Edward Said’s Palestine, Revisited

The recent firefights that have exploded this May between Hamas and the Israeli Army in Gaza—with more casualties on the Palestinian than on the Israeli side—sent me back to The Question of Palestine, the controversial book by Edward Said, originally published by Times Books in 1979 and reissued by Vintage in 1992.  Zionists and anti-Zionists, pro-Palestinians and anti-Palestinians who think they know Said and his political stance might be surprised if they were to read or reread his Palestine book which followed hard on the heels of Orientalism, the polemical volume which made him famous in academia throughout the West and in many other parts of the world.

Born in 1935 in Jerusalem, then part of the British mandate of Palestine, Said was educated at Princeton and Harvard, taught at Columbia for decades, and wrote dozens of books as well as hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles that attracted a loyal following and detractors, too. Timothy Brennan tells much of the story in his recent biography, Places of the Mind: A Life of Edward Said, which is dedicated to “the Palestinian people.”

At times, Said tries to be even handed in The Question of Palestine, though it seems likely that his book might not satisfy many observers of the Middle East today precisely because he tries to be even handed. On the one hand, he condemns “Palestinian violence” and PLO hijackings and suicide bombers, and on the other hand he denounces Israeli sponsored “state terrorism,” though he concludes that Zionists have done far more harm to Palestinians than Palestinians have done to Zionists.

Said describes the Jews as “the victims of persecution” who became the “victimizers of other peoples,” and so in his equation the Arabs are “the victims of the victims.” On the question of anti-Semitism he doesn’t equivocate, but rather condemns “the horrors” of European treatment of the Jews.

The fighting between Israel and Hamas would certainly support his view that the repression of the Palestinians has only led to more resistance by the Palestinians. But you can’t read very far in The Question of Palestine before encountering Said’s deep and profound sense of “despair and pessimism” about the Palestinian struggle. Indeed, near the start of the book, he describes the whole problem of Palestine as “intractable”—that is unmanageable —though he makes his own solution clear. What he wants, he explains, is “an independent and sovereign Palestinian state” that’s “based on secular human rights, not on religious or minority exclusivity.” Forty-two years after the book was originally published, that idea seems as remote and unattainable as ever before.

Said lauds the courage of the Palestinian Communist Party and praises the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, but he lambasts Marx as a racist and concludes that “most liberation struggles in the Third World have produced undistinguished regimes, dominated by state worship, unproductive bureaucracies, and repressive police forces.”

Whose side was he on, one wonders? And whose side would he be on today?  The fatal, tragic flaw of the PLO, he argues, is that “unlike other national liberation organizations, or provisional governments,” it “had no native territory on which to operate.”

The words “fatal” and “tragic” come up again and again, as when he writes that the United States has had the “fatal habit of being taken in by the likes of Marshall Ky, Chiang Kai-shek, and the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to the exclusion of more genuinely popular and representative leaders.” That’s putting it mildly. The U.S. wasn’t merely taken in. It created and buttressed dictators.

When he looks at Palestine, Said sees a land “saturated with blood and violence.” In an epilogue to the book written after the 1991 Gulf War, he noted that Palestine was ”the last great cause of the twentieth century.” Now, one might call it the first great cause of the twenty-first century and perhaps a lost cause, too. Indeed, Said himself observes that “The situation of the Palestinian people goes from bad to worse.”

What inspires him? Not Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, but rather the writings of Alexander Cockburn and James Ridgeway and Palestinian authors such as Emile Habibi and Ghassan Kanafani. When politics and ideologies depressed him he found joy in literature. Moreover, while he located expressions of imperialism and colonialism in western literature he was against the cancellation of that very same literature.

“All cultures tend to make representations of foreign cultures the better to master or in some ways control them,” he astutely noted in Culture and Imperialism (1993.) He added, “Jane Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but do we therefore jettison her novels as so many trivial exercises in aesthetic frumpery? Not at all.”

Thank you, Edward Said.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.