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Defamation, Revisionist Style

by Edward Said

Given the approach of the final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians it seems worthwhile to record here the lengths to which the Israeli right-wing (Jabotinsky and Netanhayu’s Revisionists) will go to further its claims on all of Palestine against those of the country’s native Palestinian inhabitants who were dispossessed as an entire nation in 1948. To this very end, an article has appeared in the September issue of Commentary, a small conservative Jewish monthly, which attacks my life and story as a Palestinian by pretending to show that I am neither really Palestinian, nor ever lived in Palestine, nor that my family was evicted from Palestine in 1948. It should be remarked that this is the third such attack on me by Commentary in twenty years: the first being an enormously long critique in 1981 of my book The Question of Palestine, the second a reckless article in l988 or l989 entitled “The Professor of Terror,” the third being this one, written by one Justus Weiner, an American Israeli who works for an obscure Israeli self-proclaimed “neoconservative” research center in Jerusalem. Before that he was paid by the Israeli Ministry of Justice to defend against Amnesty International. Weiner’s argument is buttressed by his boast that he spent three years on his study of my life, spoke to 85 witnesses, travelled to several continents, and found many inconsistencies in what he says is “my story,” which he distorts more or less at will. It seems astonishing that he obtained funding for this project, although he tactfully doesn’t say why, how much, and from whom, given that it was from Michael Milken (the junk bond felon and his foundation).

The first problem is that during his three years of assiduous research Weiner never once contacted or in any way spoke to me, an extraordinary omission by a man who pretends that he is both a scholar and a journalist but actually uses the methods of neither one nor the other. He says he spoke to my assistant once: that is a straight-out lie. Another problem is that he misappropriated and falsifies a galley of my memoir, Out of Place, completed in September 1998, and to appear from Knopf next month. (Extracts from it will appear shortly in the New York Review of Books, The Observer, Harper’s and Granta.) There, I scrupulously record the facts of my early life spent between Jerusalem, Cairo and Dhour el Shweir (Lebanon), making clear that being the member of a privileged class I was spared the worst ravages of the nakba. I have never claimed to have been made a refugee, but rather that my extended family, all of it — uncles, cousins, aunts, grandparents — in fact was. By the spring of 1948 not a single relative of mine was left in Palestine, ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces. Commentary ‘s Weiner does not mention that, allowing himself the preposterous claim that my memoir (for which I signed a contract in 1989, submitted several chapters in 1994, and completed in 1998) was written to refute an article by him that did not appear until late August 1999.

To make matters worse, Weiner’s strenuous display of scholarly rigor is undercut by dozens of mistakes of fact. He calls Boulos Said my father’s brother, whereas he was my father’s cousin. Boulos’s wife, Nabiha, was my father’s sister. Weiner does not know that. He does not realize that the kuchan or tabo is rarely complete and that the family house was in fact a family house in the Arab sense, which meant that our families were one in ownership. I was born there in 1935; my sister Jean in 1940. Together Boulos and Wadie Said, cousins, partners, and close friends, owned the Palestine Education Company, with branches in Jerusalem and Haifa. All, plus the house, were lost to Israel in 1948. My father Wadie did not simply “retain an interest” in our Palestinian business and property: he owned 50% of it. Weiner also lies about the gutting of our main Jerusalem branch in 1947: it was intact until spring 1948 when Zionist forces captured it. Weiner says that we didn’t try for reparations, thereby deliberately obfuscating two facts: that my father did in fact try to sue the Israeli government for reparations, and my cousin Yousif registered another claim in mid-1996, and second, that by l950 the law of absentee property passed by Israel had unilaterally converted all Palestinian property into Israeli property. No wonder our efforts are still unrewarded. He says that I didn’t attend St George’s School. This too is an outright lie. He does not admit that the school’s records end in l946, and I was there in 1947 or that my father and cousins had attended the school starting in 1906. Had he been a decent researcher he might have sought out one of my classmates, Haig Boyagian (who lives in the US now and quite coincidentally called me a week ago) and my math teacher, Michel Marmoura, a retired professor at the University of Toronto, for verification. The one classmate, David Ezra, Weiner consulted didn’t remember me, though I remember him. If Weiner found him and ascertained he was at St. George’s in 1947 does that mean I invented him? Weiner says that my mother was Lebanese, whereas she was only half Lebanese; her father was Palestinian. She had a Palestinian passport and in 1948 did in point of fact become a refugee. The Talbiyeh house, where my sister and I were born, was built for my family in 1932 by Sab’ Samaha. Weiner gets that wrong too. The Egyptian branches of the family business were not nationalized but sold to the Nasser government; nor were they burned by “revolutionary mobs” but rather by the Muslim Brothers And so on and on.

All this from someone who claims that I have falsified the past to pretend that I am a victim. In a 1992 interview (in Edward Said, A Critical Reader ), for instance, I spoke of Cairo as where I spent much of my childhood; this had been anticipated by my “Cairo Recalled,” House and Garden, 1987. Weiner deliberately ignores all this, as he does my absolute right to say that my time in Palestine was “formative.” What he cannot understand, and has not been able to understand from any of my writings, is the fact that I have been moved to defend the refugees’ plight precisely because I did not suffer and therefore feel obligated to relieve the sufferings of my people, less fortunate than myself. Weiner is a propagandist who like many others before him have tried to depict the dispossession of Palestinians as ideological fiction: this has been a steady theme of Zionist “information” since the 1930s. He never gives actual sources, but uses innuendos and fraudulent calculations and unsubstantiated assertions. Every piece of stationery, every shop sign, directory, and yearbook connected with our Palestinian business states that Boulos and Wadie Said were co-owners (and, obviously co-losers in 1948). In the body of his article he does not name the people he allegedly talked to “on four continents” or the documents he consulted, or what exactly they said, when, and in answer to what question. My cousin Robert, for example, told me that when at first he refused to talk to someone who must have been Weiner (though Robert didn’t remember his name), Weiner then threatened him. Weiner’s attempt now may be useful as a way of discrediting all Palestinian claims to return and compensation (the subject is one of his previous “scholarly” interventions), which will be a central issue in the terminal phase of the peace process. Weiner’s polemic also covers up the inequities of Israel’s Law of Return, which allows any Jew anywhere to emigrate to Israel, whereas no Palestinian, even someone born there, has any such right. If someone like Edward Said is a liar, runs the argument, how can we believe all those peasants who say they were driven off their land? The Revisionist Likud argument (Weiner’s) is that the land all belongs to the people of Israel given to them by God. All the other claimants are therefore prevaricators and pretenders.

Luckily several survivors of 1948 from my family are still alive and well. My oldest cousin, the last person to leave our Talbiyeh house, is eighty years old now and lives in Toronto. Why was he not contacted? As my widowed aunt’s oldest son he negotiated with Martin Buber and took him to court when he refused to leave the house after his lease was up and our family returned from a year in Cairo. As for Weiner imbecilic measurements to prove that the house was too small for two families of 14 people: there were married children, children away at school, unborn children, and a deceased parent, that made an actually much smaller number the correct and quite manageable one. What about our neighbors, other relatives, friends, members of the church community? They were never contacted. Several children of the pastor who baptised me are still alive also: they could have been contacted. Why does Weiner not discuss the house’s ownership after 1948, when it was expropriated by Israel? No: what Commentary wants is not the truth but the defamation of my name and character. The irony is that a few weeks ago American newspapers carried a front page story on the revision of Israeli history schoolbooks which, thanks to the efforts of the New Israeli Historians and of course the Palestinian themselves, are beginning to acknowledge the events of 1948 as they really occurred, with the ethnic cleansing, destruction of villages, massacres, etc, which have for so long been denied. This is too much truth for Commentary, which has even been attacking Netanyahu for being too soft on the Palestinians.

I have always advocated the acknowledgement by each other of the Palestinian and Jewish peoples’ past sufferings. Only in this way can they coexist peacefully together in the future. Weiner is more interested in using the past — either an individual or collective past — to prevent understanding and reconciliation. It is a pity that so much time, money, and venom as he has expended couldn’t have been used for better purposes.

© Copyright Edward Said, 1999.

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