Let Them Eat Cake: a Journey into Edward Said’s Humanism

Photograph Source: Briantrejo – CC BY-SA 3.0

It was April 27, 1974, the day of my bar mitzvah. The food at the reception was unremarkable with the exception of the dessert, a big yellow cake in my honor that happened to be shaped like the state of Israel. I liked cake, especially yellow cake.

I don’t know who among the guests got served a piece of the West Bank. But those slices came shaded with hatching formed out of lines of brown icing. The baker must have been studying Middle East affairs in night school because not only the West Bank but other swathes of contested land such as the Sinai and the Golan Heights and even the small Gaza Strip—all seized in the 1967 Six-Day War—had been marked off. Miniature Israeli flags had been planted in the cake to underscore the triumph of the Jewish people in what is certainly one of the most fraught pieces of earth on the planet. Why the cake was partly shaded was a question that never crossed my mind.

We had learned in Hebrew school that Israel was a land without people for a people without land. Perfect, I thought. People gave me bar mitzvah gifts including certificates for trees planted there in my honor. A land without people suggested barrenness to me. Trees seemed like a sensible idea.

* * *

In 1976 I visited Israel and was escorted around by a fellow named Alex who understandably enough called me by my Hebrew name. We visited a number of the places marked off with hatching on the cake including Hebron, located in the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.

When we arrived in the Golan Heights I stepped out of the car and threw up, though I was not making any kind of political statement. Alex had a heavy foot. I saw trees on our journey but none planted in my name as we sped toward a kibbutz named Kfar Giladi located near the border with Lebanon. The next day we drove south to Jerusalem through what Alex called a “liberated area.” I am sure I had no idea what that meant. I only wanted to get to Jerusalem without throwing up again.

I learned that when the Zionists arrived they found an empty land, a wasteland in desperate need of improvement. And improvement is precisely what the industrious Jews did, making the desert bloom. Everywhere we went, Alex told the same story: Before the Jews came, there was nothing here. Now look at it. A beautiful, domesticated landscape humming along to the tune of modern life.

* * *

In college I figured out that there were these people. Call them the Palestinians. Golda Meir, the prime minister at the time of my bar mitzvah, famously said that as for the Palestinian people, “they did not exist.” No one ever spoke about Palestinians in temple or on the trip to Israel. It was always Arabs that I heard about, never Palestinian Arabs.

There was this guy circulating around Cambridge, Massachusetts, near where I went to college, who routinely talked about these mysterious Palestinian people. I thought he was called Norm, as in Norman Chomsky.

Chomsky referred to the Palestinians as an indigenous people. No one had told me. He said the Palestinians had a legitimate claim to my bar mitzvah cake, though he didn’t quite put it that way.

I was wandering around a Cambridge bookstore when I stumbled onto a book called “The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & the Palestinians” (1983). The author was Noam Chomsky, a professor at M.I.T., the same person I had once seen holding forth on the Palestinians. He certainly had a different understanding of Israel’s role in the world than Sanford Saperstein, my rabbi back home, who called Israel the lone democracy in an embattled region beset by terrorists seeking to push the Jews into the sea.

* * *

A few years later, I ran across “Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question” (1988). One of the co-editors was someone named Edward Said.

Born in West Jerusalem in 1935, Said had left Palestine for Cairo in 1947. Four years later, he moved to the United States, where his parents had connections. (Said’s father studied at Case Western Reserve University, where I currently teach.) A transgressive child who took his share of beatings, Said attended a boarding school in the Connecticut River Valley, a natural environment that—given his upbringing in a desert—only seemed to add to his sense of alienation (“snow signified a kind of death,” he would later write). Moving on to study at Princeton and Harvard and then joining the Columbia University faculty in English and Comparative Literature in 1963, Said, who met Chomsky during the height of the protests over Vietnam, emerged as one of the most prominent dissident intellectuals of the twentieth century.

An immensely learned man who saw the intellectual as humanity’s best defense against an “ahistorical, forgetting world,” Said took a hard left turn after the Six-Day War. He recalled finding Martin Luther King’s warmth toward Israel’s triumph in the battle vexing, presumably because it was based on the assumption that the Palestinians simply did not exist. As Said wrote in 1968, “Palestine is imagined as an empty desert waiting to burst into bloom, its inhabitants inconsequential nomads possessing no stable claim to the land and therefore no cultural permanence.” For this and similar attempts to overturn establishment views, Said was vilified as an anti-Semite and a “professor of terror.”

Said was living proof that my Hebrew school education wasn’t an education at all. A land without people? Empty? Palestinians don’t exist? Israel’s public relations onslaught, designed to overturn the fact that the founding of the country entailed the dispossession of the indigenous peoples, worked brilliantly.

A year after my bar mitzvah, Said had testified before a committee of Congress. Imagine, he said, “that by some malicious irony you found yourselves declared foreigners in your own country. This is the essence of the Palestinians’ fate during the twentieth century.” Said titled his 1999 memoir “Out of Place” in reference to his life spent struggling with the pain of exile.

Said’s humanity allowed him to see the struggle in this corner of the world in terms that captured the true tragedy involved. As he wrote, “The dawning awareness all around was of two peoples locked in a terrible struggle over the same territory, in which one, bent beneath a horrific past of systematic persecution and extermination, was in the position of an oppressor towards the other people.” Though advocating for the rights of Palestinians, Said always acknowledged the reality that Zionism evolved as it did because of the persecution and genocide that the Jews suffered.

After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Said uncovered something Chomsky ignored: that despite the imbalance in power, the Palestinians had agency, a point underscored by the First Intifada, a sustained anti-colonial insurrection that began in 1987, the year before I sat down to read Mr. Said.

Said’s intellect, his political engagement, and, most of all, the actions of ordinary Palestinians seeking liberation helped to change how the Israeli authorities viewed the Palestinian people—they were no longer rendered nonexistent, for how could a resistance movement not have some unifying identity? Israeli leaders in the 1980s began to describe the Palestinians variously as “jackals” (General Moshe Dayan), “grasshoppers” (Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir), “vermin” (Prime Minister Menachem Begin), and “roaches” (General Rafael Eitan). Said wrote: “Perhaps we can someday look forward to achieving the status of cattle or of monkeys.”

In 1988, Said participated in an event held in New York with the philosopher Michael Walzer of the Institute for Advanced Study. A Jew known for his progressive politics, Walzer criticized Said for harping on the past when, he argued, the issue with respect to the Palestinians was the future. Said was speechless. At which point a woman in the audience named Hilda Silverstein went on the attack, asking Walzer: “How dare you say that to anybody. Because of all the people in the world, we ask the world to remember our past. And you’re telling a Palestinian to forget the past? How dare you?”

Said would not return to his place of birth until the evening of June 12, 1992, forty-five years after he last stepped foot there. He had no way of knowing about my cake and subsequent romp around his homeland where I felt eminently welcomed.

* * *

I wonder whether I would remember my bar mitzvah cake were it not for the photographers from Field Studios located in Brooklyn. They produced a small monument in honor of the affair: a four-inch thick album with eighth-of-an-inch-thick gilded-edge pages that immortalized the confection. There I am in my first suit with a large fuchsia bowtie (clip-on) exploding from under my chin. The photographer had me pose with my arms resting on the table, which caused me to lean in and gaze at the expansive Israeli state rendered in beige, brown, and red icing.

For years that turned into decades, the hulking bar mitzvah album sat on the shelf in the family room of my childhood home. These were the inter-cake years when the confection slipped into the recesses of my personal history. And there it rested until it vaulted into consciousness again in the spring of 2010.

By this point in my life I was a college professor and had been for more than two decades. I was in an unfortunate meeting about the propriety of including a donor on a university hiring committee for an endowed professorship in Judaic studies when I launched into a discussion of my thirty-five-year-old cake. The hiring committee also included, astonishingly, a faculty member in physics who just happened to be a Zionist, and who had no academic credentials for weighing in on the matter.

Edward Said long ago exposed the ways in which intellectuals helped to legitimize the status quo. Allowing a donor and a scientist to help hire a humanities scholar was a recipe for more legitimation. Bringing up the obnoxious cake was my way of drawing attention to the offensive process.

Apparently the vulgarity of my holy land confection fell on deaf ears because a few years later, in 2015, two donors from the Jewish Federation of Cleveland—committed in its own words to “support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”—participated in another university job search in Judaic studies. This faculty position was funded with a gift, mandating donor participation, named in honor of Abba Hillel Silver. As Walter Hixon shows in “Israel’s Armor: The Israel Lobby and the First Generation of the Palestine Conflict” (2019), Silver played a key role in linking Jewish identity to the Zionist project and emerged as one of the architects of the Israel lobby, which has worked relentlessly to undermine justice for the Palestinian people. How fitting that Jewish Federation donors should help vet the job applications! Mercifully, Said, who by this point was buried in the mountains of Lebanon, missed all of this.

* * *

I recently incorporated the settler colonial cake into a lecture titled “Who’s Afraid of Edward Said?” The talk tries to address this question while offering the example of my own personal shift in thinking about Israel and the Palestinians as a way of illustrating that our version of truth is shaped not simply by logic and evidence but by our experiences in life. My cake was the perfect foil to Said’s vision of a more equal and democratic world based on shared access to the earth, self-determination, and mutuality. The cake’s flags and lines are about nationalism and possession, about what divides us from one another, a grim world that is as hopeless as it is bankrupt.

Who is afraid of Edward Said? The list is long and goes well beyond celebrities like Alan Dershowitz who used the occasion of Said’s death from cancer in 2003 to compare him, in probably the most tortured analogy ever to be concocted, to Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League, a violent anti-Arab, Jewish nationalist group.

Around the same time, neoconservative Martin Kramer also indicted Said, whom he called an “aggrieved Palestinian.” Kramer resented Said for helping to give birth to postcolonialism, which examines imperialism and radically unequal relations of power in the shaping of the world. In Kramer’s bizarre rendering, postcolonialism overturned Middle East studies and sent it into a tailspin that ended by eliminating what he called “disinterested objectivity.” It apparently never occurred to this highly pedigreed chap, with three different degrees from Princeton, that politics and scholarship are not two separate departments in the game of intellectual life. “No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life,” Said wrote in his 1978 classic “Orientalism.” Which explains why Kramer is associated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank closely tied to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a group that markets itself as “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby.”

These are the kinds of donnybrooks that periodically break out in the academic world; it is easy to dismiss them. But then I learned of a Columbia alumnus, who had studied English, but who refused to take a class with Said because his rabbi portrayed him as the devil incarnate. The student, who went on to graduate school at Emory University, finally figured out the truth about Said. Indeed, the student felt so guilty about his misconception that when Said visited Emory he tried to apologize by bending over backward in order to convince Said to let him take him to the airport.

At another extreme in regard to openness was a high school student from the Bronx who took the 2010 English AP test. The exam included a quotation from Said that read: “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and its native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” There is no reference to Israel or Palestine in the passage. But the mere mention of Said’s name caused the student to object to the question, calling it “very reflective of the widespread use of education and testing as a platform for anti-Israel propaganda.”

Above all, Said’s greatest commitment was to humanism, which he defined as the attempt “to dissolve Blake’s mind-forg’d manacles so as to be able to use one’s mind historically and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding and genuine disclosure.” Embracing humanism means rejecting state power in the name of critical thought. It means, as he wrote near the end of his life, “a process of unending disclosure, discovery, self-criticism, and liberation.” Said held humanism in such high regard that he viewed it as “the only, I would go so far as to say, the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” The quotation is inscribed around a mural erected at San Francisco State University in Said’s honor.

Humanism is not about rallying around a flag or “the national war of the moment,” as Said once put it. It’s not about scarfing down a cake that celebrates dispossession and exile, but about what unites us as human beings on this pale blue planet: our attachment to place; our connections to each other; our ability to feel emotion and experience an essential humanity in the face of whatever differences we might have.

Ted Steinberg teaches history at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America.