Saturday, November 20, 2004


Edward Said, polyhistorian of Palestine

Every few weeks I find myself looking for a comment or trying to remember something important about the meaning of the Nakba. Whether I make an overt attempt or not, the name of Edward Said always comes to the forefront. If Yasser Arafat can be identified as the political representative of what the experience of the Palestine of modernity is all about, Edward Said must certainly be the spiritual and intellectual father of the same people.
Read any article by Said, any book, and you will find the most complete interdisciplinary compendium imaginable on the argument. Cultural, social, historical elements of the Palestinian population are divulged in a clear yet extremely erudite manner. But if it were just that, we could say that Said was a good historian of his people. Yet, it goes far beyond that. Said studies the mileu surrounding Palestine, from British Mandate Palestine to contemporary Israel and the Occupied Territories up to and including the American-European axis and the "rest of the world". He is aware of the big picture of Colonialism, Imperialism and conquest. The concepts of Race, Ethnicity and Identity and the place they play in the historical process are constantly presented as well, so as to provide a reading which runs the gamut of intellectual research, resulting in the most comphrensive analysis of the question available. Reading Said is an intellectual experience, but it is also seeped in emotion and discovery.

In Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims, , Said is at his best. Several exerpts should suffice to demonstrate the depth and far-reaching scope of his approach.

Zionism was legitimated and indeed valorized by Gentile European thought. On one important issue there was complete agreement between the Gentile and Jewish versions of Zionism: their view of the Holy Land as essentially empty of inhabitants, not because there were no inhabitants--there were, and they were frequently described in numerous travel accounts, in novels like Benjamin Disrael's Tancred, even in the various nineteenth-century Baedekers--but because their status as sovereign and human inhabitants was systematically denied. While it may be possible to differentiate between Jewish and Gentile Zionists on this point (they ignored the Arab inhabitants for different reasons), the Palestinian Arab was ignored nonetheless. That is what needs emphasis: the extent to which the roots of Jewish and Gentile Zionism are in the culture of high liberal-capitalism, and how the work of its vanguard liberals like George Eliot reinforced, perhaps also completed, that culture's less attractive tendencies.
None of what I have so far said applies adequately to what Zionism meant for Jews or what it represented as an advanced idea for enthusiastic non-Jews; it applies exclusively to those less fortunate beings who happened to be living on the land, people of whom no notice was taken. What has too long been forgotten is that while important European thinkers considered the desirable and later the probable fate of Palestine, the land was being tilled, villages and towns built and lived in by thousands of natives who believed that it was their homeland. In the meantime their actual physical being was ignored; later it became a troublesome detail.

The three ideas that depended on one another in Hess and Eliot-and later in almost every Zionist thinker or ideologue-are (a) the nonexistent Arab inhabitants, (b) the complementary Western-Jewish attitude to an "empty" territory, and (c) the restorative Zionist project, which would repeat by rebuilding a vanished Jewish state and combine it with modern elements like disciplined, separate colonies, a special agency for land acquisition, etc. Of course, none of these ideas would have any force were it not for the additional fact of their being addressed to, shaped for, and out of an international (i.e., non-Oriental and hence European) context. This context was the reality, not only because of the ethnocentric rationale governing the whole project, but also because of the overwhelming facts of Diaspora realities and imperialist hegemony over the entire gamut of European culture. It needs to be remarked, however, that Zionism (like the view of America as an empty land held by Puritans) was a colonial vision unlike that of most other nineteenth-century European powers, for whom the natives of outlying territories were included in the redemptive mission civilisation.
Zionism never spoke of itself unambiguously as a Jewish liberation movement, but rather as a Jewish movement for colonial settlement in the Orient. To those Palestinian victims that Zionism displaced, it cannot have meant anything by way of sufficient cause that Jews were victims of European anti-Semitism and, given Israel's continued oppression of Palestinians, few Palestinians are able to see beyond their reality, namely, that once victims themselves, Occidental Jews in Israel have become oppressors (of Palestinian Arabs and Oriental Jews).
These are not intended to be backward-looking historical observations, for in a very vital way they explain and even determine much of what now happens in the Middle East. The fact that no sizeable segment of the Israeli population has as yet been able to confront the terrible social and political injustice done the native Palestinians is an indication of how deeply ingrained are the (by now) anomalous imperialist perspectives basic to Zionism, its view of the world, its sense of an inferior native Other. The fact also that no Palestinian, regardless of his political stripe, has been able to reconcile himself to Zionism suggests the extent to which, for the I Palestinian, Zionism has appeared to be an uncompromisingly exclusionary, discriminatory, colonialist praxis. So powerful, and so unhesitatingly followed, has been the radical Zionist distinction between privileged Jews in Palestine and unprivileged non-Jews there, that nothing else has emerged, no perception of suffering human existence has escaped from the two camps created thereby. As a result, it has been impossible for Jews to understand the human tragedy caused the Arab Palestinians by Zionism; and it has been impossible for Arab Palestinians to see in Zionism anything except an ideology and a practice keeping them, and Israeli Jews, imprisoned. But in order to break down the iron circle of inhumanity, we must see how it was forged, and there it is ideas and culture themselves that play the major role.


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