A former schoolmate of Edward Said has told CounterPunch that Justus Reed Weiner, author of an attack on the renowned Palestinian intllectual in the September issue of Commentary, deliberately suppressed pertinent information.
In Commentary Weiner attempts to show that Said misrepresented facts about his childhood. (See accompanying article on this website.) Among Weiner’s insinuations is the charge that there is no evidence to confirm that Said ever attended St George’s, a famous school in east Jerusalem, which Said revisits in a widely viewed documentary.
Weiner writes that there is no trace of Said in the school registry and he cites a former Jewish student at St George’s, David Ezra, as saying he has no memory of Said, even though Said has spoken of his youthful acquaintance with Ezra at the school.
But even as he was doing his utmost to give Commentary readers the impression that Said had bizarrely misrepresented the circumstances and friendships of his early life, Weiner had on his desk notes of a conversation with a former St George’s student who told him explicitly that Said had been at that school with him.
Haig Boyadjian, an Armenian, is a retired banker now living in Marwah, New Jersey. The 64-year old Boyadjian tells us that in the spring of this year Weiner called him from Jerusalem, saying that he was doing an article on St George’s, and had been given Boyadjian’s nbame by another St George’s alumnus. In the course of a conversation lasting around an hour Weiner asked if Boyadjian could recall former schoolmates. Eventually Said’s name came up, and Boyadjian told Weiner that yes, Said had been a fellow student but that because St George’s was closed for two years after l948, Said had graduated from Victoria school in Cairo.
Boyadjian emphasizes to CounterPunch that he most explicitly told Weiner that Said had been a fellow student, and that he finds it “unbelievable” that Weiner should have suppressed their conversation in his Commentary article, adding that “people like Weiner have an agenda but no principles”.
In his Commentary article Weiner tries to leave himself some wiggle room. After announcing that no records show Said to have attended the school and after reporting David Ezra’s reaction, Weiner carefully tosses in this sentence: “None of this… is to gainsay the possibility” of Said having been “a temporary student” at St Georges, a setence that has the furtive briskness of a thief trying to wipe his fingerprints off a window pane.
Weiner has been claiming that although he is a “scholar in residence” at the Milken-backed Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, he wrote the Commentary article on his own time. Yet a note he sent Boyadjian at the end of May thanking him for assistance in “my academic research” is written under the letterhead of the Jerusalem Center.
Although he boasts that he talked to over 80 people during his probe into Said’s childhood, Weiner names almost none of them, perhaps understandably. Not only is Boyadjian fuming at his deceptions, but Andre Sharon, an Egyptian Jew whom Weiner had interviewed, has written an eloquent and indeed devastating rebuke to Weiner, with a rephrasing of this same rebuke to the editor of the New York Times. Sharon’s admonitions to the wretched Weiner are worth quoting in full.
Dear Mr. Weiner,
I have to say I was surprised and disappointed by the article in today’s Times regarding your investigation probe into the details of Said’s childhood years. With respect, you’ve missed several points:
1. There were no meaningful frontiers when we were growing up, particularly mental ones. As I point out in my correspondence, this was a positive legacy of the Ottoman Empire. An Egyptian Jew, my ancestors came from Syria. My grandfather arrived in Egypt from Iraq by caravan. Some moved on to the Sudan, but it could as well have been Palestine or Lebanon. Certainly at Victoria College many from every country in the Arab world, the Mediterranean Basin and beyond. As you are aware, the period was one of great political regional change. Although some were a lot more interested than others, all of us were fairly highly politicized and sensitized from a very early age. The point is that the upheavals were regional, not merely national. Those Arabs who came to Egypt from other parts of the area felt an affinity with an Arab culture that easily transcended nationalist ones. It mattered much less to the inhabitants that they were from Syria, and Iraq, and Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia and Oman than it did to the Foreign Office at the Quai d’Orsay. In short, that Said moved seamlessly from Palestine to Egypt to Lebanon is remarkable only for being so unremarkable to him and to those he grew up with. He was a Palestinian Arab, like I was an Egyptian Jew.
2. Such a fuss over a house! Again, with respect, you’ve missed the point. We’re talking about extremely warm and closely-knit Middle Eastern communities. We lived in each other’s homes, all the time. I sometimes spent weeks at a time at my grandfather’s and grandmother’s apartments. I, too, made a pilgrimage to visit them during my first return trip to Egypt.) Friends and relatives drifted in and out of each others homes all the time. Extended families were the norm. Again, that Said should have spent periods with different family members in different phases of his life in different houses in different countries at different times was wholly unremarkable. It’s a cultural phenomenon that is quite common in all social and economic strata in the Middle East. I do not intend to insult you by saying that I can understand your confusion. My mid-Western Anglo-Saxon wife still has trouble understanding this after being married to me for 20 years.
3. As you can see from my letter to my Egyptian school boy friend, my own worldview has changed in many ways over the years. I have strong philosophical disagreements with Said on many issues. However, I concur with his reported comment in today’s NY Times that the issues you have raised about his childhood are irrelevant. And only partly because of the explanations I have sketched about much more important issues: 1. The key issue is that Arabs were ejected from Palestine (as indeed were Jews from the Arab world). It’s a good thing that this fundamental reality is being confronted. 2. Now let’s move on for their descendants’ sake.
The Attack on Said
We 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 East Jerusalem.
In one passage, Weiner insists that the Talbieh neighborhood in Jerusalem 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 for the sake of argument, 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?Do they have no right to speak for Israel?
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), we 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,” and whose father baptized the infant Said in an Anglican church in Jerusalem. 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 of Justice, 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. CP