Commentary Magazine


Whose Palestine? An Open Letter to Edward Said

Dear Edward Said:
Not long ago I was sent your book, The Question of Palestine,1 to review. I suppose I should explain why I am writing you this letter instead.

The fact is that I could have easily—more easily certainly than what I am doing now—written that review. I could have begun it by reflecting upon what happens to certain intellectuals when they become politically engagé, remarked on the confidence with which they turn their attentions from the complexities of ideas and literary texts to something so simple by contrast as the real world, discussed in this context your use of academic language and its modalities to present a view of the Arab-Jewish struggle in Palestine that seems to me irresponsibly one-sided, illustrated this with examples of how you have selectively manipulated issues and evidence in ways hardly creditable to a scholar, made the appropriate allusion to le trahison des clercs in our time, concluded with the charitable thought that your book must be judged nonetheless against the mitigating circumstances of your own Palestinian origin and ordeal. Two-thousand such words, as you no doubt know, can with luck be written in a morning.

If I did not write them, it is because (although we have never met) of the personal connection between us, and because of the thoughts to which this has led me.

You see, it occurs to me that we have, you and I, traded lives—although only, of course, in a sense.

We were born some four years apart, you first in Jerusalem, where I have spent nearly half of the decade that I have been living in Israel, I in New York, where you live now. Of your background you tell us little: only that your father was a prominent Christian Arab businessman, that you studied from an early age in English schools, and that, sometime either before or after the 1948 war that divided your native city in two, you were sent to continue your secondary education in Egypt—after which you went to college in the United States and embarked on an academic career that has led to numerous honors, among them your being appointed in 1970 Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

What happened to your home in Jerusalem I do not know. If it was in one of those fine stone Arab houses located in the western half of the city, in Talbieh or old Katamon, its inhabitants either left or were driven out as refugees in 1948, and it is today lived in by Jews. If it was in the eastern half of the city that remained in Jordanian hands until 1967, your family may still reside in it under what I prefer to call Israeli rule and you Israeli occupation. In either case, you cannot revisit it, or any of the other scenes of your childhood. Even if you managed to enter Israel on your American passport, as a member of the Palestinian National Council, the “parliament in exile,” as you call it, of the. PLO, you would in all likelihood be arrested by the authorities here for participation in a hostile organization.

Thus, you are both a Western intellectual and a Palestinian Arab patriot, and clearly the tension between these two sides of you has been both a painful and a fruitful experience. How crucial it has been for your literary productivity, even a cursory review of the books you have published reveals: Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966), a study of the one major figure in the history of English literature—himself the exiled son of an oppressed people—for whom the English language and its culture were a second, assumed identity; Beginnings: Intentions and Methods (1975), a lengthy meditation on the problem of how an author constructs from his own personal history a point of departure for his literary persona and work; Orientalism (1978), a bitter critique of the ways in which European scholars and intellectuals have “represented” the Arab world to the West over the past centuries; and now, The Question of Palestine, which may be the only book on its subject to include in its index Franz Bopp, Chateaubriand, Conrad, Flaubert, Gramsci, Hume, Locke, Lamartine, de Nerval, and Friedrich von Schlegel.

Simply noted like this, I suppose, such a list must seem inflated, as must the prose of sentences like, “For the Palestinians have a sense of detail and reality through using the patterns of an acutely concrete space-time conflation” (has the acutely concrete, I wonder, ever been described before in so acutely abstract a manner?), but it is to your credit, I think, that the professor of literature heavily influenced by French structuralism and the Palestinian nationalist committed to the struggle of his people have attempted to write and sound like one person, even if the alliance between them is not always a simple one.

At least I assume it is not, because of my own case.

In a way this was like a negative image of yours. I grew up speaking English but attended a school as a child where my studies were largely in Hebrew. English was for me the language of the everyday; Hebrew, of the Bible, of grammar drills and orange groves, of the heroic dreams of a romantic and often melancholy child about a land that Jews were not embarrassed in those days to call by its still neutral name (indeed, a fixture in my family’s kitchen for years was a blue-and-white Jewish National Fund collection box with the slogan “Fight For A Free Palestine” across it). I was raised in a Zionist home and never doubted for a moment that away from that land I was in a condition of exile, which I held responsible for both the most trivial setbacks and the most genuine griefs of my childhood. Sooner or later, of course, I had to realize that not a few of these griefs were simply the consequence of having been born anywhere. Yet at the time, the one, overwhelming fact of my existence to which I believed all my sorrow could be traced was my intense sense of dislocation, of growing up a Jew in a country not my own, although it was another fact that I had also been born an American, and still another that these first two facts seemed hopelessly at odds with each other.

_____________

 

Will your children Wadie and Najla, I wonder (you see, I have been spying on you in the reference books), growing up a short walk from where I did—for my father taught in those years at Columbia too—also be raised in two worlds, of which the one they have never seen, the one called Palestine, will haunt them like a lost birthright of whose recovery they will continue to dream long after they have come to understand that there are losses far more irrecoverable than anything that history or geography can restore to us? The thought, I must say, does not make me particularly happy either for them or for myself. Yet if they will be—and their names, which will make life no easier for them in the playgrounds of New York than mine did, suggest as much—the time will come, I can promise you, when they will feel less than totally grateful for the sense of “dual selfhood” that you have instilled in them, to borrow a phrase that you use about Conrad. When exactly I began to resent the tax of this division in myself, and the upbringing that was responsible for it, I can no longer recall, but it was certainly well before my own years at Columbia, first as an undergraduate English major, and later in the graduate school, when our paths on campus briefly crossed. I was a good student, too, with my share of awards, and a promising career, I was told, ahead of me, had I chosen to go on with it—which I mention not in order to boast but because of a thought that occurred to me. Which was this:

As in those fairy tales where people’s lives are exchanged for each other by a good or malevolent fate, history has switched us around. Were it not for the events of 1948, which Israelis like me call the “War of Liberation” and Palestinians like you the “Catastrophe”—or to put it otherwise, if that war had ended differently, as seemed conceivable to both sides at the time—I might be teaching literature in America today and raising my children in exile, while you might be living where I am, in the land where you were born.

Perhaps you will understand now why I felt let down by you when I finished your book. Not that I had any reason to doubt where your sympathies lay in the war between your people and mine. Yet I did think that, having assumed so much of my life, as it were, you might take up the question of Palestine with a feeling for my side of it that would distinguish you from your Palestinian colleagues who have addressed themselves to the same issue. You are not only, after all, as devoted to your cause and as eloquent in its espousal as any of them. You are also a scholar who knows something about history, presumably Jewish history too; you have spent years of your life living in a city and teaching at a university where the Jewish presence is by no means negligible; you have in the course of this time learned a great deal about Jewish sentiments, fears, and aspirations; so that you, of all people, might have been expected to realize that what the question of Palestine needs most of all at this point is to be rescued from the hands of the stone-throwers and mutual accusers by those with the perspective on either side to do so. Had you written from such a perspective, you might have published the book I had hoped for: the first of its kind by an intelligent spokesman for the Palestinian cause to open a channel of communication between our two peoples, without which I do not believe that any political solution to our problems can be reached.

An impossible book to demand of you, who will tell me that from the point of view of the oppressed, political solutions must come first? Perhaps. In any event, the one you did not write.

_____________

 

2.

In all fairness I must say that there were moments while reading The Question of Palestine when I felt less discouraged. When you write, after all, that “I can understand the intertwined terror and the exultation out of which Zionism has been nourished, and I think I can at least grasp the meaning of Israel for Jews,” or “I do sympathize with, I understand as profoundly as I can, the fear [sic] felt by most Jews that Israel’s security is a genuine protection against future genocidal attempts on the Jewish people,” you are expressing sentiments the likes of which I have not yet seen attributed to Yasir Arafat, or even to more “dovish” representatives of the PLO than he. Yet four or five brief passages like this in a book of over two-hundred pages, the remainder of which is devoted to an unrelenting catalogue of the suffering inflicted by Zionism upon the Palestinian people, are not, I am afraid, a convincing demonstration that you really do grasp much about us.

That suffering has been real. The question is not whether it has occurred—even the most unthinking defenders of Israel long ago stopped arguing that Zionism has been a boon for the Palestinian Arab—but who, if anyone, has been responsible for it, and whether it was, as you assert, deliberately promulgated as part of a master plan of dispossession with which the Zionist movement approached the Palestine question from the start. And unfortunately, in supporting this assertion, there is not an item in the propagandist’s bag of tricks—gross historical distortion, reliance on fraudulent or self-declared “authorities,” selective quotation, citation of texts out of context, deliberate suppression or neglect of evidence unfavorable to your position, presentation of unsubstantiated innuendo as fact, guilt by association, misleading use of statistics, consistent application of a double moral standard—to which you do not resort. I have said that I will leave it to the reviewers to compile their lists of these. Suffice it to say that a book that begins its survey of the Jewish association with Palestine with the statement that “the historical duration of a Jewish state” there prior to 1948 “was a sixty-year period two millennia ago,” and ends it with the disclosure that the Israeli occupation forces have established “concentration camps” on the West Bank, does not cast a flattering light on the elementary respect for accuracy of the Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

But I repeat: I am not writing to you to tell you this, or to challenge you to one more verbal duel on a subject that has already been the cause of too many. You are not the first partisan on either the Arab or Israeli side to grow careless with the facts in the heat of the argument—that by now endless labyrinth of who first did what to whom under what circumstances, with what provocation or the lack of it—and the argument itself has grown stale and unprofitable for all of us. Perhaps it is indeed time that all of us realized that the question of Palestine is not a morality play in which good does battle with evil, the problem being then to determine who deserves to be cast in which role, but a complex and terrible drama in which no one is totally right, no one totally wrong, and no one totally beyond sympathy or reproach. It is easy for me to understand why you, as a Palestinian Arab, should consider Zionism to have been from the outset a foreign encroachment that deserved to be resisted at all costs before it turned into a disaster for your people, and why, once that disaster took place, you should blame it not on the fact that your people fought to prevent it, but on the fact that it fought too little and too late. But I happen to be a Jew, and as such it is equally clear to me that had my people not managed to create a Jewish state in Palestine—one that unfortunately could only have been established and maintained at your people’s expense—it would today be on the irreversible road to extinction. No Solomon could possibly judge between these two claims. Each is predicated upon a denial of the other, and neither can ever be refuted by pointing out that this or that detail, or combination of details, in the irrefutable totality of what has happened has been incorrectly interpreted or perceived.

How then, if only to reach a practical settlement between us, do we communicate across the abyss that separates us instead of merely continuing to speak to those already standing on our side of it?

Perhaps, as your book tends to confirm, it is still too early for this. Perhaps the struggle between us, which will soon be marking its centenary, must first go on a while longer in the arena of world politics and opinion, in the explosion of bombs in marketplaces and along borders, or in the full-scale eruption of another Arab-Israeli war. Yet since none of these alternatives is especially attractive, least of all the last of them, there is no merit in despairing of avoiding them. And because to communicate one must be able not only to talk, a skill that both our peoples possess in abundance, but also to listen, one they do not, we might begin with that—that is, with “the issue of representation,” as you call it in The Question of Palestine, although I suppose you might have more prosaically called it that of misrepresentation as well.

_____________

 

3.

This last remark is a quip, however, for the concept of “representation,” both in culture and in literature, is a profoundly dialectical one for you. Just as a literary text, you say, in “re-presenting” a given reality that cannot speak for itself, simultaneously affirms this reality by recreating it for the reader and annuls it by putting itself in its place, so cultural attitudes, embodied in those collective traditions that your mentor Foucault calls “discourses,” do the same. Hence your book Orientalism, which is about one such discourse created by Western experts on the Levant—a discourse in which, you argue, the real Orient was effectively “displaced.”

My analysis of the Orientalist text therefore places emphasis on the evidence . . . for such representations as representations, not as natural depictions of the Orient. . . . The exteriority of the representation is always governed by some version of the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would; since it cannot, the representation does the job, for the West, and faute de mieux, for the poor Orient. . . . The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient therefore relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient as such. On the contrary, the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of its having excluded, displaced, made supererogatory any such real thing as “the Orient.”

Moreover, such activity, you claim, was purposeful, its aim being to substitute for the “displaced” reality an artificial construct perfectly suited to providing the intellectual and ideological justification for colonialism. More conscious of this function in some cases, less in others, generations of scholars, authors, travelers, and politicians labored as one man to draw a collective portrait of a society that, exotically alluring on the one hand, barbaric and depraved on the other, desperately needed to be saved from its own vices by the civilizing conquest and rule of the West.

I suppose one would have to be an Orientalist oneself to pass competent judgment on this thesis—which, however simplistic or exaggerated, contains perhaps an element of truth. What interests me about it here, however, is not its correctness in itself, but its bearing on The Question of Palestine. Indeed, in a number of ways the later book is a sequel to the earlier one, the difference between them being that while Orientalism examines Western attitudes toward the Arab world as a whole, The Question of Palestine deals with the attitudes of specific groups in the West (Zionists and their supporters) to a specific part of the Arab world (Palestine).

Essentially you are convinced that Zionist attitudes toward the Palestinian Arab were from the beginning both an aping and an exploitation of “Orientalist” representations of the Levant, without which the very phenomenon of Zionism would have been inconceivable. Like the Orientalists, you say, the Zionists “displaced” the actual reality of the Middle East by an imaginary, largely depopulated version of it tailored to suit their own interests; like them they saw the Arab as “synonymous with everything degraded, fearsome, irrational, and brutal,” an inferior being unworthy of possessing the soil he occupied; like them they used this “representation” as an ideological justification for colonizing a country that did not belong to them and robbing it from its native inhabitants, whom they viewed as unthinking creatures lacking political awareness or will. Thus, itself a movement dedicated to the liberation of a persecuted race, Zionism “not only accepted the generic racial concepts of European culture, it also banked on the fact that Palestine was actually peopled by . . . a backward people over which it ought to be dominant.”

_____________

 

In a word, you say, the Palestinian Arab was for the founders of Zionism, and continues to be for the average Israeli who has been educated on Zionist doctrine, a kind of “non-person,” to be treated sometimes with paternal condescension, sometimes with repressive brutality, but never as a fellow human being with the same feelings, needs, and rights as a Jew. We Jews, if only to rationalize our conduct and assuage our own consciences, have had “no perception” of the “human tragedy caused the Arab Palestinian by Zionism.” We have “blocked out” your human image and refused to listen to what you had to say, since in our opinion Palestinians could have nothing to say, “always being represented [by the Jew], never able to speak for themselves.”

Somewhere here too, I believe, there is a kernel of truth. If only it were not concealed in such a malignant tissue of generalization, which some of the more common English modifiers could easily have pared away. Had you written, for example, that some Zionists sought to ally themselves with European colonialism, and at times even briefly succeeded, I would have had to agree. Had you said that most Zionist leaders and intellectuals prior to 1948, and a majority of them since (although a rapidly shrinking one since 1967), have been indifferent to Palestinian feelings and desires except insofar as these impinged upon Jewish ones, you would not, in my opinion, have been wrong. Had you claimed that many Israelis are prejudiced toward Arabs, I would have admitted that this is regrettably the case. But you say none of these things—for in saying them you simultaneously would have had to acknowledge that powerful elements in the Zionist movement were opposed to colonialist alliances, that there have been not a few public figures among us who have both understood and respected the Palestinian point of view, that a great many Israelis are perfectly fair-minded about Arabs, while even many of those who are not, are not hopelessly “racist” in their attitudes—in short, that in regard to the question of Palestine, as in regard to a large number of other questions, both the history of Zionism and the nature of Israeli society are infinitely more complicated phenomena than you, who would reduce them to the level of a single, undifferentiated caricature, apparently have any inkling of.

For what really do you understand about either of these things? No more, it would seem, than you care to understand, which is to say, very little, much less than many Israelis understand about you. Yes, I know you have read all about us: four pages of bibliography and eleven pages of footnotes at the end of your book attest to that. But these same pages also attest to the fact that you have chosen to displace us; that you have read, or at least taken seriously, hardly a word said or written by us, except by those extremists among us on both the Left and the Right who have drawn the skewed portrait of us that you wanted to see; and that, your disavowals notwithstanding, neither Zionism nor the state of Israel exists for you apart from “the standpoint of its victims,” as one of your chapter headings puts it. What is hateful to you, you have consistently done to others. Or to use your own language again: you have chosen always to represent us, never to let us speak for ourselves.

_____________

 

4.

For example: early in your book you devote a section to the ideological beginnings of Zionism. In exemplary fashion you start out by stating that “it would be totally unjust to neglect the power of Zionism as an idea for Jews, or to minimize the complex internal debates characterizing Zionism, its true meaning, its messianic destiny, etc.”—and then proceed to base your entire discussion of this idea upon a lengthy analysis of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, which in its espousal of the notion of a Jewish mission civilatrice in Palestine you take to be a seminal text on Zionist attitudes toward Jewish settlement there. In a book that contains hardly a serious reference, or none at all, to Pinsker, to Herzl, to Smolenskin, to Lilienblum, to Ahad Ha’am, to Borochov, to Brenner, to Gordon, to Syrkin, to Buber, to Jabotinsky, to Ben-Gurion, let alone to the cultural and socioeconomic background of the late 19th-and early 20th-century East European Jewry from which Zionism sprang, there are six pages devoted to Daniel Deronda, a romantic novel by a Victorian Englishwoman who knew nothing at all about Jews and which not one Zionist in a thousand ever read! A strange way of dealing with “Zionist” origins—although no stranger perhaps than documenting “Zionist” views on Israel and its place in the Middle East by quoting at length from Reinhold Niebuhr and Edmund Wilson, or “Zionist” attitudes toward the Arabs by citing Sir Flinders Petrie, Lord Kitchener, and the anti-native remarks of a forgotten assistant to a forgotten British governor of Nigeria.

How does one explain this method of argumentation, which recurs repeatedly in your book?

Certainly not by the unavailability of authentic Zionist or Israeli sources, many of which have been translated into English. Rather I think by the following: implicit in your approach to the Palestine question is your assumption that the history of Zionism in modern times has been essentially an exterior one, imposed by forces from the outside. “For indeed,” as you write, “it was the world that made the success of Zionism possible”—by which you mean, I take it, not only that the world actively abetted Zionism in its struggle,2 but that Zionism was itself a product of “the world,” whether as mimicry (colonialism) or flight (an escape from anti-Semitism), rather than the culmination of any deeply authentic or immanent processes in Jewish life. Like those Arabs who instinctively preferred to believe that the planes that destroyed the Arab air forces in 1967 were American and not Israeli, thus lessening the blow to their pride, you find it easier to think that “the world” has taken Palestine from you, rather than a small and desperate people that you remember from your own childhood being referred to by your parents’ friends with contempt. Clearly such a people could not possibly have had the resources to perpetrate such a crime by itself.

_____________

 

Indeed, it would seem that for you we are a people without significant resources of any kind, without a history, a culture, a religion, a language, a literature, or any of the other collective “discourses” that group individuals into communities and that in our own case link us inextricably to the land called Palestine. We are merely a product for you, a creation of “the world,” which you view under two aspects, one arousing your pity and the other your rage, though you rage against us more than you pity us. That is, either we are the faceless victimizers, the surrogates of the Western world in its assault on the Orient, who kill, bully, and evict from their homes innocent Arabs whose only crime is to be in our way, or else we are ourselves the faceless victims, “the survivors of the most tragic destiny meted out to any people,” as you are considerate enough to remark. And of course, it is only in the latter aspect that a case can be made for our being in Palestine at all—although even then, not a very good one, since you rhetorically ask: “Were our [the Palestinian Arabs’] dispossession and our effacement . . . justified even to save the remnant of European Jews that had survived Nazism?” That Zionism had other goals and purposes than pillaging Arabs and rescuing Jews from the Nazis (in which it was in any case a tragic failure, since the Jews who survived the Holocaust had already been rescued by others, while the Jews who did not were rescued by no one at all), foremost among them the building of a creative Jewish society in the only place on earth that Jews have ever considered their own and could be both totally authentic Jews and complete human beings in, thereby putting an end to their costly alienation in exile from much of the potential in themselves, is obviously not a proposition to detain you.

Why should it be, when like Toynbee you conceive of us as a petrified form whose inner life, at least in regard to Palestine, stopped thousands of years ago? Hence words like Judea and Samaria, whose Hebrew equivalents are simply the geographical names by which Jews have always referred to the central hill country of Palestine, are for you atavistic throwbacks, and any sense of Jewish attachment to these places “fossilized theological madness.” It is the material around it that by its obduracy preserves the fossil, which otherwise would have no existence of its own, and presumably you would agree with Sartre when he wrote, “The Jew is one whom other men consider a Jew . . . it is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew.” There is no need to point out, of course, that Sartre was not an anti-Semite himself when he wrote these words; indeed they occur in a book that is a highly intelligent attack on anti-Semitism in French society. Yet it is a curiously, if unconsciously, anti-Semitic attack on anti-Semitism, since Sartre would certainly never have written that the German is made by the Frenchman’s rejection of him or the Armenian by the persecution of the Turk. It is only the Jew who, having no real identity of his own, must continually borrow one from others.

Thus I beg to differ as well with your opinion—although it is of course not only your opinion, it is quite a modish opinion to have nowadays—that it is merely a “Zionist habit” to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. On the contrary. Certainly one can denounce this or that aspect of Zionism, as one can denounce this or that policy of the government of Israel, without being anti-Semitic. But only an anti-Semite can denounce the idea of Zionism per se, for this idea is no more than that the Jewish people should have the same right to self-determination in its own land as other peoples in theirs—and to deny it this right is to be against it, even if one claims that one is doing it no harm, since unlike others it has no self to determine. True, in exercising this right it has helped deprive another people of the same right. It is tragic to think that it had no other choice, as it is tragic when a drowning man, thinking only of himself and his family, snatches up a life preserver that might have saved another man too; but any admirer of Conrad’s should know that this is indeed a tragic world. The last thing Conrad would have done is blame that on the drowning man himself.

_____________

 

5.

Still, there does exist the possibility of trying to share the life preserver while hoping that it will not sink beneath a combined weight for which it was not designed. Humanly this seems the fairer solution, although for the man who already has the life preserver in his hands it is obviously the riskier one too.

This solution—which I hardly need remind you was one that the Palestinian Arab people rejected in 1947 when the Palestinian Jewish people accepted it—is the one you advocate now. Unless it is adopted, you say, the question of Palestine will take an increasing toll of both our peoples, in emotions, in waste, and in blood.

You may be right. Frankly, however, the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not one that I contemplate with particular pleasure, neither when thinking of the future nor when thinking of the past. Not when thinking of the past, because the “fossilized madness” of Jewish love for this land, yes, for Judea and Samaria too, is an aberration that I share with many Israelis—the great majority of them, you may be surprised to hear, far from the Gush Emunim persuasion—and I fear that in relinquishing any part of Palestine I must relinquish a part of myself. Nor when thinking of the future because, again like many Israelis, I have grave doubts about what the policies toward Israel of a West Bank state will be.

I do not for a moment think, as you do, that these doubts stem from Jewish paranoia. Nor do I think that they derive from a low opinion of the Palestinians On the contrary: they come in part from taking seriously what a great many Palestinians have, or as the case may be, have not been saying, and in part from asking myself what I would do if I were in their place. Suppose, in other words, that after long years of sacrifice and struggle I had finally succeeded in establishing an independent state of my own in Palestine; suppose that this state were composed of two discontiguous pieces of land adding up to little more than 2,000 square miles, that is, to roughly twice the size of Luxemburg; suppose it comprised only 25 per cent of the land area of mandated Palestine, while the remaining 75 per cent remained in Israeli hands; suppose that it had practically no natural resources to speak of, and could barely support its own rapidly reproducing population, much less absorb the millions of my “diaspora” countrymen whose problem it was supposed to solve; suppose, once the first flush of enthusiasm for a passport and flag of my own had worn off, frustration and disillusionment set in; and suppose that at the same time the overall balance of power between Israel and the Arab states kept tilting in favor of the Arabs, surfeited with oil, petrodollars, and arms—what would I do?

Swallow my frustration, accept the fact that the Jews have permanently gotten away with the more richly endowed three-quarters of Palestine, which I still feel is rightfully mine (especially as it has in it a growing Palestinian minority), and resolve to be good neighbors with them? Or obey my irredentist emotions, trusting that considerations of Realpolitik will sooner or later make the world force Israel to return still more of my stolen homeland—let us say the half of it that was promised me in the 1947 UN partition resolution—or even acquiesce in the destruction of the Jewish state entirely once Arab strength has made this possible?

You must admit that from the Palestinian point of view this latter alternative would be a tempting one. More than that: that strictly among yourselves it is one that even “moderate” Palestinians, perhaps especially “moderate” Palestinians, talk about a great deal. As the PLO’s representative to the United Nations, Zehdi Terzi, a “moderate” himself, recently put it in a Palestinian symposium in the journal The Middle East: “We still maintain that the total liberation of Palestine is our aim. But this will be in stages.”

So you see, it is possible for an Israeli to accept Palestinians as fellow human beings, to acknowledge that they too have rights, to concede in the name of equality that they deserve a state of their own—and still to fear deeply the behavior of such a state, precisely because it will still not have been given an equal share of Palestine, nor can it be given such a share without this meaning the dismemberment of Israel, since Palestine in the late 20th century is too small a country to be equally divided up any more.

_____________

 

Thus, the questions in regard to a Palestinian state that a realistic Israeli must ask himself are, firstly: will the Palestinian people through its political representatives be ready to accept an unequal share of Palestine as part of a final and irrevocable settlement between us, since that is the most I can offer it? Secondly: should these representatives one day declare such a readiness, can I believe that they mean what they say? And thirdly: even if I believe them, can I assume that, given the forces to which they will be subject once they are in power, they will be able to honor their word?

At best such a set of beliefs and assumptions represents a calculated risk, which if misguided could prove disastrous for Israel. Yet if the reward to be gained were a genuine end to the conflict between us, many Israelis, including myself, might be inclined to take this risk despite their reservations about it—provided it seemed a reasonably good one.

Unfortunately, since the political representatives in question are the leaders of the PLO, the risk seems to most of us a particularly poor one.

You yourself identify completely with the PLO, as does, you say, the entire Palestinian people. I do not dispute this. Nor do I question your assertions about what the PLO has achieved for the Palestinians, which in many ways parallels what Zionism has achieved for the Jews: it has rallied them from their despair, given them a sense of national purpose and pride, and been a remarkably effective political instrument for conveying their case to the world. Yet among Israelis, even those most sympathetic with Palestinian aspirations, the PLO has a very different image, and you might try to understand why this is so.

It is not, as you seem to think, because most Israelis fear that “to admit the existence of Palestinians with a national claim even to a part of Palestine” means “contesting Zionist claims” to the rest of it; few Israelis are so ideological in their outlook. Nor does it have much to do with a hypocritical rejection of terrorism, to which, as you quite rightly point out, Jews resorted in their struggle for independence too. Indeed, if by “terrorism” one means inflicting injury upon one’s enemy by whatever means one can apart from regular or guerrilla warfare, nearly all resistance movements that cannot marshal or sustain the forces to conduct such warfare are automatically terroristic in their methods. The PLO is such a movement. What makes it repugnant to nearly all Israelis is not its use of terror per se, but whom it has chosen to use terror against—that is, whom it has defined, both in practice and in theory, as its enemy.

For that definition includes all of us, that is, any Jew, man, woman, child, or infant, regardless of occupation, place of residence, or personal history, who happens to be in any street, bus, marketplace, or building where a PLO bomb goes off or PLO members attack. In this sense, almost uniquely in the history of terrorism, PLO violence has been totally indiscriminate. Nearly all terror of course results in innocent casualties. If one throws a grenade at a passing military vehicle or assassinates the general of an occupying army as he walks down a busy street—perfectly legitimate targets for any resistance movement—there are bound to be innocent people around. But the PLO may be the only terrorist organization anywhere that does not even recognize the concept of innocence among the population it opposes, that in fact seems to prefer attacking civilian targets to military, killing schoolchildren rather than soldiers, and this is what radically distinguishes it from such organizations as the FLN or Menachem Begin’s Irgun.

Believe me, I know of what I speak: there are soldiers everywhere in Israel, it is not that difficult to inflict losses on them too if one cares to—especially if one is in any case bound on the kind of suicide mission that many PLO units undertake. But the PLO apparently does not care to—why, perhaps you can explain. (Certainly it is not a matter of cowardice, since it takes courage to risk one’s life even while killing a child.) And the message of such a policy is clear: we are all the enemy, every Israeli is a trespasser, it is a crime for a Jew to be in Palestine at all, in Tel Aviv no less than in Nablus, in a cradle no less than a jeep.

Which of course is PLO theory as well. Article 6 of the Palestinian National Charter, the official “constitution” of the PLO, refuses to recognize as a “Palestinian” (that is, as a person having the right to live in Palestine) any Jew who arrived there, or descends from Jews who arrived there, after the “Zionist invasion” began—and although opinions differ within PLO ranks as to whether this invasion dates to 1882, 1917, or 1947, I needn’t tell you that even the last date leaves most of us here extirpable. If PLO bombs kill my wife or my children, this is not a regrettable accident, this is because they deserve to be killed, as did three-year-old Galit Haran of Nahariya whose head was smashed in against a rock last year by a PLO commando. (In fact, the PLO has more than once mendaciously taken “credit” for ordinary accidents in Israel, proudly announcing that it has destroyed a “Zionist” vehicle or attacked a “Zionist” crowd.) Article 19 of the Charter declares that the state of Israel—not Israel within these or those borders, but the existence of Israel itself—is “entirely illegal.” Articles 21 and 22 “reject all solutions which are substitutes for the total liberation of Palestine,” whose goal is to “destroy the Zionist presence” there. Article 20 affirms that “claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history.” How am I, as an Israeli and a Jew, supposed to relate to this? On what basis can I seriously be asked to believe that this is an organization that will live in peace with me if only I yield to it several thousand square miles of Palestine that I have been occupying since 1967?

_____________

 

Now in The Question of Palestine, without saying so in so many words, you imply that you yourself do not take literally these parts of the Palestinian Charter and that you belong to the more “moderate” wing of the PLO that supposedly would make permanent peace with Israel in return for a West Bank state. Let us agree for the sake of the argument that such a peace is the most desirable, or at any rate, the only possible solution to the conflict between us. Let us even agree (although I am far from convinced of it) that the provisions of the Palestinian Charter, as well as what PLO leaders like Yasir Arafat regularly shout to roaring crowds throughout the Arab world about “the final victory,” are mere rhetoric, that the “moderates” in the PLO do not take them seriously except as bargaining positions, and that these “moderates” can “deliver the vote” for a solution based on a West Bank state once it is offered them, so that the only real obstacle to the latter at the moment is the government of Israel. How does one persuade the people of Israel to get this government to change its mind—or rather, how does one persuade them to change their own minds, which are at present no different on this issue from their government’s?

Not, surely, by more PLO-style terror: this may remind us that a problem exists but beyond that it is counterproductive. Nor simply by generating more international pressure on us: this is more worrisome than your terror, which we have on the whole managed quite tolerably to contain, but it will not in itself make us trust you any more and may force us to react unpredictably, The world can wine-and-dine Palestinian leaders to satiety but only Israel can negotiate with them. And so there is only one way: to begin acting and talking—to us, and no less importantly, among yourselves—in a language that we find humanly and politically credible, that shows some awareness of who we are and of the nature of our right to be here, and that inspires in us at least the possibility of confidence in your intentions and their future reliability.

Which is what you, Edward Said, have failed to do.

I am thinking first of all of your book, which despite its pious protestations to the contrary (“The real strength,” you write, “of the Palestinian [vis-à-vis the Israeli] is just this insistence on the human being as a detail,” when it is precisely the Israeli as a detail that you cannot see at all) dehumanizes Israeli Jews as you claim they dehumanize you and totally fails to comprehend the world in which they live. Worse: it is a book that tenders them cheap propaganda slogans, such as the absurd PLO line about a “democratic secular state” in all of Palestine, as though these were courageous and serious proposals, and that presents Palestinian positions toward them in a patently false and ingratiating light (as when you write, for instance, “On occasion after occasion the PLO stated its willingness to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza,” knowing perfectly well that the PLO has never stated its willingness to renounce further territorial claims on Israel once such a state has been established). And I am thinking also of your replies to the questions put to you in the same January 1980 issue of The Middle East, where you unequivocally oppose any changes in the Palestinian National Charter while equivocating on every other query with the skill of a tried politician. (For example, Question: “How do you interpret Article 6? Does it refer to Jews residing in Palestine before 1917 or 1947?” Said: “It seems to me that the article is a function of the period and circumstances in which it was written. Insofar as circumstances change these items can be looked at.”) Needless to say, the fact that you emerge nonetheless as the most “moderate” of the eleven Palestinian political and intellectual leaders interviewed here does nothing to increase an Israeli’s belief in the possibility of talking with the PLO or with those Palestinian intellectuals who support it. Perhaps such responses will win friends for you in Beirut. In Israel they can only induce a profound feeling of despair: if this is as far as even a man in Said’s position will go, what can be expected of the PLO as a whole, and why waste time even hoping that it may one day prove an acceptable partner for negotiations?

Some Israelis will crow I-told-you-so to all this. Many more, however, will be genuinely depressed by it. Since Camp David, the organized “peace movement” in Israel (to which I do not belong) has been hampered in its efforts by its inability to present to the public a realistic alternative to the government positions it criticizes. Yet today a large and growing number of people in this country is deeply troubled by what it considers to be the ruinous policies of its government in Judea and Samaria, and by the blind alley into which these policies are leading it.

Such Israelis do not tend to be identified with any single political camp. Few belong to those “progressive forces”—a euphemism for the openly pro-Palestinian Left—that the PLO takes pride in having contacts with and that represent a tiny fraction of the Israeli public. Many are pure pragmatists who are far less concerned with doing justice to the Palestinians than with averting disaster for themselves, and you would no doubt find the views of some of them offensive. (I have heard Israelis ask, “What on earth do we want with filthy Arab towns like Hebron and Nablus?,” just as I know people in this country who have nothing but expletives for both Arabs and—Gush Emunim.) Yet if you are sincere in your desire for a Palestinian state on the West Bank that will coexist with an Israel returned to its 1967 borders, these people are your constituency, without whose support you will ultimately get nowhere, no matter how much of your blood and ours you spill while trying. Unless it has their potential approval, no Israeli government, not even the Labor party one that is almost certain to be elected by the end of next year, can contemplate recognizing the PLO or sitting down to talk with it. So far you, and Palestinians like you, have not reached this constituency at all; a book like The Question of Palestine could only strike it as defamatory and unreal. It is in your own interest to learn how to address it.

_____________

 

6.

A few last words.

The summer before last I did my army reserve duty in and around Hebron, in the southern part of the Judean hills. My unit was that month’s occupation force for the area. We performed the usual chores: patrolled, guarded installations, manned roadblocks and observation points. Now and then we searched a house or arrested a local resident under suspicion by the security forces. Once we imposed a brief curfew on a village in which some children had stoned a military jeep. The area was quiet, and it was, in army terms, an uneventful time. We did not, although you seem to think that this is the Israeli army’s daily fare, go through “unarmed Arab villages and towns, occasionally killing, usually beating Arabs.” In fact we had rather strict orders to keep our hands to ourselves and were threatened with a court-martial if we physically harmed anyone without excellent cause. But then the military governor was jumpy; some soldiers in the reserve unit before us had manhandled a prisoner while taking him in for questioning. The man had to be hospitalized, there was a bit of a scandal, and the governor didn’t want it happening again.

I can’t say that I had any particular qualms about what I was doing. Someone had to do it, and it was my turn. Much of it was interesting: I liked the contact with the villagers, on whom I could practice my Arabic, and getting to know a part of Palestine that I wasn’t very familiar with before. It is beautiful countryside, rich in Jewish history: there are biblical sites everywhere, and in a number of places, impressive remains of synagogues dating from as late as the 8th and 9th centuries C.E. (It is a myth, you see, that we disappeared overnight from this land two thousand years ago. Nearly a millennium later we still hung on in strength, as archeology makes clearer all the time.) Best of all I liked the foot patrols through the wadis that cut down from the mountain spine eastward toward the Dead Sea or westward back toward the old border. Marvelous hidden ravines, full of grape vines and peach trees and plum trees, hand-terraced and hand-tended, the way Jews don’t farm any more. Sometimes we would stop to throw a smoke grenade into a cave, in order to flush out any terrorist who might be inside; but this was just an excuse for a morning’s walk and the smoke drifted quickly away. And I would think, it was perhaps in one of these caves that David hid from Saul when the mad king pursued him to En-gedi, and I would feel glad to be where I was.

Still, there were other times when I wouldn’t have minded being elsewhere.

In military headquarters in Hebron there is a prison for “security cases,” men sentenced for terrorist acts or other hostile activities. I rarely saw any of these prisoners, but I sometimes heard them while on guard duty at night, talking or singing in their cells. Some of these songs were patriotic; that was about all I understood of them, though they went ont for a long time as Arab songs do. On Fridays, which was visiting day, the prisoners’ families arrived: large families with many children, the women burdened with baskets, as though they were picnicking. Sometimes they had to wait for hours in the sun for their papers to be checked and their baskets gone through before they could visit whomever they had come to see inside.

Those Fridays made me unhappy. So did the singing at night. You see, so much of Zionism for me as a child was connected with songs. Long before I saw this land I had sung about it thousands of times. It was eerie hearing those men. It was like thinking of your children in the streets of New York.

_____________

 

Dear Edward Said:
I believe in my right to walk in the hills of Judea. They are as much part of my heritage as they are part of yours. I believe in my right as a Jew to live in Hebron, even though I may-question the political wisdom of exercising it now, as I believe in your right as a Palestinian to live in Haifa or Jaffa. And I want these rights to be guaranteed by any settlement between us. But I do not want to be your people’s jailer, as I must be if I rule over it against its will. The record of the Israeli occupation—which most of the world has by now conveniently forgotten did not result from a war that Israel chose to start—has on the whole been a decent one. Compared to other peoples in history whose lands have fallen to conquering troops, the inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have many blessings to count. Yet the basic situation in which our two peoples find themselves is healthy for neither of them. The longer it goes on, the more hatred and brutality it must breed. It is time to end it.

The many Israelis who feel this way, however, cannot end it by themselves. Without the help of Palestinians like you it will go on.

Perhaps there is a hint for you toward the end of your own book. On one of the closing pages of The Question of Palestine you write:

More Palestinians than ever speak today in positive detail of what the future must bring for Jews and Arabs alike. . . . In recent years leading Palestinians have occasionally spoken from the depths of their exile and misery of a time when Palestine would become the site of two societies existing together, side by side, in peace and harmony.

This last sentence is footnoted “34.” Yet when I turned to the footnote section in the back to discover who these leading Palestinians were, and where their conception of the future might be found, I discovered that footnote 34 does not appear, the final entry there being number 33. I have too much faith in the power of coincidence to believe that this missing footnote is merely a printer’s error. I believe that it is missing because, contrary to what you say, the positive Palestinian vision you speak of has not yet been believably articulated, at least not in any manner that a Jew like me can understand. Suppose you took that task upon yourself?


Footnotes

1 Times Books, 265 pp., $12.50.

2 It is not entirely clear to me whom you mean by “the world,” but I must tell you that when I think of how the world stood by in the 1930’s while Britain shut the gates of Palestine to Jews, and so condemned hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of them to their deaths; of how it did nothing while those Jews—many of them ardent Zionists and potential citizens of a Jewish state—actually perished; of how even after the Holocaust it could barely bring itself to vote half of Palestine to the Jewish people that remained, and made practically no attempt to defend Palestinian Jewry while it fought for its life against a British-armed, trained, and led Arab Legion; how between 1948 and 1967 it failed to exert the slightest pressure on the Arab states to make peace with an Israel that was not then occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—the idea that it “made Zionism possible” can only make me laugh a bitter laugh.

About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.