few intellectuals in our times would measure up to
Edward Said in the eulogies he received upon his death
last year. Indirectly, every obituary, tribute, essay,
reminiscence honoring his memory was a rebuke to the
mercenaries who populate our media, academia and that
execrable category, think tanks. But would they notice?
I chanced upon one obituary notice that I found troubling.
I was troubled because it was from Rabbi Lerner, who
has earned the opprobrium of Americas Jewish
establishment for opposing the Israeli Occupation
of West Bank and Gaza. At one time, he had to seek
police protection in the face of death threats from
is not that the Rabbi does not praise Edward Said.
He pays tribute to a great thinker and writer
whose contribution to contemporary intellectual life
deserves our respect and appreciation. Said
was a powerful and passionate advocate for his
own people, the Palestinians. Is that all?
Rabbi reserves his deepest respect, however, for the
way in which Edward Said publicly challenged
Arafat and his thuggish ways (emphasis added).
Actually, challenging Arafat was quite a commonplace
amongst Palestinians after he traded the rights of
Palestinian for policing rights over Palestinians.
The pointed reference to Arafats thuggish
ways is gratuitous. The phrase belongs to the
lexicon of Zionist demonization of Palestinians.
come the accusations. Said did not sympathize
with the plight of European Jews and the way that
their returning to the place they perceived to be
their ancient homeland was not an act of Western colonialism
(emphasis added). It is a circuitous sentence,
a bit jumbled and problematic too.
is how I make sense of the Rabbis syntax. First,
he posits that the creation of Israel was not an act
of Western colonialism, something Edward Said
knew or should have known. From this, the Rabbi infers
that Saids opposition to Zionism was due to
his lack of sympathy with (a) the plight of
European Jews and (b) their right to return
to the place they perceived to be their ancient
first charge might be serious. Only someone seized
with anti-Semitic loathing could lack sympathy
for the centuries of suffering endured by European
Jews. Unwittingly, therefore, the Rabbi accuses Said
of anti-Semitism. Or, is the Rabbi saying that European
Jews had earned the right because of their
long suffering to a Jewish state in Palestine,
even if this would lead to the destruction of Palestinian
society. Saids sin, then, is that he does not
recognize this Jewish right. On this account, we have
to acquit Edward Said. The Rabbi will agree that self-destructive
sympathy does not come naturally to most people.
second charge stems from the premise of a Jewish right
of return. In this case, we are asked to concede that
the perception that Palestine is their
ancient homeland gives European Jews the right
to return. And this right is comprehensive. It empowers
European Jews to repossess Palestine
take it away from the Palestinians in order
to establish a state of the Jewish people.
is Jewish mythology alone that confers legitimacy
of sorts to the Jewish right of return. There is no
system of law which converts a perceived claim by
an individual or group into a legally enforceable
right. Nor does any system of law confer on any people
a perpetual right to a country they (may have) once
inhabited, much less one they left (or claim to have
left) some eighteen hundred years ago. In effect,
then, the Rabbi faults Said for not accepting Jewish
mythology as the law for the Palestinians. Should
Lerner also accuses the Palestinians and Said,
by association of immorality. He never
took the step of acknowledging that Palestinian resistance
to Jewish immigration in the years when Jews were
trying to escape the gas chambers of Europe or the
displaced persons camps of 1945-48 was immoral (emphasis
added). At best, the argument in tendentious.
the Rabbi conceding perhaps unwittingly
that Palestinian resistance to Jewish immigration
was moral before Hitler opened the gas chambers? Was
it moral then because Jews were entering Palestine
under a Zionist plan first conceived in 1897,
and ratified by Britain in 1917 whose end was
to create a Jewish state that would dispossess the
Palestinians. Jewish immigration amounted to a Jewish
invasion that would necessarily lead to the displacement
and dispossession of Palestinians.
the Palestinians have ceased their resistance because
Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe by accelerating
Jewish immigration into Palestine was bringing
their own demise nearer, and making it more certain?
Did the Zionists at this time start a dialogue with
the Palestinians, explaining to them that the Jews
escaping Nazi persecution would enter only as refugees,
seeking temporary shelter in Palestine before they
could be relocated to countries where they would be
welcome? Indeed, Nazi persecution became the perverse
if unintended engine for realizing the
Zionist project. Should it then have mattered to the
Palestinians that the Jewish immigrants, who would
accelerate their dispossession, were fleeing persecution?
is another flaw in the Rabbis train of thought.
His argument assumes that Palestine was the only destination
for Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution. Could
not these Jews find refuge permanent or temporary
in any of the Allied countries (or their vast
colonies) whose war effort could have been greatly
aided by the influx of Jewish skills, expertise and
capital? All this appears implausible.
support of this assumption, the Zionists point to
the resistance to Jewish immigration in the United
States. But this wont wash. One has to ask if
the world Jewish hierarchy, by now fully committed
to the creation of Israel, had a real interest in
exerting its power to overcome American opposition
to Jewish immigration? If the Jewish lobbies in the
United States could offset the State Departments
opposition to the creation of Israel, were they not
capable of overcoming the Administrations resistance
to Jewish immigration? Moreover, the United States
was not the only feasible destination for Jewish refugees.
Lerners difficulties have their source in the
deep contradictions of Zionism. This was a peculiar
nationalist project unlike any other because the people
European Jews it defined as a nation
did not possess the territorial attributes of a nation;
they did not constitute a majority in any of the territories
that they inhabited. In fact, they were everywhere
a small minority. It was imperative for this nationalist
project, therefore, to acquire territory a
land where Jews could exercise the collective
rights of nationhood, viz. sovereignty and statehood.
founders of the Zionist project knew instinctively
that it would be impractical indeed suicidal
to try to acquire territory for a Jewish state
within Europe. In fact, quickly, they decided that
they would harness the support of European powers
to create the territorial basis of their state outside
of Europe. At first, Britain was chosen to sponsor
the Zionist project.
offered the ideal location. Its historical value
as the site of the ancient Jewish state, and the land
promised by Yahweh to the Hebrews would be
useful in mobilizing Jewish support for the Zionist
project. Since it was not yet a European colony, it
would be easier to persuade a European power to help
create a Jewish state in Palestine, serving as a rampart
of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization
against barbarism. Palestine contained Christian
holy lands too, and this was another incentive for
Europeans to take it away from the Muslims and give
it to the Jews, a Biblical people. Finally, the project
would realize the anti-Semites dream of cleansing
Christian Europe of its Jewish population.
since its inception, the Zionist project had two defining
features. It was an imperialist project a surrogate
imperialism where Britain, the leading imperialist
power, would acquire Palestine in fulfillment of a
deal with an influential segment of Jewish bourgeoisie.
Necessarily, it was also a colonial-settler project,
since it sought to create a state of European Jews
on Palestinian land. This would entail, in some combination,
the displacement and marginalization of the Palestinians.
are the wrongs that the Zionists regard
as right, legitimate, moral, as necessary for Jewish
survival, for Jewish power. Rabbi Lerner is a committed
Zionist. He makes no bones about that. Though an American
himself, he informs us without any comment
that his son served the Israeli military in
the West Bank. As a Zionist, the Rabbi accuses the
Palestinians and Edward Said for not
acknowledging the wrongs done to them as right, as
moral, as necessary.
course, Rabbi Lerner has more heart than most Zionists.
He concedes that the Palestinians too have rights
to Palestine, the same as the Jews. He concedes this
because you cannot be a pro-Israeli without conceding
these rights; because there is no prospect of Jewish
security without mollifying the Palestinians. The
equal rights he grants the Palestinians,
however, only allows them a state on 22
percent of historic Palestine. He does not contemplate
any Palestinian right of return. No equality
creation of Israel was a power play. It was born out
of the contradictions of the history of European Jews,
a contradiction that would be resolved by the convergence
of Jewish influence and Western imperial power, combining
to serve the interests of both. The cost of this project
to Palestinians, to Arabs, to Muslims, was not even
an issue in an era dominated by Western racism and
bigotry of the Christian, Jewish and secular
the contradictions of the Zionist project deepen,
forcing it to draw the United States directly into
the conflict, that same racism and bigotry are being
mobilized in the West, and especially the United States,
to support another assault on the rights of the Palestinians,
Arabs and Muslims. Slowly, reflexively, a segment
of the Muslim population, a small segment still I
believe, is being energized to take back their lands,
their dignity and rights, their place under the sun.
Some of them are now imitating the bloody-mindedness
of their foes.
this the clash of civilizations between the West and
the Islamicate world? Was this conflict inevitable
given the oil-thirst and Israelization of the United
States confronting an Islamicate world, beaten in
the nineteenth century, divided, humiliated, now reaching
a quarter of the worlds population, and struggling
to regain its lost power, to recreate its splintered
Islamicate societies seeking to reconstitute their
life on the primordial foundations lost in
the crush of modernization of a perennial encounter
between God as such and man as such, between
the transcendent, creative principle of the universe
and a theomorphic being endowed with intellect, free
will and speech?
are these societies today what their adversaries say
they are in rage, in denial, impotent, after
the West overtook them in knowledge and power? Did
they fail to modernize because of the flaws in the
deep structures of their culture? And
are they now seeking, out of spite, to destroy the
leader of the modern, democratic and dominant West?
time will tell who is right, where this conflict will
go, what this contest will bring at the end? This
conflict may end quickly in the capitulation of the
Islamicate adversary producing a thousand years
of American hegemony over the Islamicate world; or
it may go the other way. If it goes the other way,
it may restore a balance between the West and Islamdom,
an equilibrium shattered in the nineteenth century.
Or, it may be the beginning of a long, or precipitous,
descent to long and deadly wars, to economic meltdown
to an unforeseen hell.
Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern
University. His last book, Poverty from the Wealth
of Nations, was published by Palgrave in 2000. Visit
his webpage at http://msalam.net. © M. Shahid
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