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18 October 1999

Israel v Palestine: which side is the left on?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft argues that the row over Edward Said's origins echoes deeper historical question

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Memoirs by academics don’t usually cause an angry public stir, but then Edward W Said is an unusual academic. For years past he has combined his work as a professor of English at Columbia University in New York with championing the dispossessed Palestinians. For his pains, Said has been maligned and misrepresented. The Wall Street Journal called him “the professor of terror”; in fact, this former member of the Palestine National Council has specifically disavowed terrorism.

Now he has published a memoir of his upbringing, Out of Place (Granta, £25), and his enemies have returned to the attack. In Commentary, a bastion of uncompromising Zionism, Justus Reid Weiner accuses Said of embroidering his story to make himself seem more Palestinian than he is and more of a victim of the Naqba, the fall of Palestine in 1948, when Israel was created and Palestinians driven out.

The outlines of Said’s story are actually clear enough. His family are Christian Arabs from the Levant, mostly from the area known as Palestine. He airily says he had “assumed a longish family history in Jerusalem”, but later learnt his people were from Nazareth. His father settled in Egypt in the 1930s and made a fortune in office equipment. Said was born in Palestine because an earlier child had died soon after birth in an unsatisfactory Egyptian hospital. Family life stretched from cosmopolitan Egypt to Lebanon, where the Saids holidayed until 1948.

It is equally clear that Said has sometimes been wayward with personal detail. One article by Nubar Hovsepian, written in 1992 with Said’s approval, stated that Said’s family “went to Cairo in 1947”. Here, and on other occasions, he has not done everything he could to discourage the idea that he had largely grown up in Jerusalem before his family was forced out.

More generally, Said has a light-hearted attitude to fact. The oddest sentence in Out of Place has nothing to do with Palestine. Said’s father went to America before the first world war, joined the American army and claimed to have fought on the western front. He would give his son lurid accounts of killing a German soldier. Later Said discovered that his father had not participated in any known campaign. But, “this was probably a mistake, since I still believe my father’s version.”

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This row over where Edward Said comes from is less interesting than the broader question of what he represents and what his nation is. All the attempts to discredit Said as a spokesman of the Palestinian cause are plainly intended to discredit the cause as a whole. And this is a reminder of the complex of falsehoods and contradictions on both sides of the debate, receding like the images in facing mirrors.

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Take the Zionist side first. There is an honest case for saying that the need of the Jewish people for a homeland and a refuge has been so great that it superseded all other considerations, even if it involved a huge injustice to the Palestinians. What is intolerable is to maintain that no injustice took place.

In the early days of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl was candid in private about the possible need to remove the indigenous Arabs of Palestine but evasive in public, sometimes claiming that the Arabs would welcome the Zionists, sometimes ignoring them completely. Likewise Israel Zangwill coined the notorious phrase “a land without people for a people without land” to describe Palestine.

Whatever is said about Said, he did have cousins who owned houses in what is now a purely Jewish district of west Jerusalem. And, in 1948, three-quarters of a million Palestinians fled out of terror, not perversity.

For years afterwards, the world closed its eyes to this, and many Jews retreated into a cocoon of denial. There were honourable exceptions. Writing in the NS in 1965, Bernard Levin said that his admiration for the Israeli achievement was combined “with the strongest condemnation of her crime against the original Arab population and the campaign of lies she has waged ever since”.

That campaign included Golda Meir’s notorious words: “There are no Palestinians.” In the 30 years since, the Israelis have become more candid, at least among themselves. Israeli “new historians” have ruthlessly dissected patriotic myths. And the series Tekuma (Rebirth) shown on Israeli television last year enraged nationalists. Ariel Sharon, then a minister in Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, said the series abandoned “every moral basis for the establishment and existence of the state of Israel”.

Zionists saw their movement as a psychological and social and not just as a political project, to redeem the Jews from their fallen state, and in all ways virtuous and enlightened. It was thus difficult, if not morally impossible, for many Zionists – and their supporters in the west – to admit that the Jewish state was created by brute force, terror and mass expulsion. Hence the particularly ludicrous insistence by dogmatic Zionists that the creation of the Jewish state “was not a colonial enterprise”.

It is that sort of mystical evasion that can make earlier right-wing Zionists seem more attractive than their political heirs like Sharon. When Herzl wrote The Jewish State in 1896, no Palestinian national consciousness existed, and scarcely any Arab consciousness. If you had asked a man from Jaffa or Jerusalem what he was, he would have said, “I am a Muslim from here”. He didn’t know that he was a Palestinian, or an Arab. Not long before you would have received a similar reply throughout much of Europe. A man from a village near Bratislava or Zagreb would have said “I am a Christian from here”. He did not know that he was a Slovak or a Croat, or that the dialect he spoke made him a member of a nation.

National consciousness is much misrepresented by historians and by nationalists, who project their consciousness on to people of another age. At the time of the Risorgimento in the 1860s, very few “Italians” knew they were Italian (or spoke anything recognisable as Italian).

And yet, when that is said, one thing needs to be added. The creation of Palestine, the Palestinian people and Palestinian national identity has been among the most signal achievements of Zionism.

All of this crept up unawares on the left, which in my lifetime has changed its tune on Israel and Palestine in a way that might even seem capricious. Anyone younger than 40 might not guess how popular Israel and Zionism once were on the left. An adulatory profile of David Ben-Gurion written in 1955 treated him as a noble hero, and reproached him only for having devoted his military force to conquering the empty Negev desert in 1948, when he “might have cleared the hills of Samaria”. It also sympathised with Ben-Gurion’s dread that Israelis might be “Levantinised”.

This did not appear in the Jewish Chronicle or a rabid Israeli publication, but in the NS. That was the spirit of the age. If you wanted to read anti-Zionist polemics at that time you had to turn to the far right, to a magazine such as the Mosleys’ European.

Having been insufficiently criticised in her first 20 years, Israel has been too severely critcised over the past 30 years. And the way the left has taken up Palestine’s cause long after the original deed of expulsion contains a further paradox, one that is illustrated by Said’s life and work.

He is a tribune of the Palestinians, a foe of imperialism and a self-proclaimed man of the left. And yet the moral case against imperialism is reactionary, not progressive. Marx praised British imperialism in Asia, where “these idyllic village communities, inoffensive as they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism . . . they restrained the human mind . . . making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rule, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies”. Engels praised the French conquest of Algeria as “an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilisation”.

It would be logical enough for anyone else who believes in such progress to see it embodied in Zionism. A truly ruthless progressive could point out that there is nothing so unusual about the fate of the Palestinians. The partition of India in 1947 was accompanied by the flight of at least 17 million people, at least a million of whom died. Two years earlier, more than 12 million Germans living east and south of the Oder, in East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia and Bohemia, were brutally expelled by the Red Army and its local allies.

Once again, it was the spirit of the age. Before the 1945 election, the Labour Party published a policy statement on “The International Post-War Settlement”, principally written by Hugh Dalton, the formidable if unlovable economist who became Attlee’s chancellor. It advocated the creation of a Jewish state by means of “transfer”: “Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in . . . The Arabs have many wide territories of their own; they must not claim to exclude the Jews from this small area of Palestine.”

The illogic of the left’s change of tune on imperialism was examined in Imperialism: pioneer of capitalism, a brilliant book by an English Marxist, Bill Warren, published posthumously in 1980. But it was also foreseen by George Orwell. Said predictably dislikes him; he may not know a riveting passage written in 1945. Orwell observed that only the Jewish side of the argument in the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine was heard by European socialists and American liberals. And yet, Orwell went on, “the Palestine issue is partly a colour issue”, in which “an Indian nationalist, for example, would probably side with the Arabs”. This has echoed for half a century since, and explains why, to the grief of Israelis and western Jews, Israel has become a pariah in the developing world.

There is one more contradiction. Said is aware of, and resents, he writes in Culture and Imperialism, the way that “debates today about third world nationalism” reflect “a marked (and, in my opinion, ahistorical) discomfort with non-western societies acquiring national independence, which is believed to be ‘foreign’ to their ethos”.

But the truth is that the kind of nationalism, and the kinds of politics, which have dominated the developing world for 50 years are quite simply European concepts and European exports, just as much as Christianity or capitalism before them. Said is a striking personification of this phenomenon. He is concerned with a movement that is “Eurocentric” in its origins: like the “African National Congress”, the “Palestine Liberation Organisation” is a very western concept. In his intellectual life equally, Said has studied English and European literature, not Islamic culture. He is also a pianist and musical scholar, who worships Beethoven and Wagner. He even writes engagingly about tennis, one more cultural by-product of British imperialism.

The accidents of his birth are irrelevant to the real truth, that Edward Said is a man of the west; and to the larger truth that the world we live in today has been made by Europe. Do I need to add “for better or worse”?