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Crisis for American Jews

by Edward Said

A few weeks ago, a vociferous pro-Israel demonstration was held in Washington at roughly the same moment that the siege of Jenin was taking place.

All of the speakers were prominent public figures, including several senators, leaders of major Jewish organisations, and other celebrities, each of whom expressed unfailing solidarity with everything Israel was doing.

The administration was represented by Paul Wolfowitz, number two at the Department of Defence, an extreme right-wing hawk who has been speaking about “ending” countries like Iraq ever since last September. Also known as a rigorous hard- line supporter of Israel, in his speech he did what everyone else did — celebrated Israel and expressed total unconditional support for it — but unexpectedly referred in passing to “the sufferings of the Palestinians.” Because of that phrase, he was booed so loudly and so long that he was unable to continue his speech, leaving the platform in a kind of disgrace.

The moral of this incident is that public American Jewish support for Israel today simply does not tolerate any allowance for the existence of an actual Palestinian people, except in the context of terrorism, violence, evil and fanaticism. Moreover, this refusal to see, much less hear anything about, the existence of “another side” far exceeds the fanaticism of anti-Arab sentiment among Israelis, who are of course on the front line of the struggle in Palestine. To judge by the recent antiwar demonstration of 60,000 people in Tel Aviv, the increasing number of military reservists who refuse service in the occupied territories, the sustained protest of (admitted only a few) intellectuals and groups, and some of the polls that show a majority of Israelis willing to withdraw in return for peace with the Palestinians, there is at least a dynamic of political activity among Israeli Jews. But not so in the United States.

Two weeks ago the weekly magazine New York, which has a circulation of about a million copies, ran a dossier entitled “Crisis for American Jews,” the theme being that “in New York, as in Israel, [it is] an issue of survival.” I won’t try to summarise the main points of this extraordinary claim except to say that it painted such a picture of anguish about “what is most precious in my life, the state of Israel,” according to one of the prominent New Yorkers quoted in the magazine, that you would think that the existence of this most prosperous and powerful of all minorities in the United States was actually being threatened. One of the other people quoted even went as far as to suggest that American Jews are on the brink of a second holocaust. Certainly, as the author of one of the articles said, most American Jews support what Israel did on the West Bank, enthusiastically; one American Jew said, for instance, that his son is now in the Israeli army and that he is “armed, dangerous and killing as many Palestinians as possible.”

Guilt at being well-off in America plays a role in this kind of delusional thinking, but mostly it is the result of an extraordinary self-isolation in fantasy and myth that comes from education and unreflective nationalism of a kind unique in the world. Ever since the Intifada broke out almost two years ago, the American media and the major Jewish organisations have been running all kinds of attacks on Islamic education in the Arab world, Pakistan and even in the US. These have accused Islamic authorities, as well as Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, of teaching youngsters hatred of America and Israel, the virtues of suicide bombing, unlimited praise for jihad. Little has been said, however, of the results of what American Jews have been taught about the conflict in Palestine: that it was given to Jews by God, that it was empty, that it was liberated from Britain, that the natives ran away because their leaders told them to, that in effect the Palestinians don’t exist except recently as terrorists, that all Arabs are anti-Semitic and want to kill Jews.

Nowhere in all this incitement to hatred does the reality of a Palestinian people exist, and more to the point, there is no connection made between Palestinian animosity and enmity towards Israel and what Israel has been doing to Palestinians since 1948. It’s as if an entire history of dispossession, the destruction of a society, the 35 year old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to say nothing of massacres, bombardments, expulsions, land expropriations, killings, sieges, humiliations, years of collective punishment and assassinations that have gone on for decades were as nothing, since Israel has been victimised by Palestinian rage, hostility and gratuitous anti-semitism. It simply does not occur to most American supporters of Israel to see Israel as the actual author of specific actions done in the name of the Jewish people by the Jewish state, and to connect in consequence those actions to Palestinian feelings of anger and revenge.

The problem at bottom is that as human beings the Palestinians do not exist, that is, as human beings with history, traditions, society, sufferings and ambitions like all other people. Why this should be so for most but by no means all American Jewish supporters of Israel is something worth looking into. It goes back to the knowledge that there was an indigenous people in Palestine — all the Zionist leaders knew it and spoke about it — but the fact as a fact that might prevent colonisation could never be admitted. Hence the collective Zionist practice of either denying the fact or, more specially in the US where the realities are not so available for actual verification, lying about it by producing a counter-reality. For decades it has been decreed to schoolchildren there were no Palestinians when the Zionist pioneers arrived and so those miscellaneous people who throw stones and fight occupation are simply a collection of terrorists who deserve killing. Palestinians, in short, do not deserve anything like a narrative or collective actuality, and so they must be transmuted and dissolved into essentially negative images. This is entirely the result of a distorted education, doled out to millions of youngsters who grow up without any awareness at all that the Palestinian people have been totally dehumanised to serve a political- ideological end, namely to keep support high for Israel.

What is so astonishing is that notions of co- existence between peoples play no part in this kind of distortion. Whereas American Jews want to be recognised as Jews and Americans in America, they are unwilling to accord a similar status as Arabs and Palestinians to another people that has been oppressed by Israel since the beginning.

Only if one were to live in the US for years would one be aware of the depth of the problem which far transcends ordinary politics. The intellectual suppression of the Palestinians that has occurred because of Zionist education has produced an unreflecting, dangerously skewed sense of reality in which whatever Israel does it does as a victim: according to the various articles I have mentioned above, American Jews in crisis by extension therefore feel the same thing as the most right-wing of Israeli Jews, that they are at risk and their survival is at stake. This has nothing to do with reality obviously enough, but rather with a kind of hallucinatory state that overrides history and facts with a supremely unthinking narcissism. A recent defence of what Wolfowitz said in his speech didn’t even refer to the Palestinians he was referring to, but defended President Bush’s Middle East policy.

This is de-humanisation on a vast scale, and it is made even worse, one has to say, by the suicide bombings that have so disfigured and debased the Palestinian struggle. All liberation movements in history have affirmed that their struggle is about life, not about death. Why should ours be an exception? The sooner we educate our Zionist enemies and show that our resistance offers co-existence and peace, the less likely will they be able to kill us at will, and never refer to us except as terrorists. I am not saying that Sharon and Netanyahu can be changed. I am saying that there is a Palestinian, yes a Palestinian constituency, as well as an Israeli and American one that needs to be reminded by strategy and tactics that force of arms and tanks and human bombs and bulldozers are not a solution, but only create more delusion and distortion, on both sides.

Edward Said writes a weekly column for the Cairo-based al-Ahram.

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