Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 9, 2007

Weekend Reading

The ascent of Hamas to power in January 2006 has brought sharply into relief the intransigent rejectionism at the heart of much Palestinian politics and the disingenuousness of those who argue for a “right of return” as if the concept did not entail the destruction of the existing state of Israel. One of the leading Western proponents of Palestinian extremism was the cultural theorist Edward Said, a professor at Columbia and the author of Orientalism, a study of the supposedly racist Western attitude toward Muslims as revealed in the branch of scholarly knowledge devoted to the understanding of Islam.

That Said wildly distorted and misrepresented European scholars and their work has been definitively documented in a recent book, Dangerous Knowledge, by the British historian Robert Irwin (reviewed by Martin Kramer in the March COMMENTARY). As Irwin points out, Said’s book, despite its blatant falsifications, helped destroy the once-rigorous and prestigious academic discipline of Orientalism. But it did far more. Under the banner of “anti-colonialism,” it created a respectable-sounding framework for leftist Western intellectuals seeking to excuse, defend, or endorse the bloodthirsty activities of the PLO in its drive for power and international validation. Said himself served as a close adviser to the PLO leader Yassir Arafat, breaking with him only when Arafat signed the Oslo peace agreement in 1993.

Said’s own widely-vaunted moral authority derived in part from his status as himself an alleged victim of Jewish “imperialism”: he and his family, he wrote, had been uprooted from their home in Jerusalem by the armed forces of the nascent Israeli state. In 1999, Justus Reid Weiner, a scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, published a lengthy article in COMMENTARY picking apart and unmasking this story of Said’s early years. “My Beautiful Old House and Other Fabrications by Edward Said” unleashed a flood of violent criticism and denunciation, which Weiner went on to answer point for point. This weekend we offer Weiner’s September 1999 article along with the voluminous letters it provoked and his thorough-going and devastating reply.

The ascent of Hamas to power in January 2006 has brought sharply into relief the intransigent rejectionism at the heart of much Palestinian politics and the disingenuousness of those who argue for a “right of return” as if the concept did not entail the destruction of the existing state of Israel. One of the leading Western proponents of Palestinian extremism was the cultural theorist Edward Said, a professor at Columbia and the author of Orientalism, a study of the supposedly racist Western attitude toward Muslims as revealed in the branch of scholarly knowledge devoted to the understanding of Islam.

That Said wildly distorted and misrepresented European scholars and their work has been definitively documented in a recent book, Dangerous Knowledge, by the British historian Robert Irwin (reviewed by Martin Kramer in the March COMMENTARY). As Irwin points out, Said’s book, despite its blatant falsifications, helped destroy the once-rigorous and prestigious academic discipline of Orientalism. But it did far more. Under the banner of “anti-colonialism,” it created a respectable-sounding framework for leftist Western intellectuals seeking to excuse, defend, or endorse the bloodthirsty activities of the PLO in its drive for power and international validation. Said himself served as a close adviser to the PLO leader Yassir Arafat, breaking with him only when Arafat signed the Oslo peace agreement in 1993.

Said’s own widely-vaunted moral authority derived in part from his status as himself an alleged victim of Jewish “imperialism”: he and his family, he wrote, had been uprooted from their home in Jerusalem by the armed forces of the nascent Israeli state. In 1999, Justus Reid Weiner, a scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, published a lengthy article in COMMENTARY picking apart and unmasking this story of Said’s early years. “My Beautiful Old House and Other Fabrications by Edward Said” unleashed a flood of violent criticism and denunciation, which Weiner went on to answer point for point. This weekend we offer Weiner’s September 1999 article along with the voluminous letters it provoked and his thorough-going and devastating reply.

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Israel’s War for Public Opinion

Well, in case you weren’t absolutely certain, it’s now official: Israel is the least-liked country in the world. A new BBC poll of the attitudes of 28,000 people in 27 countries shows Israel at the bottom of the list, with 17 percent viewing it positively and 56 percent negatively—slightly below Iran (18 and 54 percent) and North Korea (19 and 48 percent).

The only four countries in the world in which more people are favorably rather than unfavorably inclined toward Israel are the United States, India, Nigeria, and Kenya—and not by big margins in any of them. Forty-one percent of Americans, for example, thought well of Israel while 33 percent didn’t, a serious drop-off from previous polls.

At the other end of the spectrum, apart from Muslim countries, Israel did worst in Europe. In Italy the vote was 58-to-18 against it. In England, 65-to-17. In France, 66-to-17. In Greece, 68-to-11. In Germany (Germany!), 77-to-10. These are frightening—I would almost say terrifying—figures. They show that the international campaign against Israel has succeeded incredibly well.

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Well, in case you weren’t absolutely certain, it’s now official: Israel is the least-liked country in the world. A new BBC poll of the attitudes of 28,000 people in 27 countries shows Israel at the bottom of the list, with 17 percent viewing it positively and 56 percent negatively—slightly below Iran (18 and 54 percent) and North Korea (19 and 48 percent).

The only four countries in the world in which more people are favorably rather than unfavorably inclined toward Israel are the United States, India, Nigeria, and Kenya—and not by big margins in any of them. Forty-one percent of Americans, for example, thought well of Israel while 33 percent didn’t, a serious drop-off from previous polls.

At the other end of the spectrum, apart from Muslim countries, Israel did worst in Europe. In Italy the vote was 58-to-18 against it. In England, 65-to-17. In France, 66-to-17. In Greece, 68-to-11. In Germany (Germany!), 77-to-10. These are frightening—I would almost say terrifying—figures. They show that the international campaign against Israel has succeeded incredibly well.

Nor is it much comfort that the United States did badly too, with 51 percent of the BBC’s respondents viewing it negatively and 30 percent positively, or that America and Israel appear to be linked in the eyes of world public opinion. For one thing, America’s position will start to rebound as soon as the Bush administration steps down, while Israel’s almost certainly will not. And secondly, the world’s greatest power need not feel endangered by such unpopularity, but it must be viewed differently by a small and beleaguered country toward whom the world’s attitudes can ultimately be a matter of life or death.

Although public opinion has less influence on foreign policy than on domestic policy, governments are not ultimately immune to it there either. So far the European Union, whose good will is crucial to Israel, has behaved toward it, if not always supportively, at least with a reasonable measure of sympathy and fairness. How long can this be expected to go on? How much longer will the government of Germany, which over and over has led the pro-Israel forces in Europe, continue to do so when its citizens, by a ratio of nearly 8-to-1, disapprove of the country it has been defending?

When one debates what “legitimate” criticism of Israel does and does not consist of, such figures need to be kept constantly in mind. No criticism of Israel that further distorts the wildly inaccurate picture of it that prevails in most of the world can possibly be legitimate. Israel is fighting a war for public opinion that is, in the long run, part of the war it is fighting for its survival—and it is being routed. Those who care for it, no matter how much they disagree with its current policies, should think not twice but ten times before they say or do anything that can only make this rout worse.

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Did Baudrillard Exist?

The papers report the death of a French philosopher called Jean Baudrillard. He is said to have written an entire book entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. After the attack on the Twin Towers, he is supposed to have denied the reality of that, too. The horror of the victims in the collapsing towers, according to Baudrillard, “is inseparable from the horror of living in them.” It is claimed that this once-obscure teacher of high-school German was catapulted to fame by a Ph.D. thesis that analyzed consumerism as a form of pornography. His was the face that launched a thousand Ph.D.’s (not to mention such films as The Matrix). As one of the leading figures in “cultural theory,” he is rumored to have been greeted as a “messiah” by the New York art world when he appeared at the Whitney Museum in 1987. Though it was part of his legend to loathe all forms of culture, he was believed to share his apartment with 50 television sets and pictures of America, the “hyperpower” that embodied “hyperreality.”

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The papers report the death of a French philosopher called Jean Baudrillard. He is said to have written an entire book entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. After the attack on the Twin Towers, he is supposed to have denied the reality of that, too. The horror of the victims in the collapsing towers, according to Baudrillard, “is inseparable from the horror of living in them.” It is claimed that this once-obscure teacher of high-school German was catapulted to fame by a Ph.D. thesis that analyzed consumerism as a form of pornography. His was the face that launched a thousand Ph.D.’s (not to mention such films as The Matrix). As one of the leading figures in “cultural theory,” he is rumored to have been greeted as a “messiah” by the New York art world when he appeared at the Whitney Museum in 1987. Though it was part of his legend to loathe all forms of culture, he was believed to share his apartment with 50 television sets and pictures of America, the “hyperpower” that embodied “hyperreality.”

How real, though, was this “Baudrillard,” and what reason do we have to believe that he actually existed outside the realm of “theory?” According to the reductio ad absurdum of structuralism, semiotics, postmodernism, and all the other ideological products of the intellectual fashion industry in Paris, even if “Baudrillard” had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him. The inevitable disappointment that followed the “events” of May 1968 required an explanation, and “Baudrillard” provided a suitably grand one: in the absence of total revolution, everything was a non-event, an illusion, a simulacrum. French intellectuals could continue to pretend that the world outside Paris did not count, and the rest of the world could continue to revere “Baudrillard” as a virtual philosopher—an emperor of the intellectuals who gloried in his intellectual nakedness.

The truth was, however, the reverse of the fairy tale: “Baudrillard” was a suit of clothes with no emperor inside—or rather, an academic gown with no professor inside. Since the 1960′s, Paris has ceased to be the seat of learning to which students of philosophy flocked since the days of Abelard and Heloïse. Instead, Paris has become an intellectual theme park—an academic Disneyland. “Baudrillard” was less real than Mickey Mouse. The philosopher of the hyperreal was himself mere hype.

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