Freud, Zionism, and Vienna

by Edward Said

This is a parable worth a few lines here, although it derives from a rather peculiar personal experience of mine which has attracted unusual, if undeserved, media and public attention. Ordinarily, I don’t use myself as an example, but because this one has been so misrepresented and also because it might illuminate the context of the Palestinian-Zionist struggle it took place in, I have permitted myself to use it.

In late June and early July 2000, I made a personal family visit to Lebanon, where I also gave two public lectures. Like most Arabs, my family and I were very interested to visit South Lebanon to see the recently evacuated “security zone” militarily occupied by Israel for 22 years, from which troops of the Jewish state were unceremoniously expelled by the Lebanese resistance.

Our visit took place on 3 July, during which day-long excursion we spent time in the notorious Khiam prison, built by the Israelis in 1987, in which 8,000 people were tortured and detained in dreadful, bestial conditions. Right after that we drove to the border post, also abandoned by Israeli troops, now a deserted area except for Lebanese visitors who come there in large numbers to throw stones of celebration across the still heavily fortified border. No Israelis, neither military nor civilians, were in sight.

During our 10-minute stop I was photographed there without my knowledge pitching a tiny pebble in competition with some of the younger men present, none of whom of course had any particular target in sight. The area was empty for miles and miles.

Two days later my picture appeared in newspapers in Israel and all over the West. I was described as a rock-throwing terrorist, a man of violence, and so on and on, in the familiar chorus of defamation and falsehood known to anyone who has incurred the hostility of Zionist propaganda.

Two ironies stand out. One was that although I have written at least eight books on Palestine and have always advocated resistance to Zionist occupation, I have never argued for anything but peaceful coexistence between us and the Jews of Israel once Israel’s military repression and dispossession of Palestinians has stopped. My writings have circulated all over the world in at least 35 languages, so my positions are scarcely unknown, and my message is very clear. But, having found it useless to refute the facts and arguments I have presented and, more important, having been unable to prevent my work from reaching larger and larger audiences, the Zionist movement has resorted to shabbier and shabbier techniques to try to stop me.

Two years ago they hired an obscure Israeli-American lawyer to “research” the first ten years of my life and “prove” that even though I was born in Jerusalem I was never really there; this was supposed to show that I was a liar who had misrepresented my right to return, even though — and this is the stupidity and triviality of the argument — the invidious Israeli Law of Return allows any Jew anywhere the “right” to come to Israel and live, whether or not they had even set foot in Israel before.

Besides, so crude and inaccurate were this lawyer’s methods of investigation that many people whom he interviewed wrote in and contradicted what he said; none of the journals, except one, that he approached for publication accepted his article because of its misrepresentations and distortions.

Not only was this campaign an effort to discredit me personally (the editor of the journal that published it said openly that he had printed the silly rubbish produced by this hired gun simply because he wanted to discredit me personally precisely because I have a lot of readers) but quite amazingly it was meant to show that all Palestinians are liars and cannot be believed in their assertions about a right to return.

Fast upon the heels of this orchestrated effort there came the business of the stone-throwing. And here is the second irony. Despite Israel’s 22-year devastation of south Lebanon, its destruction of entire villages, the killing of hundreds of civilians, its use of mercenary soldiers to plunder and punish, its deplorable use of the most inhuman methods of torture and imprisonment in Khiam and elsewhere — despite all that, Israeli propaganda, aided and abetted by a corrupt Western media, chose to focus on a harmless act of mine, blowing it up to monstrously absurd proportions that suggested that I was a violent fanatic interested in killing Jews. The context was left out, as were the circumstances, i.e. that I simply threw a pebble, that no Israeli was anywhere present, that no physical injury or harm was threatened to anyone. More bizarrely still, a whole, again orchestrated campaign was mounted to try to get me dismissed from the university where I have taught for 38 years. Articles in the press, commentary, letters of abuse and death threats were all used to intimidate or silence me, including those by colleagues of mine who suddenly discovered their allegiance to the state of Israel.

The comedy of it all, the total lack of logic that tried to connect a trivial incident in South Lebanon to my life and works, was to no avail, however. Colleagues rallied to my side, as did many members of the public. Most important, the university administration magnificently defended my right to my opinions and actions, and noted that the campaign against me wasn’t at all about my having thrown a stone (an act rightly characterised as protected speech), but about my political positions and activity that resisted Israel’s policy of occupation and repression.

The latest episode in all this Zionist pressure is in some ways the saddest and most shameful. In late July 2000, I was contacted by the director of the Freud Institute and Museum in Vienna to ask if I would accept an invitation to deliver the annual Freud lecture there in May 2001. I said yes, and on 21 August received an official letter from the Institute’s director inviting me to do so in the name of the board. I promptly accepted, having written about Freud and for many years been a great admirer of his work and life. (Incidentally, it should be noted that Freud was an early anti-Zionist but later modified his view when Nazi persecutions of European Jews made a Jewish state seem like a possible solution to widespread and lethal anti-Semitism. But I believe that his position vis-a-vis Zionism was always an ambivalent one.)

The topic I proposed for my lecture was “Freud and the Non-European” in which I intended to argue that although Freud’s work was for and about Europe, his interest in ancient civilisations like those of Egypt, Palestine, Greek and Africa was an indication of the universalism of his vision and the humane scope of his work. Moreover, I believed that his thought deserved to be appreciated for its anti-provincialism, quite unlike that of his contemporaries who denigrated other non-European cultures as lesser or inferior.

Then without warning on 8 February of this year, I was informed by the Institute’s chairman, a Viennese sociologist by the name of Schulein, that the board had decided to cancel my lecture, because (he said) of the political situation in the Middle East “and the consequences of it.” No other explanation was given. It was a most unprofessional and lamentable gesture very much in contradiction with the spirit and the letter of Freud’s work. In over 30 years of lecturing all over the world this had never happened to me, and I immediately responded by asking Schalein in a one-sentence letter to explain to me how a lecture on Freud in Vienna had anything to do with “the political condition in the Middle East.” I have of course received no answer.

To make matters worse, the “New York Times” published a story on 10 March about the episode, along with a grotesquely enlarged version of the famous photograph in South Lebanon last July, an event that had taken place well before the Freud people had invited me in late August.

When Schalein was interviewed by the “Times”, he had the gall to bring up the photo and say what he never had the courage to say to me, that it (as well as my criticism of Israel’s occupation) was the reason for the cancellation, given, he added, that it might offend Viennese Jewish sensitivities in the context of Jorg Haider’s presence, the Holocaust, and the history of Austrian anti-Semitism. That a respectable academic should say such rubbish beggars the imagination, but that he should do so even as Israel is besieging and killing Palestinians mercilessly on a daily basis — that is indecent.

What in their appalling pusillanimity the Freudian gang did not say publicly was that the real reason for the unseemly cancellation of my lecture was that it was the price they paid to their donors in Israel and the US. An exhibition of Freud’s papers mounted by the Institute has already been in Vienna and New York; now the hope is that it will be put on in Israel. The potential funders seem to have demanded that they would pay for the exhibition in Tel Aviv if my lecture were cancelled. The spineless Vienna board caved in, and my lecture was cancelled accordingly, not because I advocate violence and hatred, but because I do not!

I said at the time that Freud was hounded out of Vienna by the Nazis and the majority of the Austrian people. Today those same paragons of courage and intellectual principle ban a Palestinian from lecturing. So low has this particularly unpleasant brand of Zionism sunk that it cannot justify itself by open debate and genuine dialogue. It uses the shadowy mafia tactics of threat and extortion to exact silence and compliance. So desperately does it seek acceptance that it reveals itself in Israel and through its supporters elsewhere, alas, to be in favour of effacing the Palestinian voice entirely, whether by choking Palestinian villages like Bir Zeit, or by shutting down discussion and criticism wherever it can find collaborators and cowards to carry out its reprehensible demands. No wonder that in such a climate Ariel Sharon is Israel’s leader.

But in the end these thuggish tactics backfire, since not everyone is afraid, and not every voice can be silenced. After 50 years of Zionist censorship and misrepresentation, the Palestinians continue their struggle. And everywhere, despite poor media coverage, despite the venality of institutions like the Freud Society, despite the cowardice of intellectuals who put their consciences to sleep, people speak up for justice and peace. Immediately after Vienna cancelled my invitation, the London Freud Museum invited me to deliver the lecture I was to have given in Vienna. (After being driven from Vienna in 1938, Freud spent the last year of his life in London.) Two Austrian institutions, the Institute for the Human Sciences and the Austrian Society for Literature invited me to lecture in Vienna at a date of my choosing. A group of distinguished psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic critics (including Mustafa Safouan) wrote a letter to the Freud Institute protesting the cancellation. Many others have been shocked at such naked bullying and have said so in public. Meanwhile, Palestinian resistance continues everywhere.

I still believe it is our role as a people seeking peace with justice to provide an alternative vision to Zionism’s, a vision based on equality and inclusion, rather than on apartheid and exclusion. Each episode such as the one I have described here augments my conviction that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have any alternative to sharing a land that both claim. I also believe that the Al-Aqsa Intifada must be directed towards that end, even though political and cultural resistance to Israel’s reprehensible occupation policies of siege, humiliation, starvation and collective punishment must be vigourously resisted. The Israeli military causes immense damage to Palestinians day after day: more innocent people are killed, their land destroyed or confiscated, their houses bombed and demolished, their movements circumscribed or stopped entirely.

Thousands of civilians cannot find work, go to school, or receive medical treatment as a result of these Israeli actions. Such arrogance and suicidal rage against the Palestinians will bring no results except more suffering and more hatred, which is why in the end Sharon has always failed and resorted to useless murder and pillage. For our own sakes, we must rise above Zionism’s bankruptcy and continue to articulate our own message of peace with justice.

If the way seems difficult, it cannot be abandoned. When any of us is stopped, ten others can take his or her place. That is the genuine hallmark of our struggle, and neither censorship nor base complicity with it can prevent its success. CP

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