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Edward Said on His Experience as a Palestinian

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As thousands of Iraqis marched through the streets of Baghdad this morning volunteering to help Palestinians fight Israel, a last-ditch effort at bringing peace began this morning in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. [includes rush transcript]

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak addressed an opening session of the summit where President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met for talks on a ceasefire. A peace deal between the two sides is not yet on the agenda.

The summit began early this morning in Egypt as Barak announced he was close to forming a “National Unity Government” with right-wing politician Ariel Sharon. The violence that has reigned terror in the Occupied Territories began over two weeks ago with Sharon’s surprise visit to the Temple Mount, or al-Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, a holy shrine to Muslims and Jews alike. Over 100 people, mostly Palestinians, are now dead.

And as the heads of state sit down to hammer out an end to the violence, many communities around the world, like the Iraqis in streets of Baghdad this morning, are making known their support for the Palestinians. Even the New York Times last Friday quoted several Muslims who say they want America’s leaders to know that they disagree with what they called the United States’ “blind support” for Israel. This type of critique of U.S.-Israel relations is one we rarely see in the U.S. corporate media. However, voices like Edward Said, a leading Palestinian American scholar and activist, have long condemned U.S. support of Israel at the expense of Palestinian human rights.

Today we go back to a joint speech given in April of last year by Edward Said and Noam Chomsky as they discussed the historical context of the Middle East crisis. We had such a strong reaction over the weekend after we played excerpts of these speeches last Friday that we decided to play some more of that joint speech.


  • Edward Said, a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is a leading Palestinian activist.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Edward Said. On Friday on Democracy Now!, we played an excerpt of a speech that he gave, a joint address along with MIT Professor Noam Chomsky at Columbia last year. We got such a tremendous response to that excerpt that we thought we’d play a more extended version of his speech on this day of the emergency Middle East summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

This is Professor Edward Said. He is a distinguished professor at Columbia University of English and comparative literature, well-known Palestinian American scholar, author of many books, including Orientalism and his memoir called Out of Place.

EDWARD SAID: Not to hold back my conclusion, which is roughly the same as Noam’s, I want to say also that my feeling is that the two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is, I think, a hopeless one. And some form of binationalism, which I’ll try to get to at the end of my comments, seems to me to be the only hope, and hence the reason for talking about it more in this country. I’ve just come back a couple of weeks ago from a trip where I spent some time in Israel, as well as, of course, in the Palestinian territories, and spoke about this to some degree of response from Israelis — I mean, Israeli Jews and, of course, Israeli Palestinians.

But what I want to do today is to talk a little bit about the importance, the continuing importance, of 1948 for the present moment. And in a sense, I want to talk about something quite different than what you’ve heard from Noam Chomsky. That is to say, I want to talk about the Palestinian experience as a human — evolving human thing, trajectory, and how it feeds into the current impasse and where it might, if looked at honestly within the Arab and international context, might give one some hope for the future, which I think is the most important thing.

I might as well begin by speaking personally about 1948, particularly at a moment when the media is focusing so much on the faces and the bodies and general appalling plight of Kosovar refugees, and what it meant for many of the people around me. My own immediate family was spared the worst ravages of what we call the Catastrophe, Al Nakba, of 1948. We had a house and, my father, a business in Cairo, so even though we were in Palestine during most of 1947, when we left in December of that year, the wrenching, cataclysmic quality of the collective experience, when 780,000 Palestinians — two-thirds of the population — were literally driven out of the country by the Zionist forces of the time, this was not one we had to go through in as traumatic a form as most others did.

I was 12 at the time, so I had only a somewhat attenuated and certainly no more than a semi-conscious awareness of what was happening. Only this narrow awareness was available to me, but I do distinctly recall some things with special lucidity. One was that every member of my family, on both sides, became a refugee during the period. No one remained in our Palestine — that is, that part of the mandatory territory controlled by the British Mandate. That didn’t include the West Bank, which was in 1948 annexed to Jordan. Therefore, those of my relatives who lived in cities like Jaffa, Safad, Haifa and West Jerusalem, which is where I was born, were suddenly made homeless — in many instances, penniless, disoriented and scarred forever.

I saw most of them again after the fall of Palestine, but all were greatly reduced in circumstances — their faces stark with worry, ill health, despair. My extended family lost all its property and residence, and, like so many Palestinians of the time, bore the travail not so much as a political, but as a natural tragedy. This etched itself on my memory with lasting results, mostly because of the faces which I had once remembered as content and at ease, but which now were lined with the cares of exile and homelessness, which is the condition of most Palestinians today. Many families and individuals had their lives broken, their spirits drained, their composure destroyed forever in the context of seemingly unending serial dislocation. This was, and still is, for me, of the greatest poignancy. One of my uncles went from Palestine to Alexandria, to Cairo, to Baghdad, to Beirut, and now, in his eighties, lives a sad, silent man in Seattle. Neither he nor his immediate family ever truly recovered.

This is emblematic of the larger story of loss and dispossession which continues today. And I think it ought to be mentioned that ever since 1948, the United Nations — just as NATO is saying today, and the United States along with it — ever since 1948, the United States, with the United Nations, has voted a yearly resolution saying that the Palestinians can go back.

The second thing I recall was that, for the one person in my family who somehow managed to pull herself together in the aftermath of the Catastrophe, my aunt, Palestine meant service to the unfortunate refugees, many thousands of whom ended up penniless, jobless, destitute and disoriented in Egypt. She devoted her life to them in the face of government obduracy and sadistic indifference. From her, I learned that whereas everyone was willing to pay lip service to the cause, to the humanitarian cause, only a very few people were willing to do anything about it. As a Palestinian, therefore, she took it as her lifelong duty to set about helping the refugees. This was in the days before UNICEF and USAID and all of those other things, getting people and children into schools, getting them doctors, getting them treatment and medicine, finding the men jobs, and so on and so forth. She remains an exemplary figure for me, a person against whom any effort thereafter is always measured and always found wanting. The job for us in my lifetime was to be literally unending. It’s now 51 years. And because it derives from a human tragedy so profound, so extraordinary and saturating, both the formal as well as the informal life of its people, down to the smallest detail, has been and will continue to be recalled, testified, remedied. For Palestinians, a vast collective feeling of injustice continues to hang over our lives with undiminished weight.

If there’s been one thing, one particular delinquency committed by the present group of Palestinian leaders, for me, it is their gifted power of forgetting. When one of them was asked recently — this appeared on the front page of The New York Times last October — what he felt about Ariel Sharon’s accession to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, given that Sharon was responsible for the shedding of so much Palestinian blood, this leader said blithely, “We are prepared to forget history.” And this is a sentiment I neither can share nor, I hasten to add, easily forgive.

It’s therefore important to recall what Israelis themselves have said about the country they conquered in 1948. Here’s Moshe Dayan, 1969, April, just about 30 years ago today: “We came to this country which was already populated by Arabs, and we are establishing a Hebrew, that is a Jewish state here. In considerable areas of the country” — the total area of the country that he’s talking about was only 6% — “we bought the lands from the Arabs. Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You don’t even know” — he was talking to an Israeli audience. “You don’t even know the names of these Arab villages, and I don’t blame you, because these geography books no longer exist; not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either.” In the events of 1948, 400 villages were destroyed and effaced from history. “Nahalal,” which is Dayan’s own village, he says, “arose in the place of Mahalul, Gevat in the place of Jibta, [Kibbutz] Sarid in the place of Haneifs, and Kefar Yehoshua in the place of Tell Shaman. There is not” — this is the last sentence of his intervention: “There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”

Looking back on the reactions in the aftermath of 1948, what strikes me now is how largely unpolitical they were, as it must be the case for people going through what some of the refugees are going through today. For 20 years after 1948, Palestinians were immersed in the problems of everyday life, with little time left over for organizing, analyzing and planning. Israel, to most Arabs, for at least 20 years after '48, and to Palestinians, except for those who remained, was a cipher: its language unknown, its society unexplored, its people and the history and their movement largely confined to slogans, catch-all phrases, negation. We saw and experienced its cruelty towards us, but it took us a long while to understand what we saw and what we experienced. The overall tendency throughout the Arab world — and this is one of he most important consequences of 1948, as I'm sure it will be in regions of the world that are going through the same process today — is that a vast militarization took over every society, almost without exception, as it did also take over Israel. Coup in the Arab world, military coups, succeeded each other more or less unceasingly. And worse yet, every advance in the military idea brought an equal and opposite diminution in social, political and economic democracy.

Looking back on it now, the rise to hegemony of Arabic nationalism allowed for very little in the way of democratic civil institutions, mainly because the concepts and the language of that nationalism devoted little attention to the role of democracy in the evolution of these societies. Until now, the presence of a putative danger to the Arab world has engendered a permanent deferral of such things as an open press, unpoliticized universities, or freedoms to research, travel in and explore new realms of knowledge. No massive investment was ever made in the quality of education despite, on the whole, successful policies by some governments, including the Egyptian government, to lower the rate of illiteracy. It was thought that given the perpetual state of emergency caused by Israel, such matters, which could only be the result of long-range planning and reflection, were luxuries that were ill-afforded. Instead, arms procurement on a huge scale took the place of genuine human development, with negative results that we live until today. It’s worth mentioning that 60% of the world’s arms are now bought by Arab countries.

Along with the militarization went the wholesale persecution of communities — preeminently, but not exclusively, the Jewish ones in the Arab world and, of course, the Arab ones inside Israel. And this idea of homogenizing societies to create, in the case of Israel, a Jewish state, in the case of the various Arab states, entirely Arab states, whether they’re called Syria, Jordan, Egypt, etc., has had the most wasteful and, in my opinion, terrible results, one of the tragedies of the politics of identity which ensued. The expulsion of whole communities as a result of 1948, which set in process a system of distortion within the societies, whether it was inside Israel or in the Arab world, most of it encouraged by U.S. policy at the time, seems to me to have led to every conceivable disaster in the way of human formations and social institutions.

Nor was this all. In the name of military security, in countries like Egypt, there was a bloody-minded, imponderably wasteful campaign against dissenters, mostly on the left, but independently minded people, too, whose vocation as critics and skilled men and women was brutally terminated in prisons, fatal torture and summary executions. As one looks back at those things in the context of 1948, it’s the immense panorama of waste and cruelty that stands out as the immediate result of the war itself.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Edward Said, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and author of, among other books, Out of Place: A Memoir, the story of his life as a Palestinian. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Columbia University Professor Edward Said — the latest book of his works is called The Edward Said Reader — leading Palestinian American scholar and activist on this day of the emergency Middle East summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. This is a speech he gave, along with Noam Chomsky, last year at Columbia University.

EDWARD SAID: Along with that went a scandalously poor treatment of the refugees themselves. This is a kind of a micro-history of some of the things that Noam was talking about. It’s still the case, for example, that 40,000 to 50,000 Palestinian refugees who are resident in Egypt must report to a local police station every month. Vocational, educational and social opportunities for them are curtailed, and the general sense of not belonging adheres to them despite their Arab nationality and language.

In Lebanon, the situation is worse still. Almost 400,000 Palestinian refugees have had to endure not only the massacres of Sabra, Shatila, Tel al-Zaatar, Dbeyeh and elsewhere, but have remained confined in hideous quarantine for almost two generations. They have no legal right to work in at least 60 occupations. They are not adequately covered by medical insurance. They cannot travel and return. They are objects of suspicion and dislike. In part, they have inherited the mantle of opprobrium, draped around them by the PLO’s presence there, and thus they remain in the eyes of many ordinary Lebanese a sort of house enemy to be warded off and/or punished from time to time.

A similar situation in kind, if not in degree, exists in Syria. As for Jordan, it was, to its credit, the only country where Palestinians were given naturalized status. A visible fault line exists between that disadvantaged majority of Palestinians and the Jordanian establishment.

I might add, however, that for most of these situations where Palestinian refugees exist in large groups within one or another Arab country, all of them as a direct consequence of 1948, 51 years ago, no simple, much less elegant or just, solution exists in the foreseeable future. It’s also worth mentioning — or rather, asking — why it is that a destiny of confinement and isolation has been imposed on a people who quite naturally flocked to neighboring countries when driven out of theirs, countries which everyone thought would welcome and sustain them.

Inside Israel, the treatment of the Arab minority that was left over — 120,000, that have now become 1,000,000, a little over a million today, Arab citizens or Palestinian citizens of Israel — they were subject to military government until 1966. Since that time, they are treated as aliens, although they’re citizens of the state, non-Jews in the juridical classification by which Israel tries to be a Jewish state, unsuccessfully. And essentially, they live in a state of inferior rights. Much less is spent on their villages and schooling and municipal facilities than comparable groups within the Jewish community. And, most important, they are denied fundamental rights like those of immigration and citizenship rights that are enjoyed by Jews outside of Israel. Israel has become unique in the sense that it’s the only state in the world that is not the state of its citizens, but the state of the entire Jewish people, which means that roughly a million-point-two of its citizens are somehow — or not somehow, but are definitely inferior.

In the Occupied Territories, to continue this sad litany of the condition of Palestinians, until the Oslo Accords, Palestinians were ruled as an occupied population with great, by the way — I remember — with great admiration by people in this country. I remember in the early ’70s there was a visit to this campus by an Israeli military officer in charge of some aspect of the occupation, and it was a closed seminar, and somehow I wormed my way into it to listen to him say it. And what struck me was the admiration, not to say deference, shown him by faculty members — colleagues of mine, in some instances — who were going on about how benign the occupation was and how miraculous it was that Israel was able to rule a population, which it has now ruled for 32 years, with such a small amount of brutality. Well, the fact is, of course, that the brutality has continued in all sorts of ways from the beginning, even after Oslo.

To this day, land is continually taken from Palestinians, both inside the Occupied Territories and inside Israel itself. That is to say, since land is held in trust — 90% of the land — 92% of the land of Israel is held in trust for the Jewish people — Arabs cannot buy land, sell it or lease it, and their land is continually confiscated. Last fall, for example, the village of Umm al-Fahm, which is the second-largest Palestinian village inside Israel — I mean, the second-largest city — lost approximately 10,000 dunams, which is about 3,000 acres, because Israel unilaterally decided to take them for use as a military target practice area. So this continues all the time. And on the West Bank and Gaza, ruled under military occupation until Oslo, there have been, in Gaza, about a thousand laws passed, occupier’s laws, restricting movement, restricting occupations, restricting such things as whether you can plant certain plants or not, whether you can build or not — all aspects of life controlled minutely by the Israeli occupation, 1,400 laws of that sort on the West Bank, creating in fact a vast prison. Since Oslo — I will come back to it in a minute — since Oslo, the situation has gotten worse, in ways that I want to describe in a moment.

So, what happened then after 1948 was the creation — and I want to talk a little bit about the parallelism between the developments inside the Arab world, and particularly as they affected the Palestinians, and the development in — developments inside Israel. There was, of course, in the Arab world a cult of the army, following on the general militarization that I was talking about earlier. This implied that there were only military solutions to political problems, and it was so prevalent a view that it overshadowed the axiom that successful military action had to derive from a motivated, bravely led, politically integrated and educated force, and this could only issue from a citizen society. Such a desideratum was never the case in the Arab world, rarely practiced or articulated.

In addition, there was consolidated a kind of nationalist culture that encouraged, rather than mitigated, Arab isolation from the rest of the modern world. Israel was soon perceived not only as a Jewish but as a Western state, which, in part, it was, and, as such, was completely rejected even as a suitable intellectual pursuit for those who were interested in finding out about the enemy. And what then developed was a kind of dual system. On the one hand, you had the official Arab position towards Israel, which was rejection, which was “this is the enemy, we have to attack,” and so on and so forth, and another system, perfectly typified in that of the Hashemites, but also not limited to them. That is to say, Abdel Nasser, we know, was in contact with the Israelis searching for terms of peace. Really, all through the ’50s and right up to and certainly after the ’67 War, the Hashemites were in constant touch with the Israelis and developed an alliance that was never officially accepted or recognized, but it existed and came into play, as Noam mentioned, in 1970 during the Black September days between — in the war between the Palestinian resistance movement and the Jordanian army.

At the same time, Israel, in its extraordinary — and compared to the Arab efforts, I mean, far superior — efforts at international propaganda, was putting out a tissue of ideological fictions, which were never countered and never properly addressed by the Arabs, so that the rhetorical conflict was a consequence of 1948 and amplified well beyond it anything like anywhere else in the world. For part of the time, it took on some of the vehemence and prominence of the Cold War, which framed it for almost 30 years.

What was strange about it is, like the events of 1948 themselves, there was no real Palestinian representation at all until 1967. We were always referred to as “the Arabs.” And the subsequent — I mean, after '67 and the subsequent emergence of the PLO, things began to change. Until then, we were simply known as the Arab refugees who fled because their leaders told them to, even after some research in the early ’60s utterly disputed the validity of those claims and proved the existence of Plan Dalet, which was the Israeli army, or the Haganah, plan to rid Palestine of its inhabitants during the fighting of 1948, in which the aforementioned Rabin, General Rabin, was responsible for the evacuation — forced eviction — of 60,000 people from the towns of Lydd and Ramle, which now are part of Tel Aviv Airport. So when you go there, you might remember that these used to be Arab cities that were emptied in 1948. These stories about the heroic independence and liberation forces of the Zionists continue to be traded in. Worse yet, those Palestinians who remained behind in Israel after 1948 acquired a solitary status as “Israeli Arabs” — that's what they were called — shunned by other Arabs, treated by Israeli Jews under a whip, the military administration, and until 1966 stringent emergency laws applied and assigned to them as non-Jews.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of this state of affairs is that even the word “peace” acquires a sinister, uncomfortable meaning for the Arabs at just the time that Israeli publicists used it at every opportunity, as, again, the United States did in formulating this notion of a peace process. The Israelis would constantly appear — people like Abba Eban and others — in the West, saying, “We want peace with the Arabs.” And sure enough, the echo went around that Israel fervently desired peace, while the Arabs — ferocious, vengeful, gratuitously bent on violence — did not. In fact, what was at issue — and I want to emphasize this — between Israelis and Palestinians was never peace, but the possibility for Palestinians of restitution of property, nationhood, identity, all of them blotted out by the new Jewish state. Moreover, it appeared to Palestinians that peace with Israel was a form of exterminism that left us without political existence. It meant accepting as definitive and unappealable the events of 1948, the two — the loss of our society and homeland.

So, even more alienated from Israel and everything it stood for, the whole idea of separation between the two peoples acquired a life of its own, though it meant different things for each: Israelis wanted it in order to live in a purely Jewish state, freed from its non-Jewish residents, both in memory and in actuality; Palestinians wanted it as a method for getting back to their original existence as the Arab possessors of Palestine. The logic of separation has operated since 1948 as a persistent motif and has now reached its apogee and its logical conclusion in the helplessly skewed and unworkable Oslo Accords, that are still celebrated by the media and many bien pensants in this country. At only the very rarest of moments did either Palestinians or Israelis try to think their histories and cultures inextricably linked, for better or for worse, together, contrapuntally, rather than in mutually exclusive terms.

The sheer distortion in views both of history and of the future that has resulted is breathtaking and requires some example and analysis now. I don’t think anyone can honestly disagree that since 1948 the Palestinians have been the victims, Israelis the victors. No matter how much one tries to dress up or prettify this rather bleak formulation, its truth shines through the murk just the same. The general argument from Israel and its supporters has been that the Palestinians brought it on themselves: Why did they leave? Why did the Arabs declare war? Why did they not accept the 1947 plan of partition? And so on and so on. None of this, it should be clear, justifies Israel’s subsequent official behavior, both toward itself and its Palestinian victims, where a hard cruelty, a dehumanizing attitude and an almost sadistic severity in putting down the Palestinians has prevailed over all the years.

The much-vaunted Israeli and general Jewish feeling that Israel is in serious peril and that Jews will always be targets of anti-Semitic opportunity, that is buttressed by appeals to the Holocaust, to centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and to Jewish exiles, this is a potent and, in many ways, a justifiable sentiment. I’ve gone on record as saying that it is justified for Jews, even for American Jews whose experiences have been nowhere near as traumatic as their European counterparts, to feel the agonies of the Holocaust as their own, even into the present. But I keep asking myself whether the use of that feeling to keep Palestinians in more or less permanent submission can repeatedly be justified on those grounds alone. And are Netanyahu’s intemperate harangues about Israeli security justified, given what a miserable lot has been the Palestinians’? Are the huge numbers of soldiers — you must think that in Israel every young person, man or woman, between the ages of 18 and 25, is required to serve in the army — a lot of that service is policing Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Edward Said is a leading Palestinian American scholar and activist. He is a university professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. His latest book, The Edward Said Reader, well-known for his books called Culture and Imperialism and Orientalism. His memoir is called Out of Place. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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