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Confusing Palestine With Palestinian Intellectuals : BLAMING THE VICTIMS Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, edited by Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens (Verso: $34.95, cloth; $12.95, paper; 272 pp.)

December 27, 1987|Helena Cobban | Cobban was, for five years, Beirut correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of "The Palestinian Liberation Organization: People, Power and Politics" (Cambridge University Press).

In presenting their rival claims to nationhood in the Holy Land, the Israelis and Palestinians are sorely ill-matched in the bullring of American public opinion. With this collection of essays--their own and other people's--Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens are doing their bit to redress that balance; and readers should welcome a chance to hear the lesser-heard side of any debate of this importance. Certainly, it can only be beneficial that some of those thousands of Americans who bought or were given Joan Peters' methodologically indefensible work "From Time Immemorial," which argued that most Palestinians were recent immigrants to Palestine/Israel when the State of Israel was founded in 1948, should be given another opportunity to read Norman Finkelstein's carefully documented refutation of her claims.

However, this book suffers from several shortcomings that undermine the editors' purpose. In his introduction, Said makes a telling observation: "Most of all the Palestinian has suffered because he or she has been unknown, an unacknowledged victim, and worse, a victim blamed not only for his or her disasters, but for those of others as well."

I would contest this statement. Throughout the past century, Palestinians have suffered greatly in much more concrete ways than the one Said names. They have been hounded out of their country and stripped of their possessions. They have been killed, bombed and strafed with some of the West's most advanced weaponry. Their communities have been shorn of political rights and submitted to outright terror in Lebanon, or the slightly smaller terrors of Syria or the Israeli military administration of the occupied territories.

Compared with these sufferings--many of which continue to this day--Said's Angst at being "unknown" sounds more than slightly self-indulgent. It is the whine of the Palestinian intellectual who, while he experiences alienation from his American surroundings, is nevertheless amply insulated by them from the terrors experienced by less lucky compatriots.

This is not an idle observation, since the Angst of the professionally alienated Palestinian intellectual seems to be one of this book's major organizing principles. "Unfair" is the objection voiced strongly and often persuasively here to the current discourse on two issues: interpretations of Palestinian demography and migration, and terrorism. The objectors include (in addition to Said, Hitchens, and Finkelstein) linguistics expert Noam Chomsky and writer Peretz Kidron.

Chomsky's is one of the most disappointing contributions. In trying to re-balance the debate over terrorism, he goes too far. It is one thing to try, as Hitchens has done in Harper's, to debunk the partisan, self-serving nature of the right wing's rhetoric on the subject. It is counterproductive and wrong to go as far as Chomsky does, not only dubbing the United States "the terror state" but also accusing the mass media of being "committed to serve the needs of the state propaganda system."

A larger problem, for a book such as this one, is that such debates are by their nature most likely to be ephemeral. Even the public obsession with "terrorism" as a highly fundable object of study appears to have peaked, much to the dismay of the phalanxes of counterterrorism "experts."

Yet it is not until the latter third of the book that we get to anything more substantial in the field of Palestine studies. This substance is provided by two more academic contributions. In one, historian Rashid Khalidi reconstructs key episodes in the early dispossession of the Palestinian peasantry by the Zionist newcomers, using contemporary Palestinian accounts in addition to the more customary Zionist or British sources. And in the last contribution, Said and four other Palestinian scholars present a 50-page "Profile of the Palestinian people."

This profile consists of a summary of existing data on the Palestinians, and as such represents a useful exposition of the national self-image of these Palestinian authors . Its major weakness is that it does nothing to explore or explain the many internal policy debates inside the PLO. The authors write, concerning the period after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon: "As the PLO reorganized . . . it did so fully confident of the backing of a Palestinian national consensus."

This is plainly nonsense: Between 1983 and early 1987, the PLO suffered the most damaging split in its 23-year history. By blandly ignoring such debates and leaving us with the impression that every Palestinian marches through life in perfect pro-Arafat lock-step, the authors not only lay themselves open to charges of partisan suppression of information, they also, ironically, diminish the humanity of the very national cause they seek to defend.

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