Dignity, Solidarity and the Penal Colony
[An Excerpt from The Politics of Anti-Semitism, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair]
Aside from the obvious physical discomforts, being ill for a long period of time fills the spirit with a terrible feeling of helplessness, but also with periods of analytic lucidity, which, of course, must be treasured. For the past three months now I have been in and out of the hospital, with days marked by lengthy and painful treatments, blood transfusions, endless tests, hours and hours of unproductive time spent staring at the ceiling, draining fatigue and infection, inability to do normal work, and thinking, thinking, thinking.
But there are also the intermittent passages of lucidity and reflection that sometimes give the mind a perspective on daily life that allows it to see things (without being able to do much about them) from a different perspective. Reading the news from Palestine and seeing the frightful images of death and destruction on television, it has been my experience to be utterly amazed and aghast at what I have deduced from those details about Israeli government policy, more particularly about what has been going on in the mind of Ariel Sharon. And when, after the recent Gaza bombing by one of his F-16s in which nine children were massacred, he was quoted as congratulating the pilot and boasting of a great Israeli success, I was able to form a much clearer idea than before of what a pathologically deranged mind is capable of, not only in terms of what it plans and orders but, worse, how it manages to persuade other minds to think in the same delusional and criminal way. Getting inside the official Israeli mind is a worthwhile, if lurid, experience.
In the West, however, there’s been such repetitious and unedifying attention paid to Palestinian suicide bombing that a gross distortion in reality has completely obscured what is much worse: the official Israeli, and perhaps the uniquely Sharonian evil that has been visited so deliberately and so methodically on the Palestinian people. Suicide bombing is reprehensible but it is a direct and, in my opinion, a consciously programmed result of years of abuse, powerlessness and despair. It has as little to do with the Arab or Muslim supposed propensity for violence as the man in the moon. Sharon wants terrorism, not peace, and he does everything in his power to create the conditions for it. But for all its horror, Palestinian violence, the response of a desperate and horribly oppressed people, has been stripped of its context and the terrible suffering from which it arises: a failure to see that is a failure in humanity, and that context doesn’t make the violence any less terrible but at least situates it in a real history and real geography.
Yet the location of Palestinian terror-of course it is terror-is never allowed a moment’s chance to appear, so remorseless has been the focus on it as a phenomenon apart, a pure, gratuitous evil which Israel, supposedly acting on behalf of pure good, has been virtuously battling in its variously appalling acts of disproportionate violence against a population of three million Palestinian civilians. I am not speaking only about Israel’s manipulation of opinion, but its exploitation of the American equivalent of the campaign against terrorism without which Israel could not have done what it has done. (In fact, I cannot think of any other country on earth that, in full view of nightly TV audiences, has performed such miracles of detailed sadism against an entire society and gotten away with it.) That this evil has been made consciously part of George W. Bush’s campaign against terrorism, irrationally magnifying American fantasies and fixations with extraordinary ease, is no small part of its blind destructiveness. Like the brigades of eager (and in my opinion completely corrupt) American intellectuals who spin enormous structures of falsehoods about the benign purpose and necessity of US imperialism, Israeli society has pressed into service numerous academics, policy intellectuals at think tanks, and ex-military men now in defense-related and public relations business, all to rationalize and make convincing inhuman punitive policies that are supposedly based on the need for Israeli security.
Israeli security is now a fabled beast. Like a unicorn it is endlessly hunted and never found, remaining, everlastingly, the goal of future action. That over time Israel has become less secure and more unacceptable to its neighbors scarcely merits a moment’s notice. But then who challenges the view that Israeli security ought to define the moral world we live in? Certainly not the Arab and Palestinian leaderships, who for 30 years have conceded everything to Israeli security. Shouldn’t that ever be questioned, given that Israel has wreaked more damage on the Palestinians and other Arabs relative to its size than any country in the world, Israel with its nuclear arsenal, its air force, navy and army limitlessly supplied by the US taxpayer? As a result the daily, minute occurrences of what Palestinians have to live through are hidden and, more important, covered over by a logic of self-defense and the pursuit of terrorism (terrorist infrastructure, terrorist nests, terrorist bomb factories, terrorist suspects-the list is infinite) which perfectly suits Sharon and the lamentable George Bush. Ideas about terrorism have thus taken on a life of their own, legitimized and re-legitimized without proof, logic or rational argument.
Consider for instance the devastation of Afghanistan, on the one hand, and the "targeted" assassinations of almost 100 Palestinians (to say nothing of the many thousands of "suspects" rounded-up and still imprisoned by Israeli soldiers) on the other: nobody asks whether all these people killed were in fact terrorists, or proved to be terrorists, or were about to become terrorists. They are all assumed to be dangers by acts of simple, unchallenged affirmation. All you need is an arrogant spokesman or two, like the loutish Ranaan Gissin, Avi Pazner or Dore Gold, and in Washington a non-stop apologist for ignorance and incoherence like Ari Fleischer, and the targets in question are just as good as dead. Without doubts, questions or demurral. No need for proof or any such tiresome delicacy. Terrorism and its obsessive pursuit have become an entirely circular, self-fulfilling murder and slow death of enemies who have no choice or say in the matter.
With the exception of reports by a few intrepid journalists and writers such as Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Amos Elon, Tanya Leibowitz, Jeff Halper, Israel Shamir and a few others, public discourse in the Israeli media has declined terribly in quality and honesty. Patriotism and blind support for the government has replaced skeptical reflection and moral seriousness. Gone are the days of Israel Shahak, Jakob Talmon and Yehoshua Leibowitch. I can think of few Israeli academics and intellectuals-men like Zeev Sternhell, Uri Avnery and Ilan Pappe, for instance-who are courageous enough to depart from the imbecilic and debased debate about "security" and "terrorism" that seems to have overtaken the Israeli peace establishment, or even its rapidly dwindling left opposition. Crimes are being committed every day in the name of Israel and the Jewish people, and yet the intellectuals chatter on about strategic withdrawal, or perhaps whether to incorporate settlements or not, or whether to keep building that monstrous fence (has a crazier idea ever been realized in the modern world, that you can put several million people in a cage and say they don’t exist?) in a manner befitting a general or a politician, rather than in ways more suited to intellectuals and artists with independent judgment and some sort of moral standard. Where are the Israeli equivalents of Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink, Athol Fugard, those white writers who spoke out unequivocally and with unambiguous clarity against the evils of South African apartheid? They simply don’t exist in Israel, where public discourse by writers and academics has sunk to equivocation and the repetition of official propaganda, and where most really first-class writing and thought has disappeared from even the academic establishment.
But to return to Israeli practices and the mind-set that has gripped the country with such obduracy during the past few years, think of Sharon’s plan. It entails nothing less than the obliteration of an entire people by slow, systematic methods of suffocation, outright murder and the stifling of everyday life. There is a remarkable story by Kafka, In the Penal Colony, about a crazed official who shows off a fantastically detailed torture machine whose purpose is to write all over the body of the victim, using a complex apparatus of needles to inscribe the captive’s body with minute letters that ultimately causes the prisoner to bleed to death. This is what Sharon and his brigades of willing executioners are doing to the Palestinians, with only the most limited and most symbolic of opposition. Every Palestinian has become a prisoner. Gaza is surrounded by an electrified wire fence on three sides; imprisoned like animals, Gazans are unable to move, unable to work, unable to sell their vegetables or fruit, unable to go to school. They are exposed from the air to Israeli planes and helicopters and are gunned down like turkeys on the ground by tanks and machine guns. Impoverished and starved, Gaza is a human nightmare, each of whose little pieces of episodes-like what takes place at Erez, or near the settlements-involves thousands of soldiers in the humiliation, punishment, intolerable enfeeblement of each Palestinian, without regard for age, gender or illness. Medical supplies are held up at the border, ambulances are fired upon or detained. Hundreds of houses are demolished, and hundreds of thousands of trees and agricultural land destroyed in acts of systematic collective punishment against civilians, most of whom are already refugees from Israel’s destruction of their society in 1948. Hope has been eliminated from the Palestinian vocabulary so that only raw defiance remains, and still Sharon and his sadistic minions prattle on about eliminating terrorism by an ever-encroaching occupation that has continued now for 35 years. That the campaign itself is, like all colonial brutality, futile, or that it has the effect of making Palestinians more, rather than less, defiant simply does not enter Sharon’s closed mind.
The West Bank is occupied by 1,000 Israeli tanks whose sole purpose is to fire upon and terrorize civilians. Curfews are imposed for periods of up to two weeks, without respite. Schools and universities are either closed or impossible to get to. No one can travel, not just between the nine main cities but within the cities. Every town today is a wasteland of destroyed buildings, looted offices, purposely ruined water and electrical systems. Commerce is finished. Malnutrition prevails in half the number of children. Two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty level of $2 a day. Tanks in Jenin (where the demolition of the refugee camp by Israeli armor, a major war crime, was never investigated because cowardly international bureaucrats such as Kofi Annan back down when Israel threatens) fire upon and kill children, but that is only one drop in an unending stream of Palestinian civilian deaths caused by Israeli soldiers who furnish the illegal Israeli military occupation with loyal, unquestioning service. Palestinians are all "terrorist suspects". The soul of this occupation is that young Israeli conscripts are allowed full rein to subject Palestinians at checkpoints to every known form of private torture and abjection. There is the waiting in the sun for hours; then there is the detention of medical supplies and produce until they rot; there are the insulting words and beatings administered at will; the sudden rampage of jeeps and soldiers against civilians waiting their turn by the thousands at the innumerable checkpoints that have made of Palestinian life a choking hell; making dozens of youths kneel in the sun for hours; forcing men to take off their clothes; insulting and humiliating parents in front of their children; forbidding the sick to pass through for no other reason than personal whim; stopping ambulances and firing on them. And the steady number of Palestinian deaths (quadruple that of Israelis) increases on a daily, mostly untabulated basis. More "terrorist suspects" plus their wives and children, but "we" regret those deaths very much. Thank you.
Israel is frequently referred to as a democracy. If so, then it is a democracy without a conscience, a country whose soul has been captured by a mania for punishing the weak, a democracy that faithfully mirrors the psychopathic mentality of its ruler, General Sharon, whose sole idea-if that is the right word for it-is to kill, reduce, maim, drive away Palestinians until "they break". He provides nothing more concrete as a goal for his campaigns, now or in the past, beyond that, and like the garrulous official in Kafka’s story he is most proud of his machine for abusing defenseless Palestinian civilians, all the while monstrously abetted in his grotesque lies by his court advisers and philosophers and generals, as well as by his chorus of faithful American servants. There is no Palestinian army of occupation, no Palestinian tanks, no soldiers, no helicopter gun-ships, no artillery, no government to speak of. But there are the "terrorists" and the "violence" that Israel has invented so that its own neuroses can be inscribed on the bodies of Palestinians, without effective protest from the overwhelming majority of Israel’s laggard philosophers, intellectuals, artists, peace activists. Palestinian schools, libraries and universities have ceased normal functioning for months now; and we still wait for the Western freedom-to-write groups and the vociferous defenders of academic freedom in America to raise their voices in protest. I have yet to see one academic organization either in Israel or in the West make a declaration about this profound abrogation of the Palestinian right to knowledge, to learning, to attend school.
In sum, Palestinians must die a slow death so that Israel can have its security, which is just around the corner but cannot be realized because of the special Israeli "insecurity". The whole world must sympathize, while the cries of Palestinian orphans, sick old women, bereaved communities and tortured prisoners simply go unheard and unrecorded. Doubtless, we will be told, these horrors serve a larger purpose than mere sadistic cruelty. After all, "the two sides" are engaged in a "cycle of violence" which has to be stopped, sometime, somewhere. Once in a while, we ought to pause and declare indignantly that there is only one side with an army and a country: the other is a stateless, dispossessed population without rights or any present way of securing them. The language of suffering and concrete daily life has either been hijacked, or it has been so perverted as, in my opinion, to be useless except as pure fiction deployed as a screen for the purpose of more killing and painstaking torture-slowly, fastidiously, inexorably. That is the truth of what Palestinians suffer. But in any case, Israeli policy will ultimately fail.
Anyone who believes that the road map devised by the Bush administration actually offers anything resembling a settlement or that it tackles the basic issues is wrong. Like so much of the prevailing peace discourse, it places the need for restraint and renunciation and sacrifice squarely on Palestinian shoulders, thus denying the density and sheer gravity of Palestinian history. To read through the road map is to confront an unsituated document, oblivious of its time and place.
The road map, in other words, is not about a plan for peace so much as a plan for pacification: it is about putting an end to Palestine as a problem. Hence the repetition of the term "performance" in the document’s wooden prose-in other words, how the Palestinians are expected to behave, almost in the social sense of the word. No violence, no protest, more democracy, better leaders and institutions, all based on the notion that the underlying problem has been the ferocity of Palestinian resistance, rather than the occupation that has given rise to it. Nothing comparable is expected of Israel except that a few small settlements, known as "illegal outposts" (an entirely new classification which suggests that some Israeli implantations on Palestinian land are legal) must be given up and, yes, the major settlements "frozen" but certainly not dismantled. Not a word is said about what since 1948, and then again since 1967, Palestinians have endured at the hands of Israel and the US. Nothing about the de-development of the Palestinian economy as described by the American researcher Sara Roy in her forthcoming Scholarship and Politics. House demolitions, the uprooting of trees, the 5000 prisoners or more, the policy of targeted assassinations, the closures since 1993, the wholesale ruin of the infrastructure, the incredible number of deaths and maimings-all that and more passes without a word.
Nonetheless It may seem quixotic for me to say, even if the immediate prospects are grim from a Palestinian perspective, they are not all dark. The Palestinians stubbornly survive, and Palestinian society-devastated, nearly ruined, desolate in so many ways-is, like Hardy’s thrush in its blast-beruffled plume, still capable of flinging its soul upon the growing gloom. No other Arab society is as rambunctious and healthily unruly, and none is fuller of civic and social initiatives and functioning institutions (including a miraculously vital musical conservatory). Even though they are mostly unorganized and in some cases lead miserable lives of exile and statelessness, Diaspora Palestinians are still energetically engaged by the problems of their collective destiny, and everyone that I know is always trying somehow to advance the cause. Only a minuscule fraction of this energy has ever found its way into the Palestinian Authority, which except for the highly ambivalent figure of Arafat has remained strangely marginal to the common fate. According to recent polls, [in the early summer of 2003] Fateh and Hamas between them have the support of roughly 45 percent of the Palestinian electorate, with the remaining 55 percent evolving quite different, much more hopeful-looking political formations.
One in particular has struck me as significant (and I have attached myself to it) inasmuch as it now provides the only genuine grassroots formation that steers clear both of the religious parties and their fundamentally sectarian politics, and of the traditional nationalism offered up by Arafat’s old (rather than young) Fateh activists. It’s been called the National Political Initiative (NPI) and its main figure is Mostapha Barghuti, a Moscow-trained physician, whose main work has been as director of the impressive Village Medical Relief Committee, which has brought health care to more than 100,000 rural Palestinians. A former Communist Party stalwart, Barghuti is a quiet-spoken organizer and leader who has overcome the hundreds of physical obstacles impeding Palestinian movement or travel abroad to rally nearly every independent individual and organization of note behind a political program that promises social reform as well as liberation across doctrinal lines. Singularly free of conventional rhetoric, Barghuti has worked with Israelis, Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asians, Arabs to build an enviably well-run solidarity movement that practices the pluralism and co-existence it preaches. NPI does not throw up its hands at the directionless militarization of the intifada. It offers training programs for the unemployed and social services for the destitute on the grounds that this answers to present circumstances and Israeli pressure. Above all, NPI, which is about to become a recognized political party, seeks to mobilize Palestinian society at home and in exile for free elections-authentic elections which will represent Palestinian, rather than Israeli or US, interests. This sense of authenticity is what seems so lacking in the path cut out for Abu Mazen.
The vision here isn’t a manufactured provisional state on 40 percent of the land, with the refugees abandoned and Jerusalem kept by Israel, but a sovereign territory liberated from military occupation by mass action involving Arabs and Jews wherever possible. Because NPI is an authentic Palestinian movement, reform and democracy have become part of its everyday practice. Many hundreds of Palestine’s most notable activists and independents have already signed up, and organizational meetings have already been held, with many more planned abroad and in Palestine, despite the terrible difficulties of getting around Israel’s restrictions on freedom of movement. It is some solace to think that, while formal negotiations and discussions go on, a host of informal, un-coopted alternatives exist, of which NPI and a growing international solidarity campaign are now the main components.
In early May, I was in Seattle lecturing for a few days. While there, I had dinner one night with Rachel Corrie’s parents and sister, who were still reeling from the shock of their daughter’s murder on March 16 in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer. Mr. Corrie told me that he had himself driven bulldozers, although the one that killed his daughter deliberately because she was trying valiantly to protect a Palestinian home in Rafah from demolition was a 60 ton behemoth especially designed by Caterpillar for house demolitions, a far bigger machine than anything he had ever seen or driven. Two things struck me about my brief visit with the Corries. One was the story they told about their return to the US with their daughter’s body. They had immediately sought out their US senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, told them their story and received the expected expressions of shock, outrage, anger and promises of investigations. After both women returned to Washington, the Corries never heard from them again, and the promised investigation simply didn’t materialize. As expected, the Israel lobby had explained the realities to them, and both women simply begged off. An American citizen willfully murdered by the soldiers of a client state of the US without so much as an official peep or even the de rigeur investigation that had been promised her family.
But the second and far more important aspect of the Rachel Corrie story for me was the young woman’s action itself, heroic and dignified at the same time. Born and brought up in Olympia, a small city 60 miles south of Seattle, she had joined the International Solidarity Movement and gone to Gaza to stand with suffering human beings with whom she had never had any contact before. Her letters back to her family are truly remarkable documents of her ordinary humanity that make for very difficult and moving reading, especially when she describes the kindness and concern showed her by all the Palestinians she encounters who clearly welcome her as one of their own, because she lives with them exactly as they do, sharing their lives and worries, as well as the horrors of the Israeli occupation and its terrible effects on even the smallest child. She understands the fate of refugees, and what she calls the Israeli government’s insidious attempt at a kind of genocide by making it almost impossible for this particular group of people to survive. So moving is her solidarity that it inspires an Israeli reservist named Danny who has refused service to write her and tell her, "You are doing a good thing. I thank you for it."
What shines through all the letters she wrote home, which were subsequently published in the London Guardian, is the amazing resistance put up by the Palestinian people themselves, average human beings stuck in the most terrible position of suffering and despair but continuing to survive just the same. We have heard so much recently about the road map and the prospects for peace that we have overlooked the most basic fact of all, which is that Palestinians have refused to capitulate or surrender even under the collective punishment meted out to them by the combined might of the US and Israel. It is that extraordinary fact that is the reason for the existence of a road map and all the numerous so-called peace plans before it, not at all some conviction on the part of the US and Israel and the international community for humanitarian reasons that the killing and the violence must stop. If we miss that truth about the power of Palestinian resistance (by which I do not at all mean suicide bombing, which does much more harm than good), despite all its failings and all its mistakes, we miss everything. Palestinians have always been a problem for the Zionist project, and so-called solutions have perennially been proposed that minimize, rather than solve, the problem. The official Israeli policy, no matter whether Ariel Sharon uses the word "occupation" or not or whether or not he dismantles a rusty, unused tower or two, has always been not to accept the reality of the Palestinian people as equals or ever to admit that their rights were scandalously violated all along by Israel. Whereas a few courageous Israelis over the years have tried to deal with this other concealed history, most Israelis and what seems like the majority of American Jews have made every effort to deny, avoid, or negate the Palestinian reality. This is why there is no peace. Moreover, the road map says nothing about justice or about the historical punishment meted out to the Palestinian people for too many decades to count. What Rachel Corrie’s work in Gaza recognized, however, was precisely the gravity and the density of the living history of the Palestinian people as a national community, and not merely as a collection of deprived refugees. That is what she was in solidarity with. And we need to remember that that kind of solidarity is no longer confined to a small number of intrepid souls here and there, but is recognized the world over. In the past six months I have lectured in four continents to many thousands of people. What brings them together is Palestine and the struggle of the Palestinian people which is now a byword for emancipation and enlightenment, regardless of all the vilification heaped on them by their enemies.
Whenever the facts are made known, there is immediate recognition and an expression of the most profound solidarity with the justice of the Palestinian cause and the valiant struggle by the Palestinian people on its behalf. It is an extraordinary thing that Palestine was a central issue this year both during the Porto Alegre anti-globalization meetings as well as during the Davos and Amman meetings, both poles of the world-wide political spectrum. Simply because our fellow citizens in this country are fed an atrociously biased diet of ignorance and misrepresentation by the media, where the occupation is never referred to in lurid descriptions of suicide attacks, where the apartheid wall 25 feet high, five feet thick and 350 kilometers long that Israel is building is never even shown on the networks (or so much as referred to in passing throughout the lifeless prose of the road map), and where the crimes of war, the gratuitous destruction and humiliation, maiming and death imposed on Palestinian civilians are never shown for the daily, completely routine ordeal that they are, one shouldn’t be surprised that Americans in the main have a very low opinion of Arabs and Palestinians. After all, please remember that all the main organs of the establishment media, from left liberal all the way over to fringe right, are unanimously anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian. Look at the pusillanimity of the media during the buildup to an illegal and unjust war against Iraq, and look at how little coverage there was of the immense damage against Iraqi society done by the sanctions, and how relatively few accounts there were of the immense world-wide outpouring of opinion against the war. Hardly a single journalist except Helen Thomas took the administration directly to task for the outrageous lies and confected "facts" that were spun out about Iraq as an imminent military threat to the US before the war, just as now the same government propagandists who cynically invented and manipulated "facts" about WMD are let off the hook by media heavies in discussing the awful, the literally inexcusable situation for the people of Iraq that the US has irresponsibly and almost single-handedly created there. However else one blames Saddam Hussein as a vicious tyrant, which he was, he had provided the people of Iraq with the best infrastructure of services like water, electricity, health and education of any Arab country. None of this is any longer in place.
With the extraordinary fear of seeming anti-Semitic by criticizing Israel for its daily crimes of war against innocent, unarmed Palestinian civilians, or seeming anti-American for criticizing the US government for its illegal war and its dreadfully run military occupation, it is no wonder, then, that the vicious media and government campaign against Arab society, culture, history and mentality that has been led by Neanderthal publicists and Orientalists like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes has cowed far too many of us into believing that Arabs really are an underdeveloped, incompetent and doomed people, and that with all the failures in democracy and development, Arabs are alone in this world for being retarded, behind the times, unmodernized and deeply reactionary. Here is where dignity and critical historical thinking must be mobilized to see what is what and to disentangle truth from propaganda.
No one would deny that most Arab countries today are ruled by unpopular regimes and that vast numbers of poor, disadvantaged young Arabs are exposed to the ruthless forms of fundamentalist religion. Yet it is simply a lie to say, as The New York Times regularly does, that Arab societies are totally controlled, and that there is no freedom of opinion, no civil institutions, no functioning social movements for and by the people. Press laws notwithstanding, you can go to downtown Amman today and buy a Communist Party newspaper as well as an Islamist one; Egypt and Lebanon are full of papers and journals that suggest much more debate and discussion than these societies are given credit for; the satellite channels are bursting with opinions of a dizzying variety; civil institutions are, on many levels having to do with social services, human rights, syndicates and research institutes, very lively all over the Arab world. A great deal more must be done before we have the appropriate level of democracy, but we are on the way.
In Palestine alone there are over 1000 NGO’s and it is this vitality and this kind of activity that has kept society going. Under the worst possible circumstances, Palestinian society has neither been defeated nor has it crumbled completely. Kids still go to school, doctors and nurses still take care of their patients, men and women go to work, organizations have their meetings, and people continue to live, which seems to be an offense to Sharon and the other extremists who simply want Palestinians either imprisoned or driven away altogether. The military solution hasn’t worked at all, and never will work. Why is that so hard for Israelis to see? We must help them to understand this, not by suicide bombs but by rational argument, mass civil disobedience, organized protest, here and everywhere.
The point I am trying to make is that we have to see the Arab world generally and Palestine in particular in more comparative and critical ways than superficial and dismissive books like Lewis’s What Went Wrong and Paul Wolfowitz’s ignorant statements about bringing democracy to the Arab and Islamic world even begin to suggest. Whatever else is true about the Arabs, there is an active dynamic at work because as real people they live in a real society with all sorts of currents and crosscurrents which can’t be easily caricatured as just one seething mass of violent fanaticism. The Palestinian struggle for justice is especially something with which one must express solidarity, rather than endless criticism and exasperated, frustrating discouragement, or crippling divisiveness. Remember the solidarity here and everywhere in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia, and remember also that there is a cause to which many people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding. Why? Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for equality and human rights.
I want now to speak about dignity, which of course has a special place in every culture known to historians, anthropologists, sociologists and humanists. I shall begin by saying immediately that it is a radically wrong, Orientalist and indeed racist proposition to accept that, unlike Europeans and Americans, Arabs have no sense of individuality, no regard for individual life, no values that express love, intimacy and understanding which are supposed to be the property exclusively of cultures that had a Renaissance, a Reformation and an Enlightenment. Among many others, it is the vulgar and jejune Thomas Friedman who has been peddling this rubbish, which has alas been picked up by equally ignorant and self-deceiving Arab intellectuals-I don’t need to mention any names here-who have seen in the atrocities of 9/11 a sign that the Arab and Islamic worlds are somehow more diseased and more dysfunctional than any other, and that terrorism is a sign of a wider distortion than has occurred in any other culture.
We can leave to one side that, between them, Europe and the US account for by far the largest number of violent deaths during the 20th century, the Islamic world hardly a fraction of it. Behind all of that specious, unscientific nonsense about wrong and right civilizations, there is the grotesque shadow of the great false prophet Samuel Huntington, who has led a lot of people to believe that the world can be divided into distinct civilizations battling against each other forever. But Huntington is dead wrong on every point he makes. No culture or civilization exists by itself; none is made up of things like individuality and enlightenment that are exclusive to it; and none exists without the basic human attributes of community, love, value for life and all the others. To suggest otherwise as he does is the purest invidious racism of the same stripe as that of people who argue that Africans have naturally inferior brains, or that Asians are really born for servitude, or that Europeans are a naturally superior race. This is a sort of parody of Hitlerian science directed uniquely today against Arabs and Muslims, and we must be very firm as to not even go through the motions of arguing against it. It is the purest drivel. On the other hand, there is the much more credible and serious stipulation that, like every other instance of humanity, Arab and Muslim life has an inherent value and dignity that are expressed by Arabs and Muslims in their unique cultural style, and those expressions needn’t resemble or be a copy of one approved model suitable for everyone to follow.
The whole point about human diversity is that it is in the end a form of deep co-existence between very different styles of individuality and experience that can’t all be reduced to one superior form: this is the spurious argument foisted on us by pundits who bewail the lack of development and knowledge in the Arab world. All one has to do is to look at the huge variety of literature, cinema, theater, painting, music and popular culture produced by and for Arabs from Morocco to the Gulf. Surely that needs to be assessed as an indication of whether or not Arabs are developed, and not just how on any given day statistical tables of industrial production either indicate an appropriate level of development or show failure.
The more important point I want to make, though, is that there is a very wide discrepancy today between our cultures and societies and the small group of people who now rule these societies. Rarely in history has such power been so concentrated in so tiny a group as the various kings, generals, sultans and presidents who preside today over the Arabs. The worst thing about them as a group, almost without exception, is that they do not represent the best of their people. This is not just a matter of no democracy. It is that they seem to radically underestimate themselves and their people in ways that close them off, that make them intolerant and fearful of change, frightened of opening up their societies to their people, terrified most of all that they might anger big brother, that is, the United States. Instead of seeing their citizens as the potential wealth of the nation, they regard them all as guilty conspirators vying for the ruler’s power.
This is the real failure, how during the terrible war against the Iraqi people, no Arab leader had the self-dignity and confidence to say something about the pillaging and military occupation of one of the most important Arab countries. Fine, it is an excellent thing that Saddam Hussein’s appalling regime is no more, but who appointed the US to be the Arab mentor? Who asked the US to take over the Arab world allegedly on behalf of its citizens and bring it something called "democracy", especially at a time when the school system, the health system and the whole economy in America are degenerating to the worst levels since the 1929 Depression? Why was the collective Arab voice NOT raised against the US’s flagrantly illegal intervention, which did so much harm and inflicted so much humiliation upon the entire Arab nation? This is truly a colossal failure in nerve, in dignity, in self-solidarity.
With all the Bush administration’s talk about guidance from the Almighty, doesn’t one Arab leader have the courage just to say that, as a great people, we are guided by our own lights and traditions and religions? But nothing, not a word, as the poor citizens of Iraq live through the most terrible ordeals and the rest of the region quakes in its collective boots, each one petrified that his country may be next. How unfortunate the embrace of George Bush, the man whose war destroyed an Arab country gratuitously, by the combined leadership of the major Arab countries. Was there no one who had the guts to remind George W. that he has brought more suffering to the Arab people than anyone before him? Must he always be greeted with hugs, smiles, kisses and low bows? Where is the diplomatic and political and economic support necessary to sustain an anti-occupation movement on the West Bank and Gaza? Instead all one hears is foreign ministers preaching to the Palestinians to mind their ways, avoid violence and keep at the peace negotiations, even though it has been so obvious that Sharon’s interest in peace is just about zero. There has been no concerted Arab response to the separation wall, or to the assassinations, or to collective punishment, only a bunch of tired clichés repeating the well-worn formulas authorized by the State Department.
Perhaps the one thing that strikes me as the low point in Arab inability to grasp the dignity of the Palestinian cause is expressed by the current state of the Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen, a subordinate figure with little political support among his own people, was picked for the job by Arafat, Israel and the US precisely because he has no constituency, is not an orator or a great organizer, or anything really except a dutiful aide to Yasser Arafat, and because I am afraid they see in him a man who will do Israel’s bidding. How could even Abu Mazen stand there in Aqaba to pronounce words written for him, like a ventriloquist’s puppet, by some State Department functionary, in which he commendably speaks about Jewish suffering but then amazingly says next to nothing about his own people’s suffering at the hands of Israel? How could he accept so undignified and manipulated a role for himself, and how could he forget his self-respect as the representative of a people that has been fighting heroically for its rights for over a century just because the US and Israel have told him he must? And when Israel simply says that there will be a "provisional" Palestinian state, without any contrition for the horrendous amount of damage it has done, the uncountable war crimes, the sheer sadistic, systematic humiliation of every single Palestinian, man, woman, child, I must confess to a complete lack of understanding as to why a leader or representative of that people doesn’t so much as take note of it. Has he entirely lost his sense of dignity?
Has he forgotten that he is not just an individual but also the bearer of his people’s fate at an especially crucial moment? Is there anyone who was not bitterly disappointed at this total failure to rise to the occasion and stand with dignity-the dignity of his people’s experience and cause-and testify to it with pride, and without compromise, without ambiguity, without the half embarrassed, half apologetic tone that Palestinian leaders take when they are begging for a little kindness from some totally unworthy white father?
But that has been the behavior of Palestinian rulers since Oslo and indeed since Haj Amin, a combination of misplaced juvenile defiance and plaintive supplication. Why on earth do they always think it absolutely necessary to read scripts written for them by their enemies? The basic dignity of our life as Arabs in Palestine, throughout the Arab world, and here in America, is that we are our own people, with a heritage, a history, a tradition and above all a language that is more than adequate to the task of representing our real aspirations, since those aspirations derive from the experience of dispossession and suffering that has been imposed on each Palestinian since 1948. Not one of our political spokespeople-the same is true of the Arabs since Abdel Nasser’s time-ever speaks with self-respect and dignity of what we are, what we want, what we have done and where we want to go.
Slowly, however, the situation is changing, and the old regime made up of the Abu Mazens and Abu Ammars of this world is passing and will gradually be replaced by a new set of emerging leaders all over the Arab world. The most promising is made up of the members of the National Political Initiative; they are grassroots activists whose main activity is not pushing papers on a desk, nor juggling bank accounts, nor looking for journalists to pay attention to them, but who come from the ranks of the professionals, the working classes, the young intellectuals and activists, the teachers, doctors, lawyers, working people who have kept society going while also fending off daily Israeli attacks. Second, these are people committed to the kind of democracy and popular participation undreamt of by the Authority, whose idea of democracy is stability and security for itself. Lastly, they offer social services to the unemployed, health to the uninsured and the poor, proper secular education to a new generation of Palestinians who must be taught the realities of the modern world, not just the extraordinary worth of the old one. For such programs, the NPI stipulates that getting rid of the occupation is the only way forward, and that in order to do that, a representative national unified leadership must be elected freely to replace the cronies, the outdated perspectives and the ineffectiveness that have plagued Palestinian leaders for the past century.
Only if we respect ourselves as Arabs and understand the true dignity and justice of our struggle, only then can we appreciate why, almost despite ourselves, so many people all over the world, including Rachel Corrie and the two young people wounded with her from ISM, Tom Hurndall and Brian Avery, have felt it possible to express their solidarity with us.
I conclude with one last irony. Isn’t it astonishing that all the signs of popular solidarity that Palestine and the Arabs receive occur with no comparable sign of solidarity and dignity for ourselves, that others admire and respect us more than we do ourselves? Isn’t it time we caught up with our own status and made certain that our representatives here and elsewhere realize, as a first step, that they are fighting for a just and noble cause, and that they have nothing to apologize for or anything to be embarrassed about? On the contrary, they should be proud of what their people have done and proud also to represent them.
EDWARD SAID is a professor at Columbia University. He is a contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair’s, The Politics of Anti-Semitism (AK Press).
© Edward W. Said, 2003.