling in us as human beings, and that into our being one with Him, the distinctness of one individual over another -or indeed, of an individual identity separate from God- eventually vanishing altogether!

But if God ‘ruling from above’ may encourage the belief of some among us of being favored by Him as individuals or a community over others, ‘dwelling in us’ reinvites the notion of place, or that God can or needs to dwell somewhere- a notion that also may encourage the belief that there are places or people He may have dwelled in sometime, more manifestly than in others, and with which we, as people in whom God dwells, be it faintly, should be bonded. 
These, then, are some of the different meanings of belonging, of the different shades of these meanings, as well as of the different subjects and objects associated with all these. Whole lives may on the surface be contentedly spent in the folds of one kind of belonging or the other, perhaps occasionally disturbed by some incident or the other, only to find their way back to a state of reassured normalcy. In a way, however, these different aspects of belonging, framed by the three parameters of God, place, and people, seem to lie behind and persist in defining the triangular form of the political turmoil we as different communities living here keep finding ourselves embroiled in. Let us for example consider place and community: these are not typically separate from one another but are found coupled together. However, once forcefully severed from one another the picture may begin to change. The dispossessed place may become an accelerating agent in the constitution of the community’s identity, as transpired more recently in Palestinian history. Further back in time it also transpired in Jewish history. In such circumstances place may become, partly, the source of collective memory and as such, the spiritual heart of the community; but it may in addition become the focus of the faith in and vision of a future physical and longed-for restitution of body and heart. Thanks to the modern media, we currently have access to abundant material in contemporary Palestinian literature and art for trying to unravel and understand what that severance between country and people means. Yet, despite this literary and artistic abundance, it is still hard to understand fully what longing for such a restitution means, or what restitution itself means. Al-‘Awda is the Arabic term Palestinians use to connote both something tangible and identifiable that can be described, but also something intangible and amorphous that it is hard if not impossible to describe or put into words, or for others to understand even if it is skillfully described. But hard as that is, it is even harder when God is believed to be an essential part of the picture of both dispossession and restitution, and memories that were once live need to be substituted by religious narratives. A telling example is Yehuda Halevi who, writing in the Andalusian 12th century, is more often referred to nowadays by the quote from his ‘My heart in the East’ poem, which was followed by his unfortunately shortly cut pilgrimage to Jerusalem, than by the exposition of his theological views about the mutual centrality of the Jewish people to the Holy Land, attributed to the Rabbi in a dialogue with the king in his Kuzari. One can’t help wondering what the heart meant or stood for in Halevi’s poem as one can- because of its contemporaneity, though admittedly in a limited way- associate oneself with the memory of the scent of the coffee his mother makes that Mahmoud Darwish tells us he longs for in his famous poem about longing. In the case of Halevi one wonders if the heart is theoretical rather than sensual. Did he literally envision it as a place the people he belonged to were dispossessed of, then being torn asunder by crusaders and Muslims, but where a Jewish kingdom will or must again arise and the country taken possession of, somewhat in the image Israel eventually was born, in fulfilment, perhaps, of the special promise made by God to his favored people that he believed in?? Or was the heart he longed for a lifeless account of a treasure left behind which is a spiritual source whose buried light in this ancient land could be drawn upon to awaken the Jewish people to their true calling as a light unto the nations -as his narrative in the Kuzari suggests? Perhaps he did not tease apart all those different yearnings, or these different kinds of longing and belonging, but saw place, community and God in one light, or as a single vision that can only be fulfilled in an ingathering of the Jews and their repossession of the land. In this kind of vision, place becomes the cradle where the spiritual source could be rekindled, and the people’s divine calling be finally fulfilled. God and Place align here with one another, the Jewish spirit somehow finding a nest for itself on their wall. Necessarily, the non-Jewish ‘other’ in this vision is shelved aside as being of secondary cosmic concern.

Sari Nusseibeh, Wikipedia Commons

But the dispossession of a community can in its immediacy set alight the nationalist flame of longing to place, as enshrined now in the Darwish-penned Palestinian Declaration of Independence, God being brought in as fuel at a later stage in the process of the struggle for restitution long after lived memories have become buried or objectified in museums or on bookshelves. God and place now come to be aligned with one another, their union slowly becoming the heart of the people, as seems to have already begun happening in the Palestinian case. 

Martin Buber was clearly well-aware of the deep psychological pulls the different kinds of belonging generally have on people and couldn’t himself but have shared in the rising wave of ‘longing for’ condition felt in or by his own Jewish community in Europe as Zionism was taking shape. But thinking on it he seems to have felt that this state of ‘longing for’ -while symptomatic of a growing anxiety in his community- had not yet been fully grasped as really being a longing for something far more basic than place, something more to do with God and the essence of their religion. Looking further into what ‘longing for’ means -what the ‘belonging to’ the ‘longing for’ is, he believed one could identify a more primary or “pre-belonging” condition, a spiritually pristine point where the human soul stands fronting and being fronted by a limitless space which presents itself before her, but of which she is part, and through which she breathes her existence. Therein, he believed, in the pre-belonging state, lies the origin and ultimate longing-for of the human condition, one that later breaks into different states of anxiety, once that limitless space collapses into the multifarious pieces with which we can and do seek one kind or another of belonging. In a short and intriguing passage that struck me in the biography by Mendes-Flohr the writer mentions a brief conversation Buber has in the early sixties with his psychoanalyst friend Anna Jokl where Buber asks her -questioning Freud’s definition of what ‘angst’ means- what she thought it really meant. “I believe angst is not to belong”, she tells him in a somewhat ad lib manner. “Yes”, he ponders. “That may be –not to belong”. Did Buber believe that all our feelings about belonging are in the end misplaced…that they hide behind them that which we constitutionally long for -that pre-belonging or pre-experiential phase which we should long for? Or did he just have a post-experiential phase in mind? By that time Buber was already settled in Jerusalem but, judging by his life until then, not feeling quite settled. It is reasonable to assume of course that his comment concerned his own situation, both about how he related to his own community and how he felt his community, now embodied in a state, related to the non-Jewish ‘other’, which we as Palestinians represented. 

But it is also possible to assume that he had that root of the common condition of anxiety in his mind- what I called above the pre-belonging or pre-experiential phase -the one that breaks up into pieces at the cross-roads where I, Thou and It converge. Buber goes into great lengths to explain the nature of that cross-roads, but I want to choose two interesting snapshots from his writings that may shed partial light on his thoughts, the first being about encountering a cat where, interestingly (in the Arabic translation of I and Thou), the only time the word for anxiety, qalaq, appears. He thinks he sees the sudden anxiety in her eyes. The familiar open space in her vision has been interrupted by his appearance before her. She hesitates as her eyes turn on him. In those eyes, he imagines he sees a glimmer of bewilderment at the presence before her of something other than herself that now occupies her familiar space. It is a momentary bewilderment about the encounter, about herself now, what he, or that other which has appeared before her, is or may be to her. Does she matter to that other? Is he or it something that recognizes her? Someone who may care for her? For her it is a passing moment that will quickly fade from memory as she resumes her movement. For him it is a momentary observation of that primary moment when one’s attention is suddenly caught by an encounter with a strange ‘other’. This may mark the beginning of a relationship. But what kind? It can end as it begins, the cat slipping back into her private world. It can end with a relationship of belonging. But it can also be of a very special kind when the holder and beholder are both human, as he elsewhere tells us, and we both find ourselves present in that moment of bewilderment at what it is we are precisely beholding. Can I see, through the glimmer in those beholden eyes, that vast space with which I am spiritually, primarily connected? Can she and I help each other to understand our mutual connection with that space?

The other snapshot comes earlier in the book. The image he uses is that of birth, of the non-self-identifying new-born now fronting undiscriminated space, feeling, if anything, a dependent part of that space; or later lying in her cot with her arms gently reaching out in that space as if in search of something unidentifiable, an anchor or a life-source perhaps to hold on to, an invisible ‘other’ that is or is in that space and touching which she unconsciously seeks to complement herself, to have a relationship with. This is a primal moment, one where the unconscious self yearns for connection with the outside world, and in so doing is also groping to find its own self. It is a pre-rational, pre-verbal, and pre-physical process, which at some point however gets broken once a physical object -a teddy-bear in the metaphor Buber uses here- is placed in the infant’s hands. Now the infant has a soft ‘it’ to connect with, or to anchor herself to, one with which to establish a relation. Henceforth it as a belonging comes to mediate between I and Thou, that life-source, perhaps even to obfuscate and obstruct the primal relation between them. Significantly, unlike the image of the mother and her infant introduced at the beginning of this talk, it is the window to that life-source that the infant seeks through her mother; it is that bewildered wonder, and complementarity with the other that holds her, rather than belonging.

Martin Buber, 1963, Wikipedia Commons

In these images, and in his narrative, Buber emphasizes the relational primacy of one’s existence in a binary world. One is only one in relation with what is outside of one! But this is both the reductive experience of a sudden appearance of a stranger before me if I am a cat, and of the soft teddy bear my hands suddenly touch and hold in their grip if I am a child; or it is that prior and mutual presence of myself encountering an intangible life-force that gently enables me to experience touching, feeling and seeing in the first place. Thereafter, I could lose touch with that universal presence, and become overtaken by the teddy bears of this world -how I could experiment on them, use them, live with them, or by them, becoming content with or confused by my possessive and affective belonging relations to them and with them. But, interacting with them as I must, I can and should nevertheless not lose sight of my mutual presence with that life-force, and of seeing the light of that life force infusing others, thereby seeing other human beings neither as instruments nor yet as ends in themselves; nor see them as a community, mine or others’, but as individual sacred portals for a common humanity. Here Buber interestingly employs a geometric figure to further emphasize the primacy of the individual over the community -the one-by-one connectedness with the primal source. If Buber believed in a special calling the Jewish people had, he probably believed it is above all to awaken people to the light God infuses in us, to the ‘longing for’ that precedes belonging, so that we could regulate our work in the world by opening our hearts to it. His worldview, thus, transcends or goes behind the triangular form in which we find ourselves embroiled. It was a humanist worldview right from the start of his active engagement with Zionism, which he saw  first and foremost as the Jewish people’s need to unearth the essential humanism of their Jewish identity, a divine humanism that at once would reveal that to be the genuine spiritual home the Jewish people belonged to, its real identity, as well as pave the path for a mutually enriching ‘togetherness of life’ with the wider world, where he thought he saw a nascent humanism -a moral enlightenment-beginning to make its intellectual mark in Europe. Above all his Zionism seems to have been less a political reaction to rampant antisemitism, or the desire to the taking to oneself of a piece of land in the world to call exclusively one’s own. as it was an act of tikkun olam which -if I understand it correctly- is a proactive attempt to bring moral enlightenment to the world from the very heart of Judaism. But for this to happen, the Jewish people had to find themselves- first one by one, and then as a community- to identify the heart that thumps in them. 

But his dream of such an enlightenment and a common humanity beginning to raise its head in Europe was dashed as the Germans turned to exclusivism, embodying themselves as a nation in a possessive and supremacist state machinery that began with implementing racist policies against Jews but that ended with their wholesale massacres in pursuit of eliminating the country from what they saw as the dirt that had become stuck to them. For Buber, Nazism as an exclusivist nationalism must have seemed like a catastrophic miscreant of an ideological ‘belonging’, a total abandonment of ‘thou’ -the God whose light is in each of us- in favor of an it, a glorified meta-biological concoction by us of country and state that now stood in the way of both God and the human being. With grander dreams dashed and life choices for Europe’s Jews shrinking, both Palestine as a country and an emerging Yishuv in it forced themselves on him to seem the only but also most natural environment for sowing the seeds to bring about the longed for ‘Jewish home’ Buber believed in, and that needed to be made to come to life in its full glory. However, two interrelated and thorny issues clouded his confidence that the seeding will yield the right crop…that of the vision of embodying the community in an exclusivist state form, and that of the existence of another people in the land. How was it possible to reconcile a universal ‘living in togetherness’ idea of a Jewish home with the idea of State -one whose very notion depends on exclusivism and the dispossession of the ‘other’? How can the circle be squared? Or, to use the image of the triangle of God, people and country, how could these three disjointed sides be harmoniously made continuous as in the simple form of a circle? Ideas of sharing the country with the other in one state or two to circumvent this challenging question were contemplated by Buber and others but these were sidelined by a growingly stronger possessive Zionism that pursued its own goal, leaving him with nothing but hope on the one hand, and an increasing angst– a sort of state of suspended belonging on the other. It is this angst– Buber’s and others’- which I think many of us experience today- that prompted me to address the idea of belonging on this occasion. 

Would the idealistic mission of the Jewish people as Buber saw it have been possible if we, the other, did not exist, and if the Arab world had turned the other way as Israel was being created? It is not clear how one could answer that question. Perhaps the Jewish community he wished for could have made itself come into being as a light unto the nations. More likely, however, Israel and its people would have been like any other nation state in the world, better than some but worse than others, its internal dynamic being like that of other states, and its people being driven by the same kind of instincts, desires, and ambitions we witness the world over, separated or fractured within by the different ideas of what being Jewish meant, or what different sectors of society want, with each faction or group seeking more power in the political structure for itself, though perhaps in a less exacerbated manner than the one we witness today and that is now partly at least caused by the fact that we happen by mere happenstance to exist.

I say ‘by mere happenstance’ because we- the other people who lived and live here- did not have a grand project. Perhaps we lived at the tail end of such projects…now seen, in the eyes of Zionist planners, as an inconvenient glitch, or, in the words of the racist Winston Churchill, as the dog in the manger that should be shood away. But our mere existence by happenstance has become a test if nothing more for what Zionism as a project in the making is, what direction it will take, and what future awaits it. It is paradoxically therefore a circumstance that far outweighs all military victories Zionists achieved over us and all the might Israel now holds us with. For, though not itself a constituent of Zionism, it has become a power with the fortuitous capacity to define the nature and future of Zionism itself – whether this will adhere to its overridingly possessive and exclusivist character or find its way to some form of ‘togetherness of life’ with us. Looking with Buberian eyes one wonders whether it is therefore mere happenstance or divine fate that has made us, Palestinians, unwilling partners in the hewing of a Jewish home, whether as a state, or as a community. Only history of course will tell us what our binary future will be like. One hopes that we do not spill more blood or cause more pain in the process, nor will we allow ourselves to be blindly led by our idol teddy bears into a corner where the spilling of blood and the causing of pain will simply be the hallmark of our mutual existence.

Sari Nusseibeh



This text was read at the colloquium “Martin Buber and his legacy” organized by the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, in Jerusalem, on January 24, 2023.


1 What Is a Palestinian State Worth?, Harvard University Press, 2011.
2 The Story of Reason in Islam, Stanford University Press, 2016

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