In addition to authoring important books on Islam, Western perceptions of the Middle East, exile, Conrad, and many other topics, Edward Said, who died last week, was a lifelong advocate for the Palestinian cause.
Said held many controversial opinions about the Middle East, but toward the end of his life he embraced perhaps the most controversial idea of all: that a two-state solution was no solution at all. It mystified Said that the prevailing international view since the U.N. partition of 1947 was that Palestinians and Israelis could not coexist in a binational state, when the long history of Palestine, as Said unfailingly pointed out, was the history of multicultural coexistence.
If there had never been a cordial handshake between rabbis and mullahs as there had been between priests and patriarchs (who shared a common scripture), it could be that Jewish and Arab reconciliation, Said believed, had never been given much of a chance. The West first disrupted the taut fabric of Jewish-Arab relations with the Crusades nearly a millennium ago, and from then on the disruption never stopped: looking back through history Said saw an unending record of imperialism and meddling from Napoleon’s Orientalist campaigns in Egypt and Syria to Jerry Falwell’s Christian Zionism.
The worst manifestation of contemporary meddling was the fashionable prescription of ethnic nationalism. Jewish and Palestinian statehood had no organic basis, Said argued, but were the imposed ideologies of an age of nationalism. Segregating two peoples whose histories were inextricably bound could only result in a perversion of that collective history by nationalist values. Children in the Jewish state would read in textbooks about their manifest destiny in Greater Israel, and be instructed in using the Holocaust as a rhetorical bludgeon; Palestinian children would learn in textbooks about how, in an accident of history, Hitler had created an exodus of Jews who stole Arab land and trashed a thriving Arab civilization. What impetus would there be to reconcile these narratives in societies of uniform ethnicity and religion?
Said also argued that Palestinian and Israeli support for the unmistakably Western framework for a partitioned Palestine — the idea originated in Britain’s colonial office in the mid-1910s — was never as strong as Western support for it, and Western support couldn’t make or break the peace. The truce for any war had to come from the warring parties. Meanwhile, the West was sacrificing an opportunity for mediating the clash of civilizations on the altar of geopolitical stability. While the two-state solution might alleviate anti-Americanism in the Middle East, it sanctioned the idea of an unbridgeable gap between Jews and Arabs, just as the Orientalist cultural productions Said studied had psychologically enshrined the rift between East and West, retarding by centuries the advance of intercultural understanding.
Partition would not only be irrational and unjust, but practically impossible. How could you decide between Israeli and Palestinians claims to Jerusalem, based on divine acts and irreconcilable mythologies? How could you make a sustainable solution out of telling Palestinians exiled from Haifa and Jaffa that they could “return” only to Jericho and Nablus? Yet these, Said argued, are the tasks the peace process has accorded to itself. Small wonder the ill-advised Camp David talks called by a Nobel-hunting Clinton in late 2000 were such a shattering failure.
Said, always deeply suspicious of authority, questioned why the Palestinian and Israeli leadership had come to embrace the two-state idea. He criticized what he described in an interview in 1999 as the attitude among many Palestinians that “we’ve got to have our own state, even if it means 10 square kilometers.” Said found it dishonest to embrace a nationalism that, for Palestinians like himself, would mean nothing more than continuing exile under a different bureaucracy.
At the same time, he criticized Ariel Sharon for what Said considered a fraudulent embrace of Palestinian statehood. Why would Sharon, after decades of intransigence, suddenly endorse a two-state solution except as a means of coercing the emigration of Israel’s 1 million Arabs and getting a Nobel Peace Prize in the bargain?
Said spent much of his last years accompanying groups of Arab schoolchildren to Auschwitz and Buchenwald and teaching them to acknowledge the Holocaust and the grievances of Jews as “secular fact,” but he was still endlessly vilified by “rational” voices for taking a circumstantial view of terror. It was certainly true that, for all his learning and humanity, for all his speeches and writings about how thinkers from Voltaire to Joyce had experienced, expressed and resisted the pain of exile, Said sadly failed to acknowledge that the sense of exile was as profound for Jews in 1945 as it is for Arabs now.
Said argued with some validity that his critique of nationalism only provoked accusations of moral backwardness because his subject was the lightning-rod Middle East. It didn’t matter that he prophetically broke with Arafat long before the West ever did.
Dismissing religion and nationalism, and prioritizing exile had landed him on the fringe — and you couldn’t hear the reason in such statements over the alarm bells. The cheers and heckles at Said’s public appearances made clear that neither Israeli nor Palestinian partisans seemed to understand that his single-state idea had more in common with Hegel than Hamas, and when he died his idea for a genuinely binational state enjoyed no currency.
Perhaps, viewed broadly, the binational idea was killed by an absence of imagination in a Middle East where Israel has become an ineluctable fact; perhaps it was the double standard that links nationalism in Western countries with fascism but still condones, even encourages, the rest of the world to think and act in terms of ethnic nations. Or perhaps the possibility of a binational Palestine was just another casualty of one of the suicide bombings on Jerusalem’s boulevards.
Said often shook his head at a world where the logic of necessary evil had prevailed. He somehow managed to resist cynicism even after 50 years of activism that bravely confronted but did nothing to solve the injustice of Palestinian suffering. Believing to the end that Jews and Arabs were better than Cain and Abel, Said insisted that peaceful coexistence of Jews and Arabs was not a pipe dream but rather enlightened humanism; that in the three millennia of multicultural civilization at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, one could not fail to recognize that Jewish statehood was fraudulent and that Palestinian statehood was merely a second wrong that did not make a right; that a binational state for all its citizens was and is the only morally sustainable destiny for the bloody sliver of earth between the Jordan River and the sea. It was a powerful and unfashionable idea that equated morality with idealism.
Said was wrong about a lot of things, but sometimes we have to ignore whence ideas come to set the exiled truth free.
Aaron Goode is a senior in Calhoun College.