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Commentary : Defending the Integrity of Edward Said : Middle East: Shame on those who attack his credibility as a leading Palestinian voice.

August 29, 1999|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

I remember hearing the Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, back in the fall of 1996, using a keynote speech at a conference in his honor at Columbia University to address two themes. The first theme came in the form of a reading from manuscript pages of the memoir, "Out of Place," which he was then in the process of composing and which is to be published shortly. The portions Said read to us that day were about his memories of the fall of Palestine as a teenager. His second theme, stated with great passion, was of his certainty that a just and lasting peace in the land of his birth only could be achieved by reconciliation between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Said left us in no doubt that he considered this--far more than the formal provisions of any diplomatic agreement--as the sine qua non of any tolerable future.

How bitterly ironic it is, therefore, that at that same moment an American Jew, transplanted to Israel, was embarking on a project designed to be the most cruelly contemptuous of ripostes to Said's speech--one that denies Said even the core credential of a Palestinian today, a person as oppressed by the loss of nationhood as any Jew through the centuries until creation of the state of Israel in 1948 restored that dignity to Jews everywhere, just as it imparted a sense of loss and exile to Palestinians.

In the September issue of Commentary magazine, Justus Reid Weiner sets forth a series of accusations that he claims to be the fruit of three years' research, conducted under the auspices of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an outfit whose prime funder is the Los Angeles-based Milken Family Foundation.

Said's family, Weiner asserts, was really from Cairo, and only occasionally visited Jerusalem. Weiner concedes that Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, but exerts himself greatly to demonstrate that Said had virtually no other connection to that city. Not only did Said's family not own the house in the Talbieh district but, Weiner says, there is no evidence to buttress Said's claim to have attended St. George's school.

In one passage, Weiner insists that the Talbieh neighborhood was peaceful in the months before establishment of the state of Israel, and that therefore any notion of compelled flight, of exile, of the Said family is wrong. (Yes folks, we're back with that old chestnut--now disavowed in Israeli schoolbooks--of "voluntary" Palestinian departure in 1948.)

In sum, Weiner's essential charge is that Edward Said has deceived his vast public utterly about his life, that he is--to use the word now hurled unsparingly by others echoing Weiner's charges--a liar.

Beyond the fact that he is no such thing, there is something eerie about all this, like looking at history through the wrong end of a telescope. Suppose that Said was born in New York, had never set foot in Palestine before 1948 or Israel thereafter. Would that degrade his role as Palestinian spokesman? If so, are we to ridicule the bonds to Israel that American Jews cherish and often proclaim?

As a matter of fact, Said was not only born in Jerusalem (as was his sister five years later) but went to St. Georges. After asking Said for the name of a teacher (something Weiner surely could have done at some point in the course of his protracted research), I talked to Michael Marmoura, now emeritus professor at the University of Toronto, who well remembers teaching Said at St. Georges, saying he was "a bit of a rascal, very naughty." Yes indeed, Marmoura says, the Saids were well-known as an old Palestinian family.

The more one looks at them, the more meanly trivial, as well as factitious, Weiner's charges turn out to be. Does it really matter that title to the Said house in Jerusalem was held by his father's sister and her husband, who was himself Said's father's first cousin? The young Said lived in it, and after 1948 the house was taken away from the Said family, decreed to be "absentee enemy property" by Israel. Weiner labors to say Said is not a "refugee," but the fact is that Weiner, an American Jew, has the right of return to Israel and immediate citizenship but the Saids do not. Said's mother was a Palestinian refugee and after 1948 could neither return to her own country nor reclaim her family property. Said has never denied his relatively privileged background nor his family's sojourns in Cairo. What he has eloquently attested to is the Palestinian loss of national identity, along with material exile.

Weiner's effort to show that Said somehow isn't Palestinian is as weirdly audacious as Golda Meir's notorious claim many years ago that there was no such entity as the Palestinian people, only Arab transplants with no rights. Surely we're past that.

The charge against Palestinians like Said used to be that they wouldn't recognize Israel's right to exist. Here we are in 1999, with Weiner, (a former official in Israel's Justice Department whose job was to rebut charges of human rights abuses by Israeli security forces) frantically trying to deny Said's right to exist as Palestine's foremost intellectual spokesman. Shame on Weiner, and on the foundation that backed this silly enterprise.

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