Edward W. Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Quandrangle, 1979).
In the late 1950s, my political education began at the knees, or rather the soapboxes, of Union Square’s old lefties. Saturday morning meanderings among the Fourth Avenue bookstores were followed by afternoon “classes” in New York’s equivalent of London’s Hyde Park. Every political tendency on the American left, each splinter group and faction, had its champions — and its critics.
It was from these wizened speakers that I first heard about “capitalism,” “socialism,” “imperialism” and “repression.” They unwound the contradictions in American policy as they excoriated “dollar diplomacy” abroad and, with equal fervor, Taft-Hartley and HUAC at home. There were pamphlets and papers to be had cheaply, volumes new and old to be recommended and discussed. Union Square was a weekly seminar, an independent course of study which ranged throughout history and across the world’s changing map. Recalling all of that now, after having read The Question of Palestine, I cannot remember any mention of Israel, or Palestine or a people called “Palestinians.”
Such was not the case at home, of course, or among my relatives, Israel was often mentioned, with satisfaction, as well as relief, with wonder and pride in the ability of fellow Jews to “wrest a homeland out of the desert.” Trees were planted there to memorialize our dead; “next year in Jerusalem” was a phrase very much on the lips of people earnestly desiring to visit, but with no thought of expatriation.
That ahistorical sensibility provides Edward Said with one of his recurrent themes. Early in Question, I found those family discussions writ large: “Certainly so far as the West is concerned, Palestine has been a place where a relatively advanced (because European) incoming population of Jews has performed miracles of construction and civilizing and has fought brilliantly successful technical wars against what was always portrayed as a dumb, essentially repellent population of uncivilized Arab natives.”
“I think,” he writes later, “it is a simple fact that most Americans who feel they must declare their support for Israel as a state have no idea that the Palestinians lived where Israel now is, and are refugees not because they are anti-Semites, but because the Zionists simply kicked many of them out.” The Zionist movement, aided by European imperialists and orientalist scholars, Said argues, crafted and won acceptance for its own, singular view of history. It was an exclusionary worldview, one in which the (Palestinian) Arabs barely occupied the periphery or, more often, no ground at all. Said’s picture is internally consistent, well documented, and eloquently presented. Yet, I believe the continued acceptance of so distorted a view (in this country, at least), to be a somewhat more complex phenomenon than he allows. Can Said really be surprised that “most Americans…have no idea that the Palestinians lived where Israel now is”? Until relatively recently, most Americans were but dimly aware that Native Americans once lived where they do — and are still not too clear on which Native Americans those were.
Those Saturdays spent among the dialectical materialists of Union Square were followed rapidly, sometimes disorientingly, by the Bay of Pigs, the flowering of the civil rights movement, a growing understanding of US policy in Southest Asia, and, sweeping from Berkeley east, unrest on college campuses. With Johnson’s intervention in the Dominican Republic, America’s role to the south became more clear. Certainly by the mid-1960s Vietnam was the overriding issue.
Nowhere in the catalog above, you will note, are Israel, the Palestinians, or even the Middle East mentioned. And, by and large, that is an accurate reflection of the times, at least as I passed through them. In four years at Brooklyn College, for example, I heard little discussion of the Middle East, certainly not in class. The college did have a sizable and vocal group of politically conservative Jews, but their extremely hawkish views on the war placed them on the other side of the barricades. They screamed about Israeli security and godless communism; we screamed about “Rolling Thunder” and other atrocities. There was no discussion, least of all about the Middle East.
In these years, many progressives made little attempt to understand the history recounted in Said’s volume or its implications. For most of us in the anti-war movement, the Middle East was simply not on the agenda. Whether that was avoidable is arguable; why it happened is complex. As many of us moved from narrowly anti-war to broader anti-imperialist perspectives, it might have been expected that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle would have loomed larger, but the anti-war movement, in its formative stage, had what was essentially a lowest-common-denominator base. Maintaining so broad a coalition required the avoidance of “peripheral” or “potentially divisive” issues.
More specifically, however, failure to address “the question of Palestine,” even as segments of the coalition adopted a more sophisticated anti-imperialist program, had to do with the deep ambivalence of both Jewish and non-Jewish members of the movement toward the state of Israel.
As Said makes clear, the Zionist myth of the founding of Israel, ihe myth in which Palestinians play virtually no part, became all the more acceptable when counterposed to the Holocaust — and the failure of the Western allies to confront what had happened, either during or after the events. The sight of Jewish refugees, fresh from the concentration and displaced person camps, building a new nation from the (uninhabited) desert up, perhaps mitigated some of the guilt. Certainly it meant that Israel started the game with rather more than the usual presumption of national morality. Successive Israeli administrations wrapped their policies tightly in the cloak of that presumption. The continued existence of Israel was unquestionable; it was all too hard to separate Israeli existence from Israeli policy.
For many Jewish radicals, the ambivalence was visceral, unanalyzed and undiscussed. In part, this was “survivor’s guilt” one generation removed. Certainly many American Jews of my parents’ generation had had to confront the paradox of living safely in, and vigorously supporting the government of, a country which had done preciously little to alter European Jewry’s fate. The myth that somehow “we didn’t know what was happening” provided little psychic comfort, for all the strength with which it was grasped. The sense that Israel at last provided a homeland, an answer to the vision of a people wandering through inhospitable and perilous lands, made for either willful ignorance or avoidance of potential conflicts over Israel’s policies.
For non-Jews, I believe, the ambivalence hinged on a general sense of guilt for what this country had not done to prevent the Holocaust. Of course these 20- and 30-year olds bore no direct responsibility, but that didn’t preclude similar latent guilt about the more historically remote destruction of Native American society or the slave trade and plantation conditions. Interwoven, no doubt, were the desire not to offend one’s comrades, and the fear of being perceived as anti-Semitic. In any event, the simple truth is that the Middle East was discussed rarely, if at all.
Nor did this cease with the renaming of Saigon. In my own work as a reporter, for example, I provided readers and listeners with critical perspectives on US policy in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. I analyzed arms sales and examined the law of the sea, strategic arms negotiations, and the excesses (and standard operating procedures) of the intelligence establishment. I did not, however, write about the Middle East, Israel or the Palestinians.
My reasons for not doing so had little to do, I think, with the ambivalence described above. If only on a gut level, it was clear that Israeli policy was separable from Israeli survival. Its unbridled militarism, internal discrimination and its role as the West’s regional “peacekeeper” were clear. And, on that same gut level, an appreciation of the Palestinian cause was growing as well.
But moving from that level to feeling responsible and comfortable in writing about the Middle East presented difficult problems. It meant sorting out the history and desires of not one, but several, distinct Palestinian populations, and of several distinct Israeli populations. It meant becoming conversant with the ebb and flow of conflict and alliance among Arab states. And it necessitated an appreciation for centuries of national, cultural, political and religious growth and change. In short, I felt immobilized by the fear that years of study must precede the first written word.
I believe that to be one of the subtleties Said misses in seeking to explain silence and inaction about the region on the part of American progressives. And if this is true for us, how much more true is it for the American public in general, for whom the media provides the sole source of information?
The media, with few exceptions, have done little to nurture any appreciation of the issues. As International Herald Tribune editor Mort Rosenblum pointed out in a recent book, American media coverage of the world beyond our borders, especially of the developing world, is an unending cavalcade of “coups and earthquakes.” The most consistently covered Middle East story in recent years, OPEC price hikes, falls neatly into the latter category.
Yes, there are far fewer foreign correspondents than there once were; yes, there is less space for foreign news. More important, however, is the quality of what is available — episodic, spot coverage of events devoid of the context necessary to understand or evaluate what is reported. And, in the final analysis, most foreign news reportage simply reflects and supports the underpinnings of US foreign policy. If that mold was finally breached, to some degree, during the war in Southeast Asia, it was in large part because of the cumulative effects of so much daily exposure, the immediacy of the story and the incremental understanding, by press and public, that the mandarins in Washington were lying to them. It was, in short, a rather special case.
Middle East events are embedded, of course, in a very particular context: it is this Zionist myth whose creation and acceptance Said so eloquently traces. In many ways, I found those pages to be among the most valuable — and best written — in The Question of Palestine. Much of the detail and historical perspective Said provides in his book went beyond the knowledge that I brought to it as a reader. Thus, I was struck forcefully, not only by what he related, but by the degree to which I had been unaware, in any substantial detail, of that history. In both political and historical terms, therefore, it is a book that educates. It is somewhat flawed by the author’s tendency toward over-intellectualization and his flair for redundancy, but its value goes beyond any carping about those flaws.
It is an angering book, angering about what happened in the past, what has not happened in the present, and what may not happen in the near future unless people on all sides force a change in the nature and content of the debate.
Finally, it is a moving, deeply saddening book. “Two things are certain,” Said writes in conclusion. “The Jews of Israel will remain; the Palestinians will also remain. To say much more than that with assurance is a foolish risk.” To be able to say so little, with any measure of confidence, is ineffably sad. Underlying much of Said’s description of Israeli Jews and Palestinians (and forgetting just for a moment the relationships between them), there is an unmistakable sense that, among all of the region’s peoples, they have the most in common. They certainly have the most to gain from an accord that would allow them to live peacefully side by side in full recognition of each other’s rights.
The Question of Palestine, written in 1977-1978, appears to have been influenced by the US government’s Middle East initiatives in that period. Said, like most Palestinians, was encouraged by President Carter’s statements on Palestinian rights in the early part of 1977, the apparent determination to follow the recommendations of the Brookings Report of 1975, and by the joint US-USSR statement of October 1, 1977 which clearly acknowledge the importance of the Palestinian question. These developments were particularly appreciated by elements in the Palestine Liberation Organization who have been working toward a rapprochement with the United States and a political settlement of the Palestinian problem. Said’s work, at least in part, echoes the goals and aspirations of this segment of the Palestinian community.
The Question of Palestine is a political essay written for a specific audience with a specific purpose in mind. Said’s book is in the tradition of Western-educated Arab- Palestinians who have argued the Palestinian case for American and British audiences, beginning with George Antonius’ The Arab Awakening. These writers, convinced of the justice of their cause, and acutely aware of the distortions, myths and ignorance about the Palestinian people, appealed to the liberal and democratic sentiments of the West to influence the formulation of foreign policy toward the region. Said shares this hope. His repeated references to the democratic nature of the PLO and its moderation are instances of his intent.
This book is both unique and important. Its uniqueness is due to Said’s message of reconciliation. The Palestinians and Israeli Jews, he argues, must recognize each other’s history and authentic claims to Palestine, and must strive to live in peace with one another. Furthermore, though he supports the idea of a secular democratic state as “the only possible and acceptable destiny for the multi-communal Middle East,” Said also supports the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza coexisting alongside the exclusively Jewish state. He does not see the latter idea as compromising the ideals of the former. Rather, such an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.
would be the first, and perhaps the most important, step toward peace between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. For peace between neighbor states will mean common borders, regular exchange, mutual understanding. In time, who cannot suppose that the borders themselves will mean far less than the human contact taking place between people for whom differences animate more exchange rather than more hostility?
The importance of the book lies in Said’s powerful exposition of the orientalist “mentality” and how it has been devastatingly applied to Palestine by Zionists and imperialists. Relying primarily on his resources as a literary critic, Said argues his central theme that “the question of Palestine is…the contest between an affirmation and a denial.” Said is especially successful in portraying what Zionism has meant to its victims, and how the Palestinians have managed not only to survive, but also to develop a collective, national, and “detailed” consciousness of themselves and the victimizer.
The book suffers from constant repetition of ideas and themes. The arguments are loosely structured and there is no clear progression of thought. The last chapter, “The Palestinian Question After Camp David,” is noticeably inferior to the rest of the book. Though Said deals well with the contemporary regional and international context of the Palestine question, his arguments against Camp David are selective and shortsighted. In addition, his characterizations of US foreign policy as “absurd,” “obstinate,” “irresponsible” and “astonishingly destructive,” are more a sign of bitter disappointment than of understanding. On the whole, however, Said harnesses great moral force behind his arguments and shows a remarkable ability to diffuse the most common and widespread myths and distortions surrounding the question of Palestine. In that sense, Said successfully accomplishes his stated aim.
Said’s insightful and thorough knowledge of the intellectual history of Orientalism and its two “practices,” imperialism and Zionism, is also the source of his greatest weakness. He exaggerates the role of ideas to the point of neglecting a material understanding of the nature and basis of Zionism and imperialism.
This leads to a number of major contradictions in his analysis which prevent him from addressing the fundamental questions governing the triangular relationship between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians. These contradictions manifest themselves in the following themes: the question of Palestine as an idea; the relationship between Zionism and world Jewry; the role of public opinion in the Western countries; the relationship between Israel and the United States; the liberal-Zionist paradox; and the class dimension of the Palestinian. “The power to conquer territory,” writes Said, “is only in part a matter of physical force: there is the strong moral and intellectual component making the conquest itself secondary to an idea, which dignifies (and indeed hastens) pure force with arguments drawn from science, morality, ethics, and a general philosophy.”
What Said does not grapple with is the material context of these ideas and the economic, political and strategic factors that motivate the imperial policies of the capitalist countries of the West. That ideas of mission civilisatrice did serve to legitimize and facilitate the brutal colonization and displacement of the Palestinian masses is eloquently and convincingly documented by Said. But by leaving out the economic and strategic factor behind Western imperialism and Zionist colonialism, he turns the question of Palestine into an idea. In other words, if the imperialist and Zionist ideas and perceptions of Palestine and the Palestinians can be changed, which is the purpose of this book, then their policies toward these people can also be changed. This explains Said’s insistence that rational inquiry, exchange, discussion is the only instrument through which peace and justice in the region can be achieved.
Another difficulty in Said’s analysis is his often repeated theme of how Zionism is beneficial to Jews but, unfortunately, victimizes Arabs. Zionism, he asserts, has “served the no doubt justified ends of Jewish tradition, saving the Jews as a people from homelessness and anti-Semitism and restoring them to nationhood,” and again “for Jews after 1948, Israel not only realized their political and spiritual hopes, it continued to be a beacon of opportunity guiding those of them still living in Diaspora, and keeping those who lived in former Palestine on the frontier of Jewish development and self-realization.” From these remarks, which are more generous and less critical than the judgment of many Israeli Jews, one would assume that the problem with Zionism is only in how it is applied to Arabs.
This argument eschews any class analysis of the Zionist movement and who it serves. One might expect Said to temper his kind words about Zionism with some mention, for instance, of the discrimination and exploitation of “oriental” Jews in Israel, and the continued class domination of the European Jewish community, or the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements for American and other middle class communities in Israel at the direct expense of social programs and food subsidies, or the close ties between Israel and the racist and fascist regimes in Africa and Latin America. Palestinians living in the West Bank are being exploited as a source of cheap labor. This type of exploitation will not necessarily change with the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Said’s hopes for open borders, “compromise, settlement and finally peace” ignore this dimension of Zionism. It is not an incidental detail.
In appealing to the American reader, Said targets the elites of the liberal community in the United States, for they are the stronghold of Zionist support in the country. This raises questions as to the economic, political and strategic relationship between the United States and Israel, and whether the liberal community has a vested material interest in changing this relationship. More broadly, which segments of the American population have an objective interest in changing the prevailing socioeconomic structure in the United States, and is Said’s work relevant to those segments?
What these questions point to is the necessity of elaborating an historical materialist perspective as a basis for the intellectual history that Said provides in The Question of Palestine. Only such a perspective can address the fundamental aspects of this question and be the foundation for effective action.