Palestine’s voice

One of the most important intellectuals of our century, the late Edward W. Said helped many people around the world to better grasp complex truths about life in the Middle East.

A strong voice for the Palestinian people, Said was an author (his classic book Orientalism is a must-read for those studying the Middle East) who also taught English and comparative literature at Columbia University. His posthumously published From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map: Essays collects 46 of his last political works, written between December 2000 and July 2003. The articles, many of which first ran in Arabic papers, take readers from the U.S.-brokered 1993 Oslo peace accord between Israel and Palestine through the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Among other things, Said clearly forecast how Oslo would not improve the lives of the Palestinians who suffered under Israeli occupation and who still endure daily checkpoints, roadblocks and searches by Israeli forces. Unfortunately, both President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry back Israel’s isolationist wall in the Palestinian West Bank, which, when completed, will separate an estimated 300,000 Palestinians from the land they farm.

Said was at his best when detailing the hidden lives of the Palestinians. “The average American,” he wrote, “hasn’t the slightest inkling that there is a narrative of Palestinian suffering and dispossession at least as old as Israel itself.”

A talented pianist, Said was not anti-Jewish—a slur that is often used against those who criticize Israel. He was a secular humanist—one who believes in people’s ability to use reason to create a better world.

Said faulted Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian president, for cooperating with the U.S.-backed Israeli military occupation of Palestine. He wrote of Arafat: “The illusion that he is Palestine and Palestine him stubbornly persists.”

For Said, the illusion of Arafat as Palestine is a cover for the American and Israeli governments’ attempts to steal Palestinian land. To me, this treatment of native people sounds a bit like our own history in the United States.

Indeed, I wish that Said had used his essays to flesh out similarities between America and Israel. Both countries were born from British power. Each became a settler state with an ideology of herrenvolk, or master race. In the United States, white supremacy was very popular and justified black slavery, and it united white lower and upper classes in an alliance of territorial expansion with American Indians being killed. The same basic pattern of violence toward Palestinians marked the 1948 creation of Israel and its expansion.

Said was generous in his praise for individuals who waged peace—such as the Israeli reservists who refused to serve in occupied Palestine. Said also honored Rachel Corrie, an American with the peaceful International Solidarity Movement who was slain by an Israeli soldier while trying to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian house.

Having visited South Africa twice, Said was notably impressed by how the African National Congress (ANC) engaged and worked together with white South Africans who also opposed racial apartheid. Palestinians should heed the ANC model of liberation, Said wrote.

U.S.-backed Israeli assaults on Palestinians have increased since the 9/11 attacks. I agree with Said that the U.S. war in Iraq has further destabilized the Middle East and is really about controlling Middle Eastern oil.

Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians must learn to live with each other in equality, Said wrote. In his words, “what we need is a vision that can lift the much-abused spirit beyond the sordid present, something that will not fail when presented unwaveringly as what people need to aspire to.” Exactly.