Commentary Magazine


Professor of Terror

Since the intifada began in December 1987, scores of Palestinian Arabs have been murdered by other Arabs as “collaborators” with Israel. In the spring of this year, the rate of attacks began to increase sharply. Even by the standards that obtain in the Arab world, the murders have been unusually brutal: the lucky victims were shot; the unlucky ones were raped, tortured, and then hacked or bludgeoned to death. On June 8, for example, the Israeli press reported that “the naked, bloodstained body of Samir Abu Ras, 30, was found chained and hanging from an electricity pole outside the casbah. Palestinians said Abu Ras, who was known as a ‘collaborator,’ had been killed with hatchet blows.”

The alleged offenses of the victims include working or shopping in Israel, selling land to Jews, giving information to Israeli security forces, and expressing interest in the latest Israeli proposal for elections in the administered territories. Yet despite the fact that early in 1989 Yasir Arafat threatened the life of Bethlehem mayor Elias Freij for proposing a truce that would make elections possible—“Whoever thinks of stopping the intifada before it achieves its goals,” declared Arafat, “I will give him ten bullets in the chest”—Israeli and foreign journalists continue to ask whether the killing of “collaborators” in the administered territories and the threat of killing in the Galilee are carried out on the initiative of local freelance operators or on orders from the PLO abroad.

The answer to this question may be found in a most unlikely place: the spring issue of Critical Inquiry, an American academic journal of literary theory put out by the University of Chicago Press. Amid the moldy futilities that typically fill the pages of this quarterly we find a simmering incendiary charge by Professor Edward Said, full of that lurid illumination which always seems to attend any expression of the intellectual’s desire to rule the world.

Said, who holds an endowed chair in English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and is also a member of the Palestinian “parliament in exile,” has written extensively about a novelist whose great insight into modern political life, as it happens, has precisely to do with the special attraction of intellectuals to terror. Joseph Conrad, in The Secret Agent (1906), describes the “pedantic fanaticism” of a professor whose thoughts “caressed the images of ruin and destruction”; and he analyzes the longing of another (untenured) intellectual to create “a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means,” chief among them “death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity.”

But Said, whose double career as literary scholar and ideologue of terrorism is a potent argument against those who believe in the corrective power of humanistic values, has swallowed Conrad without digesting him; for knowledge is one thing, virtue another. In Critical Inquiry Said offers a so-called “Response” to an article appearing in the same issue by Robert J. Griffin, a member of the English Department at Tel-Aviv University. Griffin, a fairly recent Ph.D. from Yale, whose own essay is a carefully reasoned rejoinder to a still earlier screed by Said on the subject of Zionism as racism, is treated by his respondent in language like this:

Who is this Robert J. Griffin who has never in his life written a published word on Palestine, and is only . . . the author of two (or is it three? [in fact, it is neither]) . . . articles on Dr. Johnson? . . . Who is this creature. . . ? . . . He should atone for the crimes he defends and keep decently silent until (if he is a human being) he either joins the real opposition to real occupation or, if he is (as I suspect) a political invention, dissolves himself. . . .

This (and much more) from the Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, where Lionel Trilling once taught and exemplified the meaning of sweetness and light in culture.

Evidently thinking of his own prose as a verbal equivalent of the weapons wielded by his colleagues on the Palestinian National Council (PNC), Said spills ink to justify their spilling of blood:

When Farouk Kaddoumi or Abu Iyad say that collaborators would be shot or that “our people in the interior recognize their responsibilities”—passages quoted by Griffin—surely even he must be aware that the UN Charter and every other known document or protocol entitles a people under foreign occupation not only to resist but also by extension to deal severely with collaborators. Why is it somehow OK for white people . . . to punish collaborators during periods of military occupation, and not OK for Palestinians to do the same?

Anyone familiar with Said’s longstanding habit of confidently reciting the most preposterous falsehoods will not be surprised to learn that the UN Charter includes not one word about resistance to foreign occupation or killing “collaborators.” I have searched without success for the unnamed “document or protocol” that would have “entitled” diehard followers of, for example, Tojo and Hitler to execute Japanese and Germans who cooperated with the American occupation forces in the aftermath of World War II. One can perhaps understand Said’s craving as an intellectual (in Conrad’s sense) for the ultimate “right,” the right to murder—legally, no less. But if he and his colleagues in Arafat’s inner circle claim this right in their dealings with Palestinian Arabs, what may we imagine them to have in mind for the Jews?

For it must be remembered, again, that Edward Said is not merely a professor and an ideologue but a member of the Palestine National Council, the leading spokesman for the PLO in the American news media, and one of Arafat’s closest advisers. Who can forget last November’s television images of this intellectual-in-ordinary to the king of terror, whispering (who knows what?) into his master’s ear at the conclusion of the PNC meeting in Algiers?

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A writer who has alleged that Jews are not truly a people because their identity in the Diaspora has been entirely a function of external persecution, or that the Holocaust served to “protect” Palestinian Jews “with the world’s compassion,” or that before 1948 “the historical duration of a Jewish state [in Palestine] was a sixty-year period two millennia ago,” cannot easily outdo himself in misrepresentation. And it is true that much of Said’s essay in Critical Inquiry follows the well-trodden paths of professional Israel-bashers, who can validate Palestinian Arab nationality only by reinventing Palestinian Arabs as the shadow-selves of Jews. Thus, Said alleges that Zionists “were in touch with the Nazis in the hope of emulating their Reich in Palestine”; that Israeli “soldiers and politicians . . . are now engaged in visiting upon non-Jews many of the same evil practices anti-Semites waged against Holocaust victims”; and that Ansar III (a detention center in the Negev for security prisoners) is “a concentration camp.”

But the Israeli-Nazi (and Arab-Jew) analogy, now a mere ripple on the dead sea of anti-Semitic commonplace, also proves insufficently blatant for Said. “Israel’s occupation,” he announces, “increased in severity and outright cruelty, more than rivaling all other military occupations in modern history.” Something new at last! Israel is even worse than the Nazi occupiers of Europe—and, one presumes, the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan, the Syrian and PLO occupiers of Lebanon, the Jordanian occupiers of the West Bank who, subsequent to their occupation, destroyed about 10,000 Palestinian Arabs while suppressing the “Black September” uprising of 1970-71.

Said’s essay not only answers the question of whether the PLO and PNC have renounced terror in dealing with their internal opponents; it also sheds light on a secondary mystery, about Said himself. Some of his critics have wondered how he could reconcile his relentless denunciations of the “racist” stereotyping of Arabs by Western “Orientalists” with his own equally relentless and no less racist insistence that, as he put it in 1980, “there are no divisions in the Palestinian population of four million. We all support the PLO.” Moreover, a pedestrian mind might well ask, if every single Palestinian Arab belongs to a monolithic body with one will, acting and thinking in perfect unison, who are these “collaborators” with whom Said and his friends intend to “deal severely”? The answer perhaps is to be found in a sentence in his new essay which says that “every Palestinian, without significant exception, is up in arms against the laws of the Jewish . . . state.” So the dead and the terrorized are, after all, insignificant exceptions.

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What impression, one wonders finally, will Said’s advocacy of the short and ready way of dealing with “collaborators” make upon the readers of Critical Inquiry? Many are literary theorists who have laid aside not only their old copies of I.A. Richards’s How to Read a Page but also their old understanding of literature as an art meant to encourage moral awareness and humane understanding. Immersed in what the novelist Malcolm Bradbury calls the latest designer philosophies, they are hard put even to see the tautologies and absurdities in such notions as “postmodernism” and “intertextuality.” Can such people be expected to recognize that the organization represented by this bloody-minded intellectual spokesman is an unlikely partner for negotiating a two-state solution in western Palestine? One wonders, but, alas, not for long.

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