By A.Z. Foreman
من يصنع المعروف في غير أهله يكن حمده ذماً عليه
If a man shows kindness to one who does not deserve it, it will be his praise that censures him.
-Zuhair Bin Abu Sulma Al-Muzani
ترحم بر پلنگ تيز دندان
ستمگارى بود بر گوسفندان
Leniency shown to the sharp-toothed leopard may be oppression to the sheep
Okay, as of now my reviews are now venturing out of the narrow domain of literary translation and encompassing linguistics in general, as well as the much broader and more volatile field of politics. Why? Who knows. Maybe I'm addicted to controversy. Or maybe I'm just touched in the head.
The late Edward Said is a guy I want to like. I really do. I support most of the causes he supports, I admire his desire when he was alive, as a Palestinian in a heavily Zionist university, to speak truth to power. Unfortunately, the more I read his work, the more convinced I become that he's writing in bad faith, that he cares more about phrase-making than scholarship, that he is a little too ignorant of history and that he often cannot be bothered to engage in a careful reading of the works of individuals he criticizes.
So I can't like this guy, or praise him, no matter how much I want to. The harder I look, the more this guy looks like a hoarse-voiced dilettante and death did the world a favor by shutting him up.
The Question of Palestine, like Said's other book Orientalism, displays (to me at least) many of his flaws in their ugliness. I'll say this about the book, though: I'm actually glad it was written, to some extent. Having an account of the Palestinian condition serve(d/s) the interests of scholarship. The book makes several good points. 1) Unlike many other Arabs writing similar books, Said is relatively moderate and does not degenerate into outright Jew-bashing. 2) Said makes the argument that recognition of the Palestinian condition among Westerners is much more limited than their knowledge of the Israeli and Zionist narrative and THIS POINT NEEDS STRESSING. 3) He's even willing to understand the hatred Jews have faced throughout their history. 4) He admirably, sincerely and effectively communicates the Palestinian need for self-determination.
Still, the book displays the ways in which he, like many other Arab intellectuals, attempts to see Zionism in a way that would fit his desires and preconceptions, rather than attempt to understand historical reality. Once one moves beyond Said's epithets and actually scrutinizes the writings of major Zionist intellectuals, it becomes disturbingly clear that his generalizations are poor.
Likewise, when he describes "the planting of bombs in Israel or the West Bank and Gaza" only to say that they "must be understood in the context of day-to-day coercion and the brutality of a long military occupation," he is attempting to lead the reader to the largely correct conclusion that Palestinian violence is contextual. This is a truism, though. Isn't almost all violence contextual in some way or another? How many large groups of people are ever violent for the sheer joy of it? Moreover, in contrast to this nuanced view of Palestinian violence, as depicted in QP, Jewish violence always seems to occur in a contextual and moral vacuum, at least as Said would have it. When he discusses Palestinian violence, he contextualizes it. When condemning Israeli reprisals, it seems like he just wants people to be outraged at the barbarous carnage. Not that I'm asserting parity between the Palestinian plight and the Israeli position, mind you, but Said doesn't do himself any favors by refusing to contextualize Israeli violence with the same level of critical awareness, which if done honestly would even support his position.
Said really shoots himself in the foot when he lets his rhetoric get ahead of him. For example, accusing Israel of actively participating in, and sponsoring "naked genocidal wars" and claiming that
Until 1966, the Arab citizens of Israel were ruled by a government exclusively in existence to control, bend, manipulate, terrorize and tamper with every facet of Arab life from birth virtually until deathreally does bespeak a severe, untreated allergy to detail and nuance. Few would, and none should, claim that the military government before '66 was a paragon of righteous governance. With its selectively enforced curfews, bigoted laws and total lack of provisions for free speech or protection of privacy, it was a taxing and immensely oppressive regime for an Arab (or anybody, for that matter) to live under. Nonetheless, I'm not sure one can make the case that screwing with Palestinians was that government's primary function or objective. That, though it may be construed as wheedling over semantics, is a major issue: Israel is not some colonial villain to which one can ascribe such cartoonish motives.
But my biggest beef with QP is that some of its assertions are, like those in Said's "Orientalism" simply untrue contortions of the historical record.
One of the most shockingly damnable portions of the book is Said's treatment of Jewish history. When, for example, he claims that
"the entire historical duration of a Jewish state in Palestine before 1948 was a sixty-year period two millenia ago,I am baffled that anyone can actually say this while taking themselves seriously. The way Said manages to justify this outlandish assertion is by ignoring the fact that the divided kingdoms of Judea and Israel constituted not one, but two independent Jewish regimes in Palestine for centuries on end. 'Nuff said. Moreover, by taking this position, Said does himself a further disservice. In attempting to deligitimize historical Jewish claims to the turf in question, Said is suggesting that such claims matter (which they fucking don't.) Worse yet, by doing it in so intellectually dishonest a manner, Said risks giving such claims the appearance of legitimacy -the exact opposite of what he's trying to do.
When Said claims that
"In joining the general Western enthusiasm for overseas territorial acquisition, Zionism never spoke of itself as a Jewish liberation movement, but rather as a Jewish movement for colonial settlement in the orient,"one is at a loss for where he gets this idea, especially since in a previous chapter Said himself writes the opposite:
"As Herzl first conceived of it in the nineties, Zionism was a movement to free Jews and solve the problem of anti-Semitism in the west."This book, like Orientalism, has the feeling of being written in a hurry.
One of Said's unstated axioms in Orientalism, that colonialism can only come from the west, serves him particularly poorly in QP. When he says that "Palestine became a predominantly Arab and Islamic country at the end of the seventh century," he not only fails to take into account the fact that the modern notion of a "country" did not exist in the seventh century, but also fails to mention that Palestine became Islamic through an imperialist enterprise of conquest that subjugated the entire region. People didn't spontaneously start speaking Arabic or praying 5 times a day, There was an enterprise of geographical and cultural colonialism. Muslims arrived in Jerusalem in 636, and beseiged the local garrisons for 4 months before the local Jews and Christians agreed to live with the Jizya tax under their new rulers and agreed not to challenge Islamic hegemony or proselytize or build new places of worship until, during the Roman wars under Fatimid rule, numerous Christians were put to death for suspicion of being "Roman sympathizers," with numerous churches being burned, culminating in orders to destroy the Holy Sepulchre, with the intent of deterring further Christian pilgrimage. In fact, Said's total silence on the process of Islamic expansion seems particularly weird when one contrasts it with his hatred of "the absolute wrong of settler-colonialism" and the zeal with which he traces the history of the European colonial endeavor all the way through to the Roman period.
Equally misleading is Said's assertion that "The principal Palestinian cities- Nablus, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre, Jaffa, Jericho, Ramlah, Hebron and Haifa- were built in the main by Palestinian Arabs." Said evidently does not know, or chooses to forget, that, except for Ramlah, every one of those cities was built (before the Arabs ever arrived) by Jews, Romans and Byzantines. Mind you, I don't want to call this guy a liar. So I dearly wish he'd stop acting like one.
Likewise (and here Said does more damage to the Palestinian cause than any Zionist ever could) Said makes the mistake of depicting Zionism as nothing more than a colonial, European decision and "simply the most successful and most protracted of many such European projects since the middle Ages." There are two flaws to this argument. 1) What Said seems to forget is that as he was writing this, most Israeli citizens were not of European descent. It is hard for me, as a reader, to think of a Persian, Yemeni, Indian, Kurdish, Moroccan, Libyan or Tunisian Jew as a European colonist. 2) The European projects of expansion and colonization (such as the crusades) were imperial enterprises and extensions of the power of European nations, never attempts to found a sovereign state for a despised minority. When colonists are overthrown and empires collapse, the colonists have a "mother country" to retreat to. Does Said really think that the Jews who settled in Palestine should have gone back to where they came from? Perhaps he have the oriental Jews lay their fate at the mercy of the Arab countries that expelled them (often at gunpoint) in the 40s through the 60s?
Israel is not a colony. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. This issue requires a more complex explanation than the one Said seems willing to put forth. Zionism is more than just a colonialist enterprise. It is a kind of colonialism, yes, but it is also a kind of cancerous nationalism- a dissociation from the "source" country. It is also a competing bid for self-determination which, while its manifestations have many severe, damning flaws (e.g. racism, imperialism, acts of ethnic cleansing etc.) does not really countenance outright vilification, and cannot be so cavalierly dismissed by being denigrated as some sort of medieval mania for conquest. That's simply unintelligent, and an embarrassment to pro-Palestine thinkers and readers everywhere, including yours truly. All nationalisms are inherently ugly in their my-guys-are-better mentality. Nationalism and identity politics are a stupid, fucked up thing. But complexity cannot be the enemy when you're trying to figure out what's "really" going on.
Even when Said does refer to Arab and/or Oriental Jews, he makes them out to be victims, rather than beneficiaries, of Zionism. The truth is that they were both. The Zionist narrative forced many Oriental Jews to try and prove their Israeliness by being all the more extreme in their scorn of Arabs- a group from which many Jews in Israel with roots in Arab countries were quick to distance themselves. But Said would, as I have said before, do well to recognize that Oriental Jews often left their homes for Israel because of the abusive treatment they received in their home countries at the hands of governments, societies and individuals which acted as if "Zionist" and "Jewish" were synonyms (which, of course, was no less excusable than when Americans act as though "Muslim" and "Militant Islamist" are the same thing.) When Said suggests that oppression is something only white people do, it gets me a little mad.
One can go even farther and note Said's blindness in passages such as the following:
Far from the Arab magnitudes signifying an already inhabited land, to the early Zionist colonists these were people to be ignored...This blindness was as true of left-wing ideologues and movements like Ber Borichov...as it was of so-called romantic right-wingers like Vladimir Jabotinsky....The Zionists considered the Arab problem something to be avoided completely or denied (and hence attacked) completely.
It is peculiar that Ber Borochov, whom Said dismisses in the above passage, actually suggested that that Zionists attempt to incorporate the Arab population into Jewish society. The problem was far from ignored. Moreover, even the most zealous Zionists (such as Asher Ginsberg, better known by the pen-name Achad HaAm) were far from blind to the issue. In fact, Ginsberg himself was responsible for a number of polemics which caustically criticized the way Zionist settlers treated the Arabs they came upon. In a letter to Moshe Smilansky, Ginsberg described no less than "a nation there in Palestine which [has] already settled and has no intention of departing."
Even the right-wing lunatics like Vladimir Jabotinsky understood, for reasons of sheer practicality, that the Palestinians were an entity to be taken account of. Jabotinsky himself said of the Palestinians that they felt at least the same instinctive love of Palestine, as the old Aztecs felt for ancient Mexico and the Sioux for their rolling prairies. In fact, it is precisely because Jabotinsky knew this about the local Arab population that he believed that they would never be interested in sharing their land with Zionists. Horrifically misguided? Yes. Blind? Hardly.
I often can't shake the feeling that Said hasn't actually read some of the things he's criticizing.
There are many, many other problems underlying Said's writings and worldview, including a somewhat whitewashed view of Islamic history, a severe misunderstanding of Western scholarship and a slightly over-zealous adoption of the premises and myths of Arab nationalism. But going into detail on all that would require that this entry be even longer. I'll just finish up by saying that when a professor of literature writes about history and believes that he is allowed the use of literary hyperbole in historiography, it is sadly unsurprising if the result ends up looking, at best, like a flawed narrative and, at worst, something of a hatchet job almost as damnable as the Orientalism which he decries in another, far worse polemic.