Commentary Magazine


Topic: Edward Said

Me and My MESA

Over the coming days, I’ll be attending the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Washington. It’s time for me to catch up on the zeitgeist in my field, and there’s no better place to do that than at MESA. It’s been a long time—to be precise, sixteen years—since my last attendance at a MESA conference. MESA veterans might remember the occasion: Edward Said was being feted for his contribution (such as it was) to Middle Eastern studies. He was on the plenary podium, and I was in the audience. The British historian Robert Irwin hasn’t forgotten:

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Over the coming days, I’ll be attending the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Washington. It’s time for me to catch up on the zeitgeist in my field, and there’s no better place to do that than at MESA. It’s been a long time—to be precise, sixteen years—since my last attendance at a MESA conference. MESA veterans might remember the occasion: Edward Said was being feted for his contribution (such as it was) to Middle Eastern studies. He was on the plenary podium, and I was in the audience. The British historian Robert Irwin hasn’t forgotten:

I well remember the 1998 Middle East studies association meeting held in the Chicago Hilton to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Orientalism. Said appeared on a platform that was packed with his supporters. Critics from the floor were shouted down. I can still see and hear Homi Bhabha on the platform contemptuously booming out “Who are you? Who are you?” to one hapless member of the audience who was trying to make a point from the floor.

That “hapless member” was me. Irwin is accurate, except that there weren’t any other “critics from the floor” aside from me. Said, knowing I was in the audience, specifically invited me to stand up and challenge him, as though he were interested in a debate. That turned out to be a set-up. (Homi Bhabha, Said’s chivalrous defender on that occasion, is now alleged by the keepers of Said’s flame to have betrayed him by criticizing the departed Said through “Zionist argumentation.” Bhabha furthermore stands accused of being “popular in some leftist Israeli academic circles.” A falling out among post-colonialism’s thieves.)

The next time I figured in a MESA plenary, I wasn’t even there. It was in San Francisco in 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the publication of my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Franklin Foer went out to cover the conference for The New Republic, and in his report I read this: “There was one universally acknowledged villain at the conference—it just wasn’t Osama bin Laden. No, the man everyone loved to hate was Martin Kramer.” When my name was mentioned by someone in the plenary, “some in the audience actually hissed.” I suppose that was better than “Who are you?”

So now I’m back, not as a participant but as an observer. I’ve registered for the conference as a non-member, and that non-membership is principled. Its specific origin is the failure of MESA to overcome its political instincts and confer on Bernard Lewis the title of honorary fellow, reserved for a select few who’ve made exceptional contributions to the field. Whatever one thinks of Lewis’s politics, only an ignoramus or hack would deny his massive contribution to the field. Writing of Lewis, one former MESA president has testified to

the extraordinary range of his scholarship, his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day. This is not merely a matter of erudition; rather, it reflects an almost unparalleled ability to fit things together into a detailed and comprehensive synthesis. In this regard, it is hard to imagine that Lewis will have any true successors.

Yet not only did MESA deign not to confer the honor upon Lewis, it bestowed it upon Edward Said, who brought Middle Eastern studies to the brink of ruin. Lewis never needed any honors from MESA: it was MESA that needed to honor him, and MESA’s failure to do so is evidence that it isn’t a scholarly association in the pure sense. So why join it?

That brings me to this year’s conference. MESA meets once every three years in Washington, to demonstrate its relevance to the powers that be. University-based Middle East centers feed at the taxpayers’ trough, and so it’s important to show up every few years at the doorstep of Congress, in an effort to prove that academe is “relevant” to the national interest. Some aspect of the program is pitched just for that purpose. (This year, it’s a panel on ISIS.)

The problem is that the radicals’ hormones are raging in the wake the Israel-Hamas war, and many of the rank-and-file would like to add MESA to the list of associations that have passed resolutions calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This isn’t such a smart thing to propose in Washington, and MESA’s president, Nathan Brown, has already reminded the members that MESA is “a non-political association.” But some MESA members think otherwise, and they’re always looking for ways to shove MESA even deeper into politics than it already is. In short, the conference is bound to be contentious.

In my next post, I’ll share my impressions of the triumphal reception accorded by MESAns to Steven Salaita, the anti-Israel tweet artist who got canned at the University of Illinois, and who’s become a jobless martyr.

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Salman Rushdie and Moral Courage

Salman Rushdie had quite the megaphone this weekend: the New York Times Sunday Review op-ed section and its 1,200-word space from which to preach. And Rushdie used that space to make quite the pronouncement: the world–the West included–was sliding back into dangerous territory, in which patience for the wisdom of dissidents was running low, and our willingness to let those men and women dissent running low along with it.

It must be said that Rushdie, as the famous target of the Islamic world’s fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses, knows firsthand about the danger to artists and intellectuals who cross those willing to do violence. And it can also be said that politicians who found Rushdie to be an insufferable troublemaker didn’t give him all the support he might have deserved. But Rushdie’s column in the Times shows that while he survived the fatwa on his head thus far, his judgment did not.

Rushdie seems incapable of distinguishing between true dissidents and useful idiots or puffed-up rabble-rousers. Everyone who crosses the government is speaking truth to power, to Rushdie. And his column is useful not for its intellectual value but because this mindset has so infected the world of the arts and academia that its roster is unable or unwilling to realize that the problem is not how we treat genuine dissidents but that the global left has diluted the meaning and the cause by calling clownish poseurs by that name.

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Salman Rushdie had quite the megaphone this weekend: the New York Times Sunday Review op-ed section and its 1,200-word space from which to preach. And Rushdie used that space to make quite the pronouncement: the world–the West included–was sliding back into dangerous territory, in which patience for the wisdom of dissidents was running low, and our willingness to let those men and women dissent running low along with it.

It must be said that Rushdie, as the famous target of the Islamic world’s fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses, knows firsthand about the danger to artists and intellectuals who cross those willing to do violence. And it can also be said that politicians who found Rushdie to be an insufferable troublemaker didn’t give him all the support he might have deserved. But Rushdie’s column in the Times shows that while he survived the fatwa on his head thus far, his judgment did not.

Rushdie seems incapable of distinguishing between true dissidents and useful idiots or puffed-up rabble-rousers. Everyone who crosses the government is speaking truth to power, to Rushdie. And his column is useful not for its intellectual value but because this mindset has so infected the world of the arts and academia that its roster is unable or unwilling to realize that the problem is not how we treat genuine dissidents but that the global left has diluted the meaning and the cause by calling clownish poseurs by that name.

Rushdie’s column is titled “Whither Moral Courage?” But that question should be asked of Rushdie, as it should of anyone who writes the following:

America isn’t immune from this trend. The young activists of the Occupy movement have been much maligned (though, after their highly effective relief work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, those criticisms have become a little muted). Out-of-step intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and the deceased Edward Said have often been dismissed as crazy extremists, “anti-American,” and in Mr. Said’s case even, absurdly, as apologists for Palestinian “terrorism.” (One may disagree with Mr. Chomsky’s critiques of America but it ought still to be possible to recognize the courage it takes to stand up and bellow them into the face of American power. One may not be pro-Palestinian, but one should be able to see that Mr. Said stood up against Yasir Arafat as eloquently as he criticized the United States.)

There is much to unpack here. When he says America isn’t immune from this trend, he means the trend of suffocating dissent, and puts the United States in a category that, by his own description in the essay, includes the Soviet Union and modern Pakistan. Rushdie may think he is being provocative, but such nonsense deserves to be laughed out of the room.

Yet Rushdie continues the thread. If America is Soviet Russia or Islamist Pakistan, his brave dissidents here are akin to Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi, Salman Taseer. And who are these heroes? First, there is the Occupy Wall Street movement, who not only weren’t oppressed by the government but left alone to squat on land in downtown Manhattan. Women in these camps were shocked at the lengths to which Occupy leaders would go to protect rapists who prowled the camps, because they were worried not for the safety of innocent women but for their own reputations. The camps were responsible for harming local small businesses, and the Occupiers’ simmering resentment targeted Jews and other supposed symbols of Western society hated by these pseudo-anarchist mobs. If Rushdie is worried about intellectuals, he need not shed a tear for the fate of Occupy Wall Street; roving rape camps are not incubators of high intellectual pursuit.

As for Chomsky, Rushdie must be kidding when praises the “courage” it takes to shout Khmer Rouge propaganda in the face of American anti-Communists. And is Chomsky sitting in Guantanamo or a gulag? Of course not. Chomsky’s vile stupidity only discredits his supporters; his opponents have nothing to fear from him. It would have been nice of Rushdie to at least include a reference to the dissidents of the despicable Cambodian regime to balance out Chomsky, but that would have made plain the irrationality of his argument.

And what of Said? Rushdie says it’s absurd to accuse him of being an apologist for Palestinian terrorism. (Sorry–“terrorism.” Rushdie’s moral relativism requires him to dismiss reality as open to interpretation. Magical realism is not realism, after all. One wonders if that same Islamic violence that threatened Rushdie’s life and hounded him for decades deserves scare quotes, or only that violence which is launched against others.)

But of course that’s exactly what Said did. Here he is, for example, during the Second Intifada claiming that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza “is the source of violence.” He goes on to make clear his opposition to Arafat was where he felt Arafat was too willing to engage in the Oslo peace process, and he says that every time a Palestinian official is asked about the conflict he should say that “Occupation with tanks, soldiers, checkpoints and settlements is violence, and it is much greater than anything Palestinians have done by way of resistance.” That was Edward Said, in his own words, claiming that the mere existence of a Jewish village is “much greater” than horrific bombing campaigns directed at innocent men, women, and children. That’s not moral courage, and it’s to our credit as a society that we reject it.

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Bellow, Hitchens, and COMMENTARY

One of the pleasures of the just-published Saul Bellow: Letters is the letter about the 1989 dinner with Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens – where Commentary played a dramatic role. Amis wrote about it in his 2001 memoir, Experience; Hitchens described it last year in Hitch-22. Now we have Bellow’s perspective, in an August 29, 1989, letter to Cynthia Ozick.

Amis had invited Hitchens, his best friend, to join him for dinner at Bellow’s Vermont home. On the ride there, Amis warned Hitchens that he “wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel.” But before dinner, Hitchens spotted something that would soon set him off:

Right on the wicker table in the room where we were chatting, there lay something that was as potentially hackneyed in its menace as Anton Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece. If it’s there in the first act … it will be fired before the curtain comes down. … It was the only piece of printed matter in view, and it was the latest edition of COMMENTARY magazine, and its bannered cover-story headline was: “Edward Said, Professor of Terror.”

As Hitchens told it, Bellow made an observation during dinner about anti-Zionism and went to retrieve his underlined copy of COMMENTARY to prove his point, and Hitchens decided he could not allow his friend Edward Said to be “defamed.” And “by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and [Amis's] foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.” On the long ride home, Hitchens explained he had to defend his absent friend — to which Amis responded, “And what about me?” Read More

One of the pleasures of the just-published Saul Bellow: Letters is the letter about the 1989 dinner with Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens – where Commentary played a dramatic role. Amis wrote about it in his 2001 memoir, Experience; Hitchens described it last year in Hitch-22. Now we have Bellow’s perspective, in an August 29, 1989, letter to Cynthia Ozick.

Amis had invited Hitchens, his best friend, to join him for dinner at Bellow’s Vermont home. On the ride there, Amis warned Hitchens that he “wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel.” But before dinner, Hitchens spotted something that would soon set him off:

Right on the wicker table in the room where we were chatting, there lay something that was as potentially hackneyed in its menace as Anton Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece. If it’s there in the first act … it will be fired before the curtain comes down. … It was the only piece of printed matter in view, and it was the latest edition of COMMENTARY magazine, and its bannered cover-story headline was: “Edward Said, Professor of Terror.”

As Hitchens told it, Bellow made an observation during dinner about anti-Zionism and went to retrieve his underlined copy of COMMENTARY to prove his point, and Hitchens decided he could not allow his friend Edward Said to be “defamed.” And “by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and [Amis's] foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.” On the long ride home, Hitchens explained he had to defend his absent friend — to which Amis responded, “And what about me?”

In his letter to Ozick, Bellow wrote that Hitchens had identified himself as a regular contributor to the Nation — a magazine Bellow had stopped reading after Gore Vidal “wrote his piece about the disloyalty of Jews to the USA” – and as a great friend of Said:

At the mention of Said’s name, Janis [Bellow] grumbled. I doubt that this was unexpected, for Hitchens almost certainly thinks of me as a terrible reactionary – the Jewish Right. … [He said] he must apologize for differing with Janis but loyalty to a friend demanded that he set the record straight. … Fortunately (or not) I had within reach several excerpts from Said’s Critical Inquiry piece, which I offered in evidence. Jews were (more or less) Nazis. But of course, said Hitchens, it was well known that [Yitzhak] Shamir had approached Hitler during the war to make deals. I objected that Shamir was Shamir, he wasn’t the Jews. Besides I didn’t trust the evidence. The argument seesawed. Amis took the Said selections to read for himself. He could find nothing to say at the moment but next morning he tried to bring the matter up, and to avoid further embarrassment I said it had all been much ado about nothing.

Then Bellow broadened the point of his letter:

Well, these Hitchenses are just Fourth-Estate playboys thriving on agitation, and Jews are so easy to agitate. Sometimes (if only I knew enough to do it right!) I think I’d like to write about the fate of the Jews in the decline of the West — or the long crisis of the West, if decline doesn’t suit you. The movement to assimilate coincided with the arrival of nihilism. This nihilism reached its climax with Hitler. The Jewish answer to the Holocaust was the creation of a state. After the camps came politics and these politics are nihilistic. Your Hitchenses, the political press in its silliest disheveled left-wing form, are (if nihilism has a hierarchy) the gnomes. … And it’s so easy to make trouble for the Jews. Nothing easier. The networks love it, the big papers let it be made, there’s a receptive university population.

So many ironies in this episode: only a few months before, Hitchens had learned that his mother and maternal grandparents were Jews, and that he was thus a Jew himself. Today he technically qualifies as part of the Jewish right (and believes that the U.S. military attracts the nation’s most idealistic people). He would write an introduction to a new edition of The Adventures of Augie March and receive a warm letter from Bellow; he left the Nation, in part because of the magazine’s tolerance of Gore Vidal, and he fell out with Edward Said, in part because of Said’s rigid anti-Americanism. Hitch-22 is marred by the occasional eruption of Hitchens’s anti-Zionism (reflecting his longstanding Palestinian blind spot), but it is a fascinating account of an extraordinary life by someone who traveled a long road after that dinner 20 years ago.

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Why Don’t They Like Him?

Barack Obama has repeatedly expressed amazement that Jewish voters have concerns about his candidacy. He has suggested, in essence, that they are irrational–seizing on his name or the remarks of other African-Americans or buying into internet chatter claiming he is a closet Muslim. And his defenders have insisted he doesn’t have a Jewish problem at all. But the available evidence suggests that he does, and there are a number of compelling reasons why Jews have not supported him to the degree that they’ve supported past Democratic nominees.

Stephen Herbits, recently retired as Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress and an advisor to the Secretaries of Defense in four administrations, has provided an exhaustive analysis of the situation, must-reading for anyone serious about exploring this issue.

First, there is little doubt that Obama has a problem with Jewish voters, even Democratic primary voters who would be natural supporters insofar as many are high-income, high-education voters. Herbits explains:

In Pennsylvania, exit polls show that Senator Clinton beat Senator Obama by 24 percentage points amongst Pennsylvanian Jews, outpacing the general population by 13 points, and even outpacing the Protestant population which favored Senator Clinton by a ten point margin. With Jews comprising 8 % of the Pennsylvania primary electorate, these percentages are large enough to be determinative in a close general election race. Senator Clinton won amongst Jews by similarly large margins in states like New York and New Jersey. In Florida where Jews accounted for 9% of primary voters, the margin exceeded 30 points. In Nevada where Jews accounted for some 5%, the margin exceeded 40 points.

So why are Jewish voters wary of him? Herbits contends that the issue is one of “credibilty.” He writes:

Senator Obama makes statements of solidarity with the Jewish community. Yet, his determination to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad runs counter to his professed sensitivity to Jewish concerns. His relationships with unabashed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel individuals calls into question his sincerity. His 20-year comfort with Jeremiah Wright, and his previous tolerance and defense of his pastor who preaches “Zionism equals Racism” reveals his ability to tolerate, defend and find comfort with others who share such views.

Although Obama professes concern for Israel, his willingness to meet directly with Ahmadinejad goes to the nub of the matter, Herbits contends:

Since the Holocaust, few individuals advancing dangerous anti-Semitic views have risen to lead nations. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, calls for the State of Israel to be wiped off the map and defies the international community by continuing to pursue nuclear capability. Iran is also the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism – arming, training and directing groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. . . .

Such a meeting would be devastating to the psyche of entire Jewish world. Since 2005, Jewish communities around the world have been fighting to marginalize and contain Ahmadinejad. Jewish communities condemn Hugo Chavez and other radical leaders for welcoming Ahmadinejad. They condemn the Russian government for their relationship with the Iranian regime. Recently, the United States, Israel and Jewish communities around the world condemned the Swiss for an economic agreement with the Iranian regime.

Throughout Europe there is a multinational effort to designate Ahmadinejad persona non grata throughout European capitals and at the EU. For years, the United States has worked with begrudging allies to isolate and contain the Iranian regime. And yet, Senator Obama has pledged that as President of the United States he will be featured on the front page of newspapers around the world shaking hands with a rabid anti-Semite who supports terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies, is pursing a nuclear capability, and denies the Holocaust. Such an image would be a victory for terrorism, a victory for extremists, and a defeat for peace and international security. The Jewish community will sooner vote for Senator McCain than be party to facilitating that meeting with Ahmadinejad.

Herbits goes on to detail Obama’s troubling associations with Reverend Wright, as well as with anti-Israel figures like Edward Said, Ali Abunimah, and Rashid Khalidi–all of whom raise red flags for Jews.

In short, the problem is real and the reasons for Jewish antipathy are based on facts about Obama’s stated policies and long-term relationships. But to recognize that would require Obama to address central concerns about his candidacy, concerns which might set off alarm bells for many non-Jewish voters, e.g. his outlook on the Middle East, his views on terrorism, and his proclivity to travel with radicals who spout anti-American and anti-Israel gibberish. Far better to deny the problem exists. Or to attribute it to those pesky, irrational American Jews.

Barack Obama has repeatedly expressed amazement that Jewish voters have concerns about his candidacy. He has suggested, in essence, that they are irrational–seizing on his name or the remarks of other African-Americans or buying into internet chatter claiming he is a closet Muslim. And his defenders have insisted he doesn’t have a Jewish problem at all. But the available evidence suggests that he does, and there are a number of compelling reasons why Jews have not supported him to the degree that they’ve supported past Democratic nominees.

Stephen Herbits, recently retired as Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress and an advisor to the Secretaries of Defense in four administrations, has provided an exhaustive analysis of the situation, must-reading for anyone serious about exploring this issue.

First, there is little doubt that Obama has a problem with Jewish voters, even Democratic primary voters who would be natural supporters insofar as many are high-income, high-education voters. Herbits explains:

In Pennsylvania, exit polls show that Senator Clinton beat Senator Obama by 24 percentage points amongst Pennsylvanian Jews, outpacing the general population by 13 points, and even outpacing the Protestant population which favored Senator Clinton by a ten point margin. With Jews comprising 8 % of the Pennsylvania primary electorate, these percentages are large enough to be determinative in a close general election race. Senator Clinton won amongst Jews by similarly large margins in states like New York and New Jersey. In Florida where Jews accounted for 9% of primary voters, the margin exceeded 30 points. In Nevada where Jews accounted for some 5%, the margin exceeded 40 points.

So why are Jewish voters wary of him? Herbits contends that the issue is one of “credibilty.” He writes:

Senator Obama makes statements of solidarity with the Jewish community. Yet, his determination to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad runs counter to his professed sensitivity to Jewish concerns. His relationships with unabashed anti-Semitic and anti-Israel individuals calls into question his sincerity. His 20-year comfort with Jeremiah Wright, and his previous tolerance and defense of his pastor who preaches “Zionism equals Racism” reveals his ability to tolerate, defend and find comfort with others who share such views.

Although Obama professes concern for Israel, his willingness to meet directly with Ahmadinejad goes to the nub of the matter, Herbits contends:

Since the Holocaust, few individuals advancing dangerous anti-Semitic views have risen to lead nations. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, calls for the State of Israel to be wiped off the map and defies the international community by continuing to pursue nuclear capability. Iran is also the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism – arming, training and directing groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. . . .

Such a meeting would be devastating to the psyche of entire Jewish world. Since 2005, Jewish communities around the world have been fighting to marginalize and contain Ahmadinejad. Jewish communities condemn Hugo Chavez and other radical leaders for welcoming Ahmadinejad. They condemn the Russian government for their relationship with the Iranian regime. Recently, the United States, Israel and Jewish communities around the world condemned the Swiss for an economic agreement with the Iranian regime.

Throughout Europe there is a multinational effort to designate Ahmadinejad persona non grata throughout European capitals and at the EU. For years, the United States has worked with begrudging allies to isolate and contain the Iranian regime. And yet, Senator Obama has pledged that as President of the United States he will be featured on the front page of newspapers around the world shaking hands with a rabid anti-Semite who supports terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies, is pursing a nuclear capability, and denies the Holocaust. Such an image would be a victory for terrorism, a victory for extremists, and a defeat for peace and international security. The Jewish community will sooner vote for Senator McCain than be party to facilitating that meeting with Ahmadinejad.

Herbits goes on to detail Obama’s troubling associations with Reverend Wright, as well as with anti-Israel figures like Edward Said, Ali Abunimah, and Rashid Khalidi–all of whom raise red flags for Jews.

In short, the problem is real and the reasons for Jewish antipathy are based on facts about Obama’s stated policies and long-term relationships. But to recognize that would require Obama to address central concerns about his candidacy, concerns which might set off alarm bells for many non-Jewish voters, e.g. his outlook on the Middle East, his views on terrorism, and his proclivity to travel with radicals who spout anti-American and anti-Israel gibberish. Far better to deny the problem exists. Or to attribute it to those pesky, irrational American Jews.

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Abu Lughod’s Little Fib

In a panel discussion in Columbia University last week, commemorating “60 Years of Nakba – The Catastrophe of Palestine 1948-2008,” Lila Abu Lughod, a professor of anthropology and gender studies at the university, emotively told the audience how her father, Ibrhaim, had been expelled from his hometown of Jaffa in Palestine in May 1948.

Expelled? This is not exactly how Ibrhaim Abu Lughod himself described the circumstances of his flight in a 1990′s television documentary he prepared and presented with his friend and colleague Edward Said:

There was a Belgian ship, and one of the sailors, a young man, looked at us – and the ship was full of people from Jaffa, some of us were young adults – and he said: “Why don’t you stay and fight?” I have never forgotten his face and I have never had one good answer for him.

In a panel discussion in Columbia University last week, commemorating “60 Years of Nakba – The Catastrophe of Palestine 1948-2008,” Lila Abu Lughod, a professor of anthropology and gender studies at the university, emotively told the audience how her father, Ibrhaim, had been expelled from his hometown of Jaffa in Palestine in May 1948.

Expelled? This is not exactly how Ibrhaim Abu Lughod himself described the circumstances of his flight in a 1990′s television documentary he prepared and presented with his friend and colleague Edward Said:

There was a Belgian ship, and one of the sailors, a young man, looked at us – and the ship was full of people from Jaffa, some of us were young adults – and he said: “Why don’t you stay and fight?” I have never forgotten his face and I have never had one good answer for him.

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Peacemaker’s Encore

Oh, good. Daniel Barenboim, the renowned pianist, conductor, and peace activist, has just taken upon himself Palestinian citizenship, as reported in today’s Haaretz. The Argentinian-born Israeli, who once declared Edward Said to be his “most intimate friend,” has made a career of assaulting the Jewish state and supporting what is one of the world’s leading terror regimes.

A critic of Barenboim’s once wrote that “Barenboim, who can do anything in music, has been known to deliver less than musicians with half his ability and intelligence . . . . A courageous idealist who believes that symphonic music can heal human conflict, Barenboim appears to have no idea how to redeem symphonic music from the slough of 21st century human indifference.” But it is not clear that his sense of politics is much more effective. “I believe that the destinies of . . . the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are inextricably linked,” Barenboim said. “We are blessed – or cursed – to live with each other. And I prefer the first.” Such hopes seem remarkably detached not only from the realities on the ground, but from the terror operations emphatically glorified by his newly adoptive nation.

“Now even not very intelligent people,” he added, “are saying that the occupation has to be stopped.” Hm? Whatever.

Oh, good. Daniel Barenboim, the renowned pianist, conductor, and peace activist, has just taken upon himself Palestinian citizenship, as reported in today’s Haaretz. The Argentinian-born Israeli, who once declared Edward Said to be his “most intimate friend,” has made a career of assaulting the Jewish state and supporting what is one of the world’s leading terror regimes.

A critic of Barenboim’s once wrote that “Barenboim, who can do anything in music, has been known to deliver less than musicians with half his ability and intelligence . . . . A courageous idealist who believes that symphonic music can heal human conflict, Barenboim appears to have no idea how to redeem symphonic music from the slough of 21st century human indifference.” But it is not clear that his sense of politics is much more effective. “I believe that the destinies of . . . the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are inextricably linked,” Barenboim said. “We are blessed – or cursed – to live with each other. And I prefer the first.” Such hopes seem remarkably detached not only from the realities on the ground, but from the terror operations emphatically glorified by his newly adoptive nation.

“Now even not very intelligent people,” he added, “are saying that the occupation has to be stopped.” Hm? Whatever.

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Misreading Christopher Hitchens

Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens—his views on Israel, most exhaustively rendered in a book he co-authored with the late Edward Said, leave much to be desired—but he is the most eloquent and passionate opponent of Islamic jihadism writing today. He is also a passionate critic of all forms of religious hucksterism, and offers the most concise and devastating rebuke of Al Sharpton in the current issue of Vanity Fair: “A man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you shove the word ‘Reverend’ in front of your name.”

Anyone who writes honestly and bluntly about Islam inevitably is labeled a “racist,” an appalling misunderstanding of the word, since it can be applied only to those who abjure someone for the pigmentation of their skin, not their belief system. In a diatribe on the popular and engaging blog associated with the online magazine Jewcy, Richard Silverstein, a contributor to Tikkun magazine*, furthers the misunderstanding. After the obligatory tributes to Hitchens’s “high-toned English accent” and “mellifluous” voice (which apparently trick all those gullible fools not as smart as Silverstein), he takes issue with Hitchens’s contention that, “Islam, by the way, does not mean ‘peace.’ It means ‘surrender,’ ‘prostration.’”

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Say what you will about Christopher Hitchens—his views on Israel, most exhaustively rendered in a book he co-authored with the late Edward Said, leave much to be desired—but he is the most eloquent and passionate opponent of Islamic jihadism writing today. He is also a passionate critic of all forms of religious hucksterism, and offers the most concise and devastating rebuke of Al Sharpton in the current issue of Vanity Fair: “A man who proves every day that you can get away with anything in this country if you shove the word ‘Reverend’ in front of your name.”

Anyone who writes honestly and bluntly about Islam inevitably is labeled a “racist,” an appalling misunderstanding of the word, since it can be applied only to those who abjure someone for the pigmentation of their skin, not their belief system. In a diatribe on the popular and engaging blog associated with the online magazine Jewcy, Richard Silverstein, a contributor to Tikkun magazine*, furthers the misunderstanding. After the obligatory tributes to Hitchens’s “high-toned English accent” and “mellifluous” voice (which apparently trick all those gullible fools not as smart as Silverstein), he takes issue with Hitchens’s contention that, “Islam, by the way, does not mean ‘peace.’ It means ‘surrender,’ ‘prostration.’”

Hitchens, as anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of Islam will know, is literally correct. But it is the figurative meaning of this contention that so upsets the morally and culturally relativist Silverstein. He writes:

What is misleading about Hitchens’s statement is he neglects that “Islam” connotes the peaceful “surrender” of a believer to the will of God, but not the “surrender” of a non-believer before the force or power of Islam. Such peaceful surrender, which some see as the essence of faith, is a feature of many of the world’s religions. Hitchens is spinning Islam as a religion of violence and domination. So it’s convenient to distort the religion’s name as well. We see here the power of a guileful ideologue used to stir the pot of intolerance and Muslim-bashing.

Leave aside for the moment that Islam, at least to untold millions of its practitioners, most certainly does “connote” the violent “‘surrender’ of a non-believer before the force or power of Islam” in a way that is most certainly not “a feature of many of the world’s religions.” What Hitchens really is getting at—and what Silverstein apparently cannot understand—is that for many Muslims, “surrender” means to abandon one’s reason and belief in common humanity to an ancient and conquering creed. It is for this reason that precious few Muslim-majority states are secular democracies that respect human rights and minority faiths. Alas, this is a truth that Silverstein and the useful idiots at Tikkun will never acknowledge.

* CORRECTION: Richard Silverstein is not associated with Tikkun, but has a blog entitled Tikun Olam. I regret the error. But his views are indistinguishable from those espoused in that publication, and I stand by my contention that he and its editors are “useful idiots.”

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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.

Read Less




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