Middle East studies in the News
Edward Said (1935-2003)
by Edward Alexander
Edward Said, longtime professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, prolific author of "cultural" literary criticism and political polemic, former member of the Palestine National Council and advisor to Yasser Arafat, died in New York on 25 September 2003 at age 67.
If enormous influence in the academic world is a reliable indicator of intellectual distinction, then Said merited his reputation as one of America's intellectual eminences; but if reputation attests mainly to the irresistible attraction of foolish ideas, he did not. Said taught a whole generation of English professors to search for racism in writers (like Jane Austen) who did not think as the professors do. He induced a generation of Middle East scholars not only to believe that "since the time of Homer...every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist" but to ridicule "speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airliners and poison water supplies" as "highly exaggerated [racial] stereotyping" (this in a statement of 1997). By Said the Israel "specialists" in the political science departments were taught that "Immediately after the state of Israel was declared in 1948, every major Arab state -- Syria, Jordan, Egypt -- petitioned Israel for peace" and that after 1967 "Israel's occupation increased in severity and outright cruelty, more than rivalling all other military occupations in modern history."
His acolytes also found meat and drink in Said's pristinely ignorant and intellectually violent pronouncements about Jews. They are not, he claimed, really a people at all because Moses was an Egyptian (he wasn't) and because Jewish identity in the Diaspora is entirely a function of external persecution. The Holocaust (which destroyed most of the potential citizens of a Jewish state) was in Said's estimation a great boon to Jews because it served to "protect" Palestinian Jews "with the world's compassion." Prior to 1948, he asserted, "the historical duration of a Jewish state [in "Palestine"] was a sixty-year period two millennia ago." (In fact, as any normally attentive Sunday-school student knows, Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel lasted a thousand years.) Said's recitation of preposterous falsehoods about Judaism and Israel, so far from alienating Jewish liberals, seemed to be a magnet for them. Indeed, no troubler of Zion has ever been more justified than Said in claiming that many (at times it seemed all) of his best friends were Jews, ranging from the Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim to the apoplectic scribbler of anti-Israel diatribes, Noam Chomsky.
Said's pronouncements about his fellow Arabs were also widely influential. While bewailing the racist stereotyping of Arabs by Western "Orientalists," Said insisted that "there are no divisions in the Palestinian population of four million. We all support the PLO." Said wrote this while he was still a member of the Palestine National Council, the leading spokesman for the PLO in the American news media, and one of the closest advisors of Yasser Arafat, whom he praised for "his microscopic grasp ... of politics, not as grand strategy, in the pompous Kissingerian sense, but as daily, even hourly movement of people and attitudes, in the Gramscian or Foucauldian sense." But at the same time that Said insisted that "every Palestinian ... is up in arms" against Israel, that they all belonged to a monolithic body with one will, acting and thinking in perfect unison, he felt it necessary to urge the murder of Arab "collaborators" with Israel.
Indeed, he insisted that "the UN Charter and every other known document or protocol" sanctions such murders. Said eventually withdrew his support from the PLO head not because Arafat had become one of the major war criminals of modern times but because the Oslo Accords showed him becoming "soft" on Israel, willing to sell the world that famous used Buick called "recognition of Israel's right to exist." When Operation Iraqi Freedom seemed near its end, Said was incensed by reports that a new Iraqi government might make peace with Israel.
Said's intense hostility to America also powerfully influenced that sizable contingent of our academics whose motto is "the other country, right or wrong." He called Operation Iraqi Freedom the crusade of an "avenging Judeo-Christian god of war," fitting into the pattern of America "reducing whole peoples, countries and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust." And, as usual, he blamed the Jews for what he hated: "The Perles and Wolfowitzes of this country" have led America into a war "planned by a docile professionalized staff in ... Washington and Tel Aviv" and publicly defended by "Ari Fleischer (who I believe is an Israeli citizen)." (A New York Post journalist who attempted to find the source of Said's phony claim about Fleischer located it in the website of the White Aryan Resistance Movement.)
Far from making him an untouchable, Said's past membership in an international terrorist organization, his Disneyland versions of history, his thinly-veiled antisemitism and blatant anti-Americanism made him a star in the academic, literary, and intellectual worlds. He was elected president of the Modern Language Association; made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; adored by NPR and BBC; given countless awards, honors, visiting lectureships; and newspapers like the New York Times, the Guardian, and Ha'aretz were in thrall to him.
Said's career in his last years seemed to lurch from scandal to scandal. In the September 1999 issue of Commentary (see also the Summer 2000 issue of Academic Questions), Justus Reid Weiner revealed that Said had "adjusted" the facts of his life to create a personal myth, often told and poignantly embellished, to fit the myth of Arab dispossession. For decades he had presented himself as an exile, an Arab who grew up in Jerusalem but who, at age twelve, when Israel was established, was (along with his family) driven out of the Talbiyeh neighborhood of Jerusalem. In fact, as Weiner massively documented and irrefutably demonstrated, Said's tragic tale was largely a fabrication. He grew up in a wealthy section of Cairo, son of a Palestinian Arab who emigrated to the U. S. in 1911, became an American citizen, then moved to Egypt. Said was educated in Egypt, not Jerusalem. His family occasionally visited cousins in Jerusalem, and Said was born during one such visit in 1935.
In July of 2000 Said was in the news again. During a visit to Lebanon, he was spotted hurling rocks over the border at Israelis. Expressing dismay at the Agence France Presse photograph of his pitching exploits (a peculiar way of realizing his intellectual vocation) Said exclaimed: "I had no idea that media people were there." Not the action, but its detection, caused him to regret what he had done.
Columbia University, Said's employer, saw nothing wrong with his fabrications or his stone-throwing. This is the same Columbia which in 1959 immediately "accepted the resignation" of a young English Department instructor named Charles Van Doren for being involved in a rigged NBC quiz show called "Twenty-One." Columbia's then Dean John Palfrey said that "The issue is the moral one of honesty and integrity," and that "If these principles are to continue to have meaning at Columbia," Van Doren could not remain there. Palfrey's principles have long since been forgotten at Columbia, now often referred to as Bir Zeit on the Hudson, and at scores of other universities as well.
Said was a prolific writer, but one who devoted much of his life to spilling ink to justify Arafat's spilling of blood.
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