Edward Said: Passionate Advocate of Palestinian Freedom, Human Dignity

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 817, 9 January 2003.

After 12 years with leukemia, Edward Said, passionate advocate for Palestinian rights and scholar of modern literature, died on September 25. A tribute by the British Independent’s Near East reporter Robert Fisk was appropriately titled: “Palestinian, Intellectual, and Fighter, Edward Said Rails Against Arafat and Sharon to His Dying Breath” (26 September 2003). In his last years, every public appearance Said made, especially if it involved travel, turned into a protracted battle with his advancing disease and the advice of his close friend and doctor, who he was quick to remind his Arab colleagues was Jewish. But he would not be stopped.

He devoted one of his last speeches to the dignity and courage of Rachel Corrie, the International Solidarity Movement member crushed to death by an Israeli Army bulldozer in March for trying to stop the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza:

“We need to remember that that kind of solidarity is no longer confined to a small number of intrepid souls here and there, but is recognized the world over.

“Whenever the facts are made known, there is immediate recognition and an expression of the most profound solidarity with the justice of the Palestinian cause and the valiant struggle by the Palestinian people on its behalf.”

CounterPunch, 23 June 2003

No one had done more than Said to make those facts known. The sworn enemy of cant, demagogy and hypocrisy, he imbued the Palestinian cause with the integrity it deserved and presented it as part of a profoundly secular, universalist vision of human freedom.

Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935. His very name expressed the confluence and clash of cultures. His father, Wadie, insisted on being called William. A successful businessman, he immigrated to the U.S. before World War I and obtained U.S. citizenship, then served in France during the war. His mother, Hilda, the daughter of a Nazareth Baptist minister, named her son after the Prince of Wales. Wadie imposed a strict Victorian upbringing on their children. Arabic was forbidden at home except when addressing servants. It was banned at school. Only English was permitted, although all the students had another native language, which they used among themselves behind their teachers’ backs. In this stifling atmosphere, Said got himself expelled from the last school he attended in Egypt, fittingly named Victoria College.

Wherever he went, Said felt Out of Place, as he titled his 1999 memoirs about his childhood and student days. In Palestine, the Saids were members of a Christian minority with American passports. After the 1948 Israeli-Arab War in which 68 percent of the Palestinian population was expelled, Edward Said spent most of his childhood in Egypt. There the Saids were “Shami” in the double meaning in which Egyptians use this term, designating non-Egyptian Arab speakers as well as people from “Greater Syria” (Syria, Lebanon and Palestine).

With the thoroughly corrupt and rotten edifice of British colonial Egypt under King Farouk crumbling about them, the Saids shipped Edward off to boarding school in Massachusetts. He described those years as the most miserable of his life, as he was the only Arab in the very preppy student body. He went on to Princeton and graduate work at Harvard, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Joseph Conrad, the great Polish-born novelist who became a British citizen and wrote in his acquired language, English. Against those who tried to reduce the novelist either to his Polish background or fondness for things English, with no small measure of empathy Said later wrote: “Eventually we realise that [his] work is actually constituted by the experience of exile or alienation that cannot ever be rectified” (“Between Worlds,” London Review of Books, 7 May 1998).

After visiting the West Bank in 1998, Said was invited to speak in Nazareth. Annexed by Israel in 1948, it is the largest Palestinian Arab city in the “Jewish state.” In his lecture, Said admitted to knowing little of the Palestinian second-class citizens of Israel

“who had been regarded in the Arab world as little short of traitors for remaining as non-Jewish citizens of Israel.

“It now struck me, I said, that Israeli Palestinians had become crucial for our future as a people since, given their circumstances as non-Jews in a Jewish state, they dramatised the anomalies of nationalism and theocracy throughout the Middle East. Nationalism had become the dead end of our political life, demanding endless sacrifices and the abrogation of democracy for the sake of national security.”

“West Bank Diary,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 10-16 December 1998

Said, the champion of Palestinian national emancipation, was very much the “rootless cosmopolitan.” He could not fully belong in either Palestinian or Egyptian society because his background was Christian. At the same time, he could not belong in American society because he was Palestinian. In his memoirs, Said describes how in some circles he would emphasize that his name was Edward, while in others he would emphasize Said. He embodied the heretical temperament that Polish Marxist Isaac Deutscher in “The Non-Jewish Jew” ascribes to “those great revolutionaries of modern thought: Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud”:

“They were a priori exceptional in that as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions, and national cultures. They were born and brought up on the borderlines of various epochs. Their mind matured where the most diverse cultural influences crossed and fertilized each other.”

The Non-Jewish Jew and Other Essays (1968)

Said represented that small minority from the Near East who are alienated from what they call home yet can never free themselves from it, whom the world sees as Arabs but whose fellow Arabs often see as foreigners, who find themselves caught between two very different worlds where they belong to neither. For Said, modern Arab society, with its inwardness, exclusivity and religious fanaticism, was far too constricting. And Western society, with its immense arrogance, brutality and hypocrisy, could not provide an alternative.

Impact of 1967 Arab-Israeli War

In 1963 Said joined the Columbia University faculty where he was headed toward a distinguished but otherwise uneventful career as a scholar of modern European literature and literary criticism. As he wrote in “Between Worlds”:

“The big change came with the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, which coincided with a period of intense political activism on campus over civil rights and the Vietnam War. I found myself naturally involved on both fronts, but, for me, there was the further difficulty of trying to draw attention to the Palestinian cause. After the Arab defeat there was a vigorous re-emergence of Palestinian nationalism, embodied in the resistance movement located mainly in Jordan and the newly occupied territories. Several friends and members of my family had joined the movement, and when I visited Jordan in 1968, 69 and 70, I found myself among a number of like-minded contemporaries. In the US, however, my politics were rejected—with a few notable exceptions—both by anti-war activists and by supporters of Martin Luther King. For the first time I felt genuinely divided between the newly assertive pressures of my background and language and the complicated demands of a situation in the US that scanted, in fact despised what I had to say about the quest for Palestinian justice—which was considered anti-Semitic and Nazi-like.”

London Review of Books, 7 May 1998

Said always insisted that the Hebrew-speaking nation has a right to exist and to self-determination in Palestine. However, it has no right to a “Jewish state” through the expulsion and suppression of the indigenous Palestinian nation.

The humiliating defeat in 1967 of the Arab nationalist regimes as well as Jordan’s King Hussein, who in 1970 carried out the slaughter of some 10,000 Palestinians during the Black September massacres, spurred the development of Palestinian guerrilla groups. Even the largest and most moderate, Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, which dominated the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), proclaimed “armed struggle” as its main strategy. However, in 1974 the PLO-led Palestine National Council (PNC) adopted a “Transitional Program” for a state in the West Bank as “a link in the chain of the strategy...to establish the Democratic Palestine state.” At the time, we warned that such a “mini-state” would serve as a South Africa-like bantustan serving as a dumping ground for unwanted refugees. Nevertheless, we would defend the right of the Palestinians to set up their own government in the Occupied Territories “as a partial and deformed application of their right to self-determination” (WV No. 58, 6 December 1974).

Said first praised the “mini-state” proposal as an expression of the PLO’s new realism, and in 1977 was elected to the PNC. But he grew disillusioned with the PLO’s corruption and Arafat’s despotism. Finally, Said resigned from the PNC, along with Ibrahim Abu Lughd, Abdulmuhsen Qattan, Mahmoud Darwish and Shafiq Al Hout, over Arafat’s support to Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Meanwhile in 1987, the first Intifada or uprising of Palestinian youth swept through the Occupied Territories. Despite the brutal repression by Israeli stormtroopers, dubbed the “Iron Fist,” this rebellion could not be suppressed. With America’s quick military crushing of Iraq and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Arafat rushed to conclude the Oslo “Peace Accords.” This was not even a deformed expression of self-determination but the PLO placing its “seal on the national oppression of the long-suffering Palestinian Arab masses” (WV No. 583, 10 September 1993).

Said became the most trenchant Palestinian critic of Oslo, branding it “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles” (London Review of Books, 21 October 1993). Unmentioned by the accord were the national rights of the millions of Palestinians in exile. The issue of the settlements, inhabited by fanatical anti-Arab racists and outright fascist auxiliaries of the Israeli army, was “postponed.” Since 1993, the number of settlers has more than doubled. According to a report by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, “Land Grab: Israel’s Settlement Policy in the West Bank” (reported by the London Guardian, 15 May 2002), fully 42 percent of Palestinian land in the West Bank has been seized by the Israeli government and designated for Zionist settlements. Using the advanced military hardware generously supplied by the U.S., the Israeli juggernaut crushed what existed of a West Bank economy, ravished social institutions and reduced Palestinian collective life to a pre-modern level.

In his 1996 book, Peace and Its Discontents, Said eloquently denounced the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a “kingdom of illusions, with Israel firmly in command.” He further noted that “a slave mentality prevails among Arab leaders, for whom a favorable reception in Washington is the summit of their political lives.” Said would later write, the “peace process” that began in 1993 “has simply re-packaged the occupation, offering a token 18 per cent of the lands seized in 1967 to the corrupt Vichy-like Authority of Arafat, whose mandate has essentially been to police and tax his people on Israel’s behalf” (New Left Review, September-October 2001).

Said was an uncompromising truth-teller—reminiscent of the late Israel Shahak who was a courageous opponent of the semi-theocratic Zionist state and its bloody repression of the Palestinian people, and a declared enemy of racism, chauvinism and injustice wherever he found it. Both Said and Shahak were fighters against the reactionary features of their own societies. In the same New Left Review article cited above, Said wrote of the Palestinian Authority leadership: “Could they not once speak as human beings, rather than third-rate imitations of Kissinger and Rabin?” And he bitterly declared: “The Palestinian people deserve better.” It is little wonder that the books of this courageous and independent thinker were banned in the Occupied Territories by the corrupt and venal PA.

Said: A Genuine Humanist

In his fight for Palestinian national rights, Said had many enemies. He had countless times declared his repudiation of terrorism in all its forms, whether Palestinian or Israeli. Nevertheless, Commentary, that voice of Zionist zealots and die-hard Cold Warriors, in its August 1989 issue ran a calumny on Said titled “Professor of Terror.” Just before that, the fascistic Jewish Defense League called him a Nazi and his Columbia office was firebombed.

Said made a family visit to Beirut in 2000, where he also gave a couple of lectures. Earlier that year the Israeli army had conducted a humiliating withdrawal from southern Lebanon after a 22-year occupation that cost some 20,000 lives. Said made a daylong excursion to the area, which included the notorious Khiam prison, built by the Israelis in 1987. Some 8,000 were incarcerated and tortured there under bestial conditions. Next stop was an abandoned border post in an area deserted except for Lebanese visitors who came in large numbers to throw stones of celebration across the still heavily fortified border. Said joined in and cast a pebble.

Unknown to him, a photo was taken that would find its way to Israel and across the Atlantic, where it became the source for a vicious witchhunt. He was showered with hate mail and death threats, a media blitz of defamation, and a campaign to get him fired from Columbia, where he had taught for 38 years. An editorial in the campus Columbia Daily Spectator branded Said’s pebble throw a “violent act.” In a protest letter to the Spectator, the New York Spartacus Youth Club wrote:

“The Zionist rulers hurl not stones but bullets and bombs at innocent civilians.... Israel has repeatedly bombed Lebanese towns and cities, killing thousands and driving hundreds of thousands more from their homes. In 1982, the Israeli rulers orchestrated the massacre of well over a thousand Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Thousands of Palestinians languish in Israel’s torture chambers, and thousands more have been killed by occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza. But the only ‘violence’ the Zionist apologists at the Spectator see is a stone falling on empty ground in Israel. The Spartacus Youth Club says: Defend the Palestinian people against Zionist state repression! All Israeli troops and settlers out of the Occupied Territories!”

WV No. 743, 6 October 2000

The huge blind spot in Said’s work was the 1917 Russian Revolution. No single event did more to unleash and shape the struggle for social emancipation in the 20th century. The ascendancy of counterrevolution in the former USSR in 1991-92 is an unparalleled defeat for working people all over the world, decisively altering the political landscape, not the least in the Near East. It was precisely the destruction of the Soviet Union, removing a key base of political and financial support to the PLO, that paved the way for the 1993 Oslo accords. In his New Left Review (November-December 2003) tribute to Said, left-wing writer Tariq Ali recalled, “When I asked if the year 1917 meant anything to him, he replied without hesitation: ‘Yes, the Balfour Declaration’.” (Named after the British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour, the declaration supported the Zionist claim to a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine in order to mobilize Jewish support behind the British in the First World War and stake out Britain’s claim to Palestine as war booty.)

Said opposed the dead-end and reactionary programs of nationalism and religion and advocated a binational and secular solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. In his later years, he recognized that the Palestinian and Hebrew populations were so interpenetrated that he rejected a two-state solution. But as Israel/Palestine, the Balkans and Northern Ireland have demonstrated repeatedly, under capitalism the only possible outcome to geographically interpenetrated peoples who claim the same land is one nation on top with the others either exterminated, expelled, subjugated or some combination thereof.

The only genuinely democratic resolution requires the conquest of power by the multinational proletariat that has the material interest in the fullest development of all peoples irrespective of nationality. Here the greatest example is that provided by the Russian Revolution, which Said ignored. The Bolshevik Revolution, despite its later bureaucratic degeneration under Stalin, brought unparalleled and all-sided social development and national collaboration to the most oppressed regions of the tsarist empire, like the Caucasus. Likewise, in the Balkans, long a seething cauldron of inter-ethnic bloodshed, the social revolution led by Tito in Yugoslavia laid the foundation for almost 50 years of national peace and social development. The restoration of capitalism in both countries also restored the old nationalist hatreds and murderous “ethnic cleansing,” aided and abetted by the imperialist powers.

Said’s many books included his much-lauded and controversial 1978 work, Orientalism, which, along with several of his other works, attempted to delve into the relationship between culture, domination and imperialism. Adding to the breadth of his interests, Said was also an accomplished pianist and musicologist. In his last years, he took much satisfaction in cofounding with the great musician and fellow iconoclast Daniel Barenboim an orchestra that brought together musicians from both Israel and the Occupied Territories. They named it the West-East Divan, after Goethe’s greatest collection of poetry, which in turn was inspired by the 14th-century Persian lyric poet Hafiz and his collection of sonnets, Divan. Joined by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, they held one of their first workshops in Weimar, the city where Goethe lived, only a few miles from the Buchenwald concentration camp. In an Atlantic interview (22 September 1999) Said recalled:

“My role there was to lead the discussions that we had every other night. The night before we went to Buchenwald I gave a talk, and said, ‘Look, if you just go to this and see it as part of the Jewish experience, it’s wrong, because it’s part of the human experience, which we as human beings have to understand. In other words, universalize it and understand it as a horror that afflicts all of humanity’.”

Though not a Marxist, Said stood head and shoulders above the many other intellectuals who dealt with the Near East; he was a genuine humanist. But Said also found himself in an impossible situation: He was at bottom a liberal—an honest and sincere liberal, but a liberal nonetheless—in a situation where liberalism could offer no realizable solutions. We owe him a great debt and would do well to learn from both his weaknesses as well as his strengths.

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