Simply said: Edward Said and the New York intellectual tradition

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Abstract

1948 Palestinian dispossession at the hands of the yet-to-be-formed Israeli Defense Forces of the Haganah and the IZL (Irgun), Ha'aretz's Ari Shavit and the famed cultural critic Edward Said refl ected on the possibilities of an Israeli- Palestinian binational state, something Said had advocated on behalf of for quite some time-much before the failure of the Oslo Accords and Camp David II. Th is interview took place just a few months before the outbreak of violence that began the Second Intifada in the occupied territories, a possible reaction to the failure of the Camp II talks where, brought together by then-President Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak, had supposedly off ered (in exchange for the Palestinian recognition of "Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state") Arafat nearly 80 percent of the West Bank for a viable Palestinian state, "a deal of a lifetime," although many considered the off er a call for Palestinian submission to a Bantustan arrangement reminiscent of the South African national territories.1 As he came to fully understand Said's nuanced position, which clearly placed reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians ahead of revenge or retribution for either group's historical grievances, and the identifi cation of a mutual interest in peace and coexistence in a future binational state before the assignment of blame, Shavit proclaimed, "You sound very Jewish." Said replied, "Of course. I'm the last Jewish intellectual. You don't know anyone else. All your other Jewish intellectuals are now suburban squires. From Amos Oz to all these people here in America. So I'm the last one. Th e only true follower of Adorno. Let me put it this way: I'm a Jewish-Palestinian."2 Th e concept of a "Jewish-Palestinian," clearly provocative and intriguing in its attempt to employ notions of exile, loss, and refugeehood to understand the historical suff ering of two peoples that are engaged in a seeming death struggle in the Middle East, articulates a condition of loss, longing, and hopelessness for the modern age. A Jewish-Palestinian does not attempt to privilege the historical wrongs committed against one of the peoples within this binary over another, employing a superior sense of victimhood to deny the suff ering of the other side, but instead recognizes the singularity of each people's oppression and dispossession. Shavit's observation suggests that to be Jewish ("to be a Jew") is to occupy a specifi c political-historical space, a space within which someone appreciates the condition of exile and the insights it brings to the human experience. Historically speaking, to be a Jew is to be an exile. To be a Palestinian at this historical moment does not hold the same meaning, even though the stateless Palestinian living under occupation may know something more about what it means to be an exile than an Israeli or American Jew. I do not intend to employ the term Jew as a caricature but instead to articulate how a concept of "Jewishness" can be used to understand all human suff ering, even Palestinian suff ering. As a condition, Jewishness has signifi ed the capacity to empathize with suffering, homelessness, wandering, and powerlessness. Can one honestly describe Jews-at this present historical moment-as suff ering, homeless, wandering, and powerless? Ironically, these adjectives aptly describe the Palestinian condition under Israeli occupation; however, when one understands that antisemitism and Orientalism are diff erent sides of the same coin of age-old hatreds directed against distinct populations, whether these are Jewish or Muslim, an interesting complementarity emerges. Antisemitism, as a European-generated hatred directed against Jews, has been eff ectively transferred to the Palestinian Arab in his or her resistance against Israeli occupation. Palestinian Arab resistance to Israeli occupation is confi gured as antisemitism because the occupiers of what was previously Palestinian land are Jewish. Orientalism, as a discourse that essentially constructs the "existence" of Eastern peoples such as Arabs, is also a European creation that allowed for colonial domination through the wedding of power and knowledge. Th e domestication of the East and its peoples through Western social sciences such as anthropology and linguistics created discursive targets through which to understand and control non-Europeans. Said described this process in great detail in his Orientalism: Th e Jewish embrace of the state of Israel signals an end to the Jewish Question and the beginning of the Palestinian Question; however, can one say that the Jewish Question ever really ended? Zionism, as a form of Jewish nationalism, has ironically ensured the perpetuation of the Jewish Question and concomitantly the Palestinian Question. Both questions, as Joseph Massad has suggested in his Th e Persistence of the Palestinian Question, are intimately connected; one question can not be solved without turning to the other. Analyzing the Palestinian condition, then, requires a precise accounting of the place of non-Jews within the economy of Zionism, a task that Said made both personal and professional. Although some have argued that Said compromised his status as a public intellectual because of his embrace of Palestinian nationalism, the evidence suggests a far more complicated picture.4 Said's commitment to bearing witness to grave injustice (not just the injustices committed against Palestinians) as well as documenting the intellectual evasions surrounding diffi cult human questions about neglect and dispossession (and not just the Palestinian Question) stands as a testament to his special type of intellectual style that was reminiscent of the early New York Intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt. Arendt, because of her critical statements about Zionism as outlined in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report of the Banality of Evil and an essay titled "Zionism Reconsidered," was plagued by controversy in the later part of her life for questioning the foundations of Jewish nationalism and the necessity of a Jewish state. Her most controversial work interrogated the role of the Judenräte (Jewish Councils) in cooperating with the Th ird Reich, as these Councils delivered Jews over to the Nazis for eventual extermination in the concentration camps.5 Th at Arendt tackled such taboo and explosive subjects as part of her intellectual work suggests that she was committed to exposing the contradictions and inconsistencies within lachrymose and easily formulated narratives about the Holocaust and Jewish suff ering; her doing so provides greater insight into the human condition. Said approached the problems of Zionism from a far diff erent subjectivity but with the same acumen. His "American Zionism: Th e Last Taboo" raises disturbing questions about how Israeli nationalism has always been perverted by rampant militarism, which has had the potential to compromise the moral integrity of American Jews who support Israel as an exclusively Jewish state.6 In writing what they have about Zionism from their very diff erent positions, Arendt and Said assumed an almost pariah-like status among segments of the public intensely focused on promoting Israelism, if not Zionism. Such a status is a prerequisite for moral rebellion and intellectual responsibility. Arendt explained her own perspective in a letter to Gershom Scholem: Th is sort of intellectual independence and refusal of intellectual orthodoxy characterized Arendt's positions on Zionism and Israel throughout her career. Ironically, she and Noam Chomsky-who has been considered (for over fi ft y years) a virulent critic of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians-were proud Zionists in the 1940s before the actual founding of Israel in 1948, at which point it became known that there could be no rapprochement with the Arabs because of the UN partition and growing Jewish immigration into what was once considered Palestine. In his Th e Politics of Dispossession, Said writes "I go so far as to be convinced by Rosa Luxemburg's statement that one cannot impose one's own political solution on another people against their will. As a Palestinian who has suff ered loss and deprivations, I cannot morally accept regaining my rights at the expense of another people's deprivation."8 As perhaps the last true follower of Adorno, Said brought an enlightened skepticism toward all nationalisms, including Palestinian nationalism, realizing the necessity of creating conditions for noncoercive community through the bringing together of discrepant experiences, an indication of his commitment to exposing how nationalism and its attendant cultural discourses oft en separate people from one another based upon little more than territorial divides. Explaining the almost religious fervor with which such divides are policed and protected became Said's enduring passion, an eff ort that permeated both his literary criticism and his political work on behalf of the Palestinian people.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond
Subtitle of host publicationExploring Liberal Humanism, Jewish Identity, and the American Protest Tradition
PublisherPurdue University Press
Pages213-242
Number of pages30
ISBN (Print)9781557534811
StatePublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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