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Ed Said: Dignity, Solidarity & the Penal Colony

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  • ummyakoub
    Dignity, Solidarity and the Penal Colony By EDWARD SAID September 25, 2003 [An Excerpt from The Politics of Anti-Semitism, edited by Alexander Cockburn and
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 22, 2003
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      Dignity, Solidarity and the Penal Colony
      September 25, 2003

      [An Excerpt from The Politics of Anti-Semitism, edited by Alexander
      Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair]


      Aside from the obvious physical discomforts, being ill for a long
      period of time fills the spirit with a terrible feeling of
      helplessness, but also with periods of analytic lucidity, which, of
      course, must be treasured. For the past three months now I have been
      in and out of the hospital, with days marked by lengthy and painful
      treatments, blood transfusions, endless tests, hours and hours of
      unproductive time spent staring at the ceiling, draining fatigue and
      infection, inability to do normal work, and thinking, thinking,

      But there are also the intermittent passages of lucidity and
      reflection that sometimes give the mind a perspective on daily life
      that allows it to see things (without being able to do much about
      them) from a different perspective. Reading the news from Palestine
      and seeing the frightful images of death and destruction on
      television, it has been my experience to be utterly amazed and aghast
      at what I have deduced from those details about Israeli government
      policy, more particularly about what has been going on in the mind of
      Ariel Sharon. And when, after the recent Gaza bombing by one of his F-
      16s in which nine children were massacred, he was quoted as
      congratulating the pilot and boasting of a great Israeli success, I
      was able to form a much clearer idea than before of what a
      pathologically deranged mind is capable of, not only in terms of what
      it plans and orders but, worse, how it manages to persuade other
      minds to think in the same delusional and criminal way. Getting
      inside the official Israeli mind is a worthwhile, if lurid,

      In the West, however, there's been such repetitious and unedifying
      attention paid to Palestinian suicide bombing that a gross distortion
      in reality has completely obscured what is much worse: the official
      Israeli, and perhaps the uniquely Sharonian evil that has been
      visited so deliberately and so methodically on the Palestinian
      people. Suicide bombing is reprehensible but it is a direct and, in
      my opinion, a consciously programmed result of years of abuse,
      powerlessness and despair. It has as little to do with the Arab or
      Muslim supposed propensity for violence as the man in the moon.
      Sharon wants terrorism, not peace, and he does everything in his
      power to create the conditions for it. But for all its horror,
      Palestinian violence, the response of a desperate and horribly
      oppressed people, has been stripped of its context and the terrible
      suffering from which it arises: a failure to see that is a failure in
      humanity, and that context doesn't make the violence any less
      terrible but at least situates it in a real history and real

      Yet the location of Palestinian terror-of course it is terror-is
      never allowed a moment's chance to appear, so remorseless has been
      the focus on it as a phenomenon apart, a pure, gratuitous evil which
      Israel, supposedly acting on behalf of pure good, has been virtuously
      battling in its variously appalling acts of disproportionate violence
      against a population of three million Palestinian civilians. I am not
      speaking only about Israel's manipulation of opinion, but its
      exploitation of the American equivalent of the campaign against
      terrorism without which Israel could not have done what it has done.
      (In fact, I cannot think of any other country on earth that, in full
      view of nightly TV audiences, has performed such miracles of detailed
      sadism against an entire society and gotten away with it.) That this
      evil has been made consciously part of George W. Bush's campaign
      against terrorism, irrationally magnifying American fantasies and
      fixations with extraordinary ease, is no small part of its blind
      destructiveness. Like the brigades of eager (and in my opinion
      completely corrupt) American intellectuals who spin enormous
      structures of falsehoods about the benign purpose and necessity of US
      imperialism, Israeli society has pressed into service numerous
      academics, policy intellectuals at think tanks, and ex-military men
      now in defense-related and public relations business, all to
      rationalize and make convincing inhuman punitive policies that are
      supposedly based on the need for Israeli security.

      Israeli security is now a fabled beast. Like a unicorn it is
      endlessly hunted and never found, remaining, everlastingly, the goal
      of future action. That over time Israel has become less secure and
      more unacceptable to its neighbors scarcely merits a moment's notice.
      But then who challenges the view that Israeli security ought to
      define the moral world we live in? Certainly not the Arab and
      Palestinian leaderships, who for 30 years have conceded everything to
      Israeli security. Shouldn't that ever be questioned, given that
      Israel has wreaked more damage on the Palestinians and other Arabs
      relative to its size than any country in the world, Israel with its
      nuclear arsenal, its air force, navy and army limitlessly supplied by
      the US taxpayer? As a result the daily, minute occurrences of what
      Palestinians have to live through are hidden and, more important,
      covered over by a logic of self-defense and the pursuit of terrorism
      (terrorist infrastructure, terrorist nests, terrorist bomb factories,
      terrorist suspects-the list is infinite) which perfectly suits Sharon
      and the lamentable George Bush. Ideas about terrorism have thus taken
      on a life of their own, legitimized and re-legitimized without proof,
      logic or rational argument.

      Consider for instance the devastation of Afghanistan, on the one
      hand, and the "targeted" assassinations of almost 100 Palestinians
      (to say nothing of the many thousands of "suspects" rounded-up and
      still imprisoned by Israeli soldiers) on the other: nobody asks
      whether all these people killed were in fact terrorists, or proved to
      be terrorists, or were about to become terrorists. They are all
      assumed to be dangers by acts of simple, unchallenged affirmation.
      All you need is an arrogant spokesman or two, like the loutish Ranaan
      Gissin, Avi Pazner or Dore Gold, and in Washington a non-stop
      apologist for ignorance and incoherence like Ari Fleischer, and the
      targets in question are just as good as dead. Without doubts,
      questions or demurral. No need for proof or any such tiresome
      delicacy. Terrorism and its obsessive pursuit have become an entirely
      circular, self-fulfilling murder and slow death of enemies who have
      no choice or say in the matter.

      With the exception of reports by a few intrepid journalists and
      writers such as Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Amos Elon, Tanya Leibowitz,
      Jeff Halper, Israel Shamir and a few others, public discourse in the
      Israeli media has declined terribly in quality and honesty.
      Patriotism and blind support for the government has replaced
      skeptical reflection and moral seriousness. Gone are the days of
      Israel Shahak, Jakob Talmon and Yehoshua Leibowitch. I can think of
      few Israeli academics and intellectuals-men like Zeev Sternhell, Uri
      Avnery and Ilan Pappe, for instance-who are courageous enough to
      depart from the imbecilic and debased debate about "security"
      and "terrorism" that seems to have overtaken the Israeli peace
      establishment, or even its rapidly dwindling left opposition. Crimes
      are being committed every day in the name of Israel and the Jewish
      people, and yet the intellectuals chatter on about strategic
      withdrawal, or perhaps whether to incorporate settlements or not, or
      whether to keep building that monstrous fence (has a crazier idea
      ever been realized in the modern world, that you can put several
      million people in a cage and say they don't exist?) in a manner
      befitting a general or a politician, rather than in ways more suited
      to intellectuals and artists with independent judgment and some sort
      of moral standard. Where are the Israeli equivalents of Nadine
      Gordimer, Andre Brink, Athol Fugard, those white writers who spoke
      out unequivocally and with unambiguous clarity against the evils of
      South African apartheid? They simply don't exist in Israel, where
      public discourse by writers and academics has sunk to equivocation
      and the repetition of official propaganda, and where most really
      first-class writing and thought has disappeared from even the
      academic establishment.

      But to return to Israeli practices and the mind-set that has gripped
      the country with such obduracy during the past few years, think of
      Sharon's plan. It entails nothing less than the obliteration of an
      entire people by slow, systematic methods of suffocation, outright
      murder and the stifling of everyday life. There is a remarkable story
      by Kafka, In the Penal Colony, about a crazed official who shows off
      a fantastically detailed torture machine whose purpose is to write
      all over the body of the victim, using a complex apparatus of needles
      to inscribe the captive's body with minute letters that ultimately
      causes the prisoner to bleed to death. This is what Sharon and his
      brigades of willing executioners are doing to the Palestinians, with
      only the most limited and most symbolic of opposition. Every
      Palestinian has become a prisoner. Gaza is surrounded by an
      electrified wire fence on three sides; imprisoned like animals,
      Gazans are unable to move, unable to work, unable to sell their
      vegetables or fruit, unable to go to school. They are exposed from
      the air to Israeli planes and helicopters and are gunned down like
      turkeys on the ground by tanks and machine guns. Impoverished and
      starved, Gaza is a human nightmare, each of whose little pieces of
      episodes-like what takes place at Erez, or near the settlements-
      involves thousands of soldiers in the humiliation, punishment,
      intolerable enfeeblement of each Palestinian, without regard for age,
      gender or illness. Medical supplies are held up at the border,
      ambulances are fired upon or detained. Hundreds of houses are
      demolished, and hundreds of thousands of trees and agricultural land
      destroyed in acts of systematic collective punishment against
      civilians, most of whom are already refugees from Israel's
      destruction of their society in 1948. Hope has been eliminated from
      the Palestinian vocabulary so that only raw defiance remains, and
      still Sharon and his sadistic minions prattle on about eliminating
      terrorism by an ever-encroaching occupation that has continued now
      for 35 years. That the campaign itself is, like all colonial
      brutality, futile, or that it has the effect of making Palestinians
      more, rather than less, defiant simply does not enter Sharon's closed

      The West Bank is occupied by 1,000 Israeli tanks whose sole purpose
      is to fire upon and terrorize civilians. Curfews are imposed for
      periods of up to two weeks, without respite. Schools and universities
      are either closed or impossible to get to. No one can travel, not
      just between the nine main cities but within the cities. Every town
      today is a wasteland of destroyed buildings, looted offices,
      purposely ruined water and electrical systems. Commerce is finished.
      Malnutrition prevails in half the number of children. Two-thirds of
      the population lives below the poverty level of $2 a day. Tanks in
      Jenin (where the demolition of the refugee camp by Israeli armor, a
      major war crime, was never investigated because cowardly
      international bureaucrats such as Kofi Annan back down when Israel
      threatens) fire upon and kill children, but that is only one drop in
      an unending stream of Palestinian civilian deaths caused by Israeli
      soldiers who furnish the illegal Israeli military occupation with
      loyal, unquestioning service. Palestinians are all "terrorist
      suspects". The soul of this occupation is that young Israeli
      conscripts are allowed full rein to subject Palestinians at
      checkpoints to every known form of private torture and abjection.
      There is the waiting in the sun for hours; then there is the
      detention of medical supplies and produce until they rot; there are
      the insulting words and beatings administered at will; the sudden
      rampage of jeeps and soldiers against civilians waiting their turn by
      the thousands at the innumerable checkpoints that have made of
      Palestinian life a choking hell; making dozens of youths kneel in the
      sun for hours; forcing men to take off their clothes; insulting and
      humiliating parents in front of their children; forbidding the sick
      to pass through for no other reason than personal whim; stopping
      ambulances and firing on them. And the steady number of Palestinian
      deaths (quadruple that of Israelis) increases on a daily, mostly
      untabulated basis. More "terrorist suspects" plus their wives and
      children, but "we" regret those deaths very much. Thank you.

      Israel is frequently referred to as a democracy. If so, then it is a
      democracy without a conscience, a country whose soul has been
      captured by a mania for punishing the weak, a democracy that
      faithfully mirrors the psychopathic mentality of its ruler, General
      Sharon, whose sole idea-if that is the right word for it-is to kill,
      reduce, maim, drive away Palestinians until "they break". He provides
      nothing more concrete as a goal for his campaigns, now or in the
      past, beyond that, and like the garrulous official in Kafka's story
      he is most proud of his machine for abusing defenseless Palestinian
      civilians, all the while monstrously abetted in his grotesque lies by
      his court advisers and philosophers and generals, as well as by his
      chorus of faithful American servants. There is no Palestinian army of
      occupation, no Palestinian tanks, no soldiers, no helicopter gun-
      ships, no artillery, no government to speak of. But there are
      the "terrorists" and the "violence" that Israel has invented so that
      its own neuroses can be inscribed on the bodies of Palestinians,
      without effective protest from the overwhelming majority of Israel's
      laggard philosophers, intellectuals, artists, peace activists.
      Palestinian schools, libraries and universities have ceased normal
      functioning for months now; and we still wait for the Western freedom-
      to-write groups and the vociferous defenders of academic freedom in
      America to raise their voices in protest. I have yet to see one
      academic organization either in Israel or in the West make a
      declaration about this profound abrogation of the Palestinian right
      to knowledge, to learning, to attend school.

      In sum, Palestinians must die a slow death so that Israel can have
      its security, which is just around the corner but cannot be realized
      because of the special Israeli "insecurity". The whole world must
      sympathize, while the cries of Palestinian orphans, sick old women,
      bereaved communities and tortured prisoners simply go unheard and
      unrecorded. Doubtless, we will be told, these horrors serve a larger
      purpose than mere sadistic cruelty. After all, "the two sides" are
      engaged in a "cycle of violence" which has to be stopped, sometime,
      somewhere. Once in a while, we ought to pause and declare indignantly
      that there is only one side with an army and a country: the other is
      a stateless, dispossessed population without rights or any present
      way of securing them. The language of suffering and concrete daily
      life has either been hijacked, or it has been so perverted as, in my
      opinion, to be useless except as pure fiction deployed as a screen
      for the purpose of more killing and painstaking torture-slowly,
      fastidiously, inexorably. That is the truth of what Palestinians
      suffer. But in any case, Israeli policy will ultimately fail.

      Anyone who believes that the road map devised by the Bush
      administration actually offers anything resembling a settlement or
      that it tackles the basic issues is wrong. Like so much of the
      prevailing peace discourse, it places the need for restraint and
      renunciation and sacrifice squarely on Palestinian shoulders, thus
      denying the density and sheer gravity of Palestinian history. To read
      through the road map is to confront an unsituated document, oblivious
      of its time and place.

      The road map, in other words, is not about a plan for peace so much
      as a plan for pacification: it is about putting an end to Palestine
      as a problem. Hence the repetition of the term "performance" in the
      document's wooden prose-in other words, how the Palestinians are
      expected to behave, almost in the social sense of the word. No
      violence, no protest, more democracy, better leaders and
      institutions, all based on the notion that the underlying problem has
      been the ferocity of Palestinian resistance, rather than the
      occupation that has given rise to it. Nothing comparable is expected
      of Israel except that a few small settlements, known as "illegal
      outposts" (an entirely new classification which suggests that some
      Israeli implantations on Palestinian land are legal) must be given up
      and, yes, the major settlements "frozen" but certainly not
      dismantled. Not a word is said about what since 1948, and then again
      since 1967, Palestinians have endured at the hands of Israel and the
      US. Nothing about the de-development of the Palestinian economy as
      described by the American researcher Sara Roy in her forthcoming
      Scholarship and Politics. House demolitions, the uprooting of trees,
      the 5000 prisoners or more, the policy of targeted assassinations,
      the closures since 1993, the wholesale ruin of the infrastructure,
      the incredible number of deaths and maimings-all that and more passes
      without a word.

      Nonetheless It may seem quixotic for me to say, even if the immediate
      prospects are grim from a Palestinian perspective, they are not all
      dark. The Palestinians stubbornly survive, and Palestinian society-
      devastated, nearly ruined, desolate in so many ways-is, like Hardy's
      thrush in its blast-beruffled plume, still capable of flinging its
      soul upon the growing gloom. No other Arab society is as rambunctious
      and healthily unruly, and none is fuller of civic and social
      initiatives and functioning institutions (including a miraculously
      vital musical conservatory). Even though they are mostly unorganized
      and in some cases lead miserable lives of exile and statelessness,
      Diaspora Palestinians are still energetically engaged by the problems
      of their collective destiny, and everyone that I know is always
      trying somehow to advance the cause. Only a minuscule fraction of
      this energy has ever found its way into the Palestinian Authority,
      which except for the highly ambivalent figure of Arafat has remained
      strangely marginal to the common fate. According to recent polls, [in
      the early summer of 2003] Fateh and Hamas between them have the
      support of roughly 45 percent of the Palestinian electorate, with the
      remaining 55 percent evolving quite different, much more hopeful-
      looking political formations.

      One in particular has struck me as significant (and I have attached
      myself to it) inasmuch as it now provides the only genuine grassroots
      formation that steers clear both of the religious parties and their
      fundamentally sectarian politics, and of the traditional nationalism
      offered up by Arafat's old (rather than young) Fateh activists. It's
      been called the National Political Initiative (NPI) and its main
      figure is Mostapha Barghuti, a Moscow-trained physician, whose main
      work has been as director of the impressive Village Medical Relief
      Committee, which has brought health care to more than 100,000 rural
      Palestinians. A former Communist Party stalwart, Barghuti is a quiet-
      spoken organizer and leader who has overcome the hundreds of physical
      obstacles impeding Palestinian movement or travel abroad to rally
      nearly every independent individual and organization of note behind a
      political program that promises social reform as well as liberation
      across doctrinal lines. Singularly free of conventional rhetoric,
      Barghuti has worked with Israelis, Europeans, Americans, Africans,
      Asians, Arabs to build an enviably well-run solidarity movement that
      practices the pluralism and co-existence it preaches. NPI does not
      throw up its hands at the directionless militarization of the
      intifada. It offers training programs for the unemployed and social
      services for the destitute on the grounds that this answers to
      present circumstances and Israeli pressure. Above all, NPI, which is
      about to become a recognized political party, seeks to mobilize
      Palestinian society at home and in exile for free elections-authentic
      elections which will represent Palestinian, rather than Israeli or
      US, interests. This sense of authenticity is what seems so lacking in
      the path cut out for Abu Mazen.

      The vision here isn't a manufactured provisional state on 40 percent
      of the land, with the refugees abandoned and Jerusalem kept by
      Israel, but a sovereign territory liberated from military occupation
      by mass action involving Arabs and Jews wherever possible. Because
      NPI is an authentic Palestinian movement, reform and democracy have
      become part of its everyday practice. Many hundreds of Palestine's
      most notable activists and independents have already signed up, and
      organizational meetings have already been held, with many more
      planned abroad and in Palestine, despite the terrible difficulties of
      getting around Israel's restrictions on freedom of movement. It is
      some solace to think that, while formal negotiations and discussions
      go on, a host of informal, un-coopted alternatives exist, of which
      NPI and a growing international solidarity campaign are now the main

      In early May, I was in Seattle lecturing for a few days. While there,
      I had dinner one night with Rachel Corrie's parents and sister, who
      were still reeling from the shock of their daughter's murder on March
      16 in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer. Mr. Corrie told me that he had
      himself driven bulldozers, although the one that killed his daughter
      deliberately because she was trying valiantly to protect a
      Palestinian home in Rafah from demolition was a 60 ton behemoth
      especially designed by Caterpillar for house demolitions, a far
      bigger machine than anything he had ever seen or driven. Two things
      struck me about my brief visit with the Corries. One was the story
      they told about their return to the US with their daughter's body.
      They had immediately sought out their US senators, Patty Murray and
      Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, told them their story and received
      the expected expressions of shock, outrage, anger and promises of
      investigations. After both women returned to Washington, the Corries
      never heard from them again, and the promised investigation simply
      didn't materialize. As expected, the Israel lobby had explained the
      realities to them, and both women simply begged off. An American
      citizen willfully murdered by the soldiers of a client state of the
      US without so much as an official peep or even the de rigeur
      investigation that had been promised her family.

      But the second and far more important aspect of the Rachel Corrie
      story for me was the young woman's action itself, heroic and
      dignified at the same time. Born and brought up in Olympia, a small
      city 60 miles south of Seattle, she had joined the International
      Solidarity Movement and gone to Gaza to stand with suffering human
      beings with whom she had never had any contact before. Her letters
      back to her family are truly remarkable documents of her ordinary
      humanity that make for very difficult and moving reading, especially
      when she describes the kindness and concern showed her by all the
      Palestinians she encounters who clearly welcome her as one of their
      own, because she lives with them exactly as they do, sharing their
      lives and worries, as well as the horrors of the Israeli occupation
      and its terrible effects on even the smallest child. She understands
      the fate of refugees, and what she calls the Israeli government's
      insidious attempt at a kind of genocide by making it almost
      impossible for this particular group of people to survive. So moving
      is her solidarity that it inspires an Israeli reservist named Danny
      who has refused service to write her and tell her, "You are doing a
      good thing. I thank you for it."

      What shines through all the letters she wrote home, which were
      subsequently published in the London Guardian, is the amazing
      resistance put up by the Palestinian people themselves, average human
      beings stuck in the most terrible position of suffering and despair
      but continuing to survive just the same. We have heard so much
      recently about the road map and the prospects for peace that we have
      overlooked the most basic fact of all, which is that Palestinians
      have refused to capitulate or surrender even under the collective
      punishment meted out to them by the combined might of the US and
      Israel. It is that extraordinary fact that is the reason for the
      existence of a road map and all the numerous so-called peace plans
      before it, not at all some conviction on the part of the US and
      Israel and the international community for humanitarian reasons that
      the killing and the violence must stop. If we miss that truth about
      the power of Palestinian resistance (by which I do not at all mean
      suicide bombing, which does much more harm than good), despite all
      its failings and all its mistakes, we miss everything. Palestinians
      have always been a problem for the Zionist project, and so-called
      solutions have perennially been proposed that minimize, rather than
      solve, the problem. The official Israeli policy, no matter whether
      Ariel Sharon uses the word "occupation" or not or whether or not he
      dismantles a rusty, unused tower or two, has always been not to
      accept the reality of the Palestinian people as equals or ever to
      admit that their rights were scandalously violated all along by
      Israel. Whereas a few courageous Israelis over the years have tried
      to deal with this other concealed history, most Israelis and what
      seems like the majority of American Jews have made every effort to
      deny, avoid, or negate the Palestinian reality. This is why there is
      no peace. Moreover, the road map says nothing about justice or about
      the historical punishment meted out to the Palestinian people for too
      many decades to count. What Rachel Corrie's work in Gaza recognized,
      however, was precisely the gravity and the density of the living
      history of the Palestinian people as a national community, and not
      merely as a collection of deprived refugees. That is what she was in
      solidarity with. And we need to remember that that kind of solidarity
      is no longer confined to a small number of intrepid souls here and
      there, but is recognized the world over. In the past six months I
      have lectured in four continents to many thousands of people. What
      brings them together is Palestine and the struggle of the Palestinian
      people which is now a byword for emancipation and enlightenment,
      regardless of all the vilification heaped on them by their enemies.

      Whenever the facts are made known, there is immediate recognition and
      an expression of the most profound solidarity with the justice of the
      Palestinian cause and the valiant struggle by the Palestinian people
      on its behalf. It is an extraordinary thing that Palestine was a
      central issue this year both during the Porto Alegre anti-
      globalization meetings as well as during the Davos and Amman
      meetings, both poles of the world-wide political spectrum. Simply
      because our fellow citizens in this country are fed an atrociously
      biased diet of ignorance and misrepresentation by the media, where
      the occupation is never referred to in lurid descriptions of suicide
      attacks, where the apartheid wall 25 feet high, five feet thick and
      350 kilometers long that Israel is building is never even shown on
      the networks (or so much as referred to in passing throughout the
      lifeless prose of the road map), and where the crimes of war, the
      gratuitous destruction and humiliation, maiming and death imposed on
      Palestinian civilians are never shown for the daily, completely
      routine ordeal that they are, one shouldn't be surprised that
      Americans in the main have a very low opinion of Arabs and
      Palestinians. After all, please remember that all the main organs of
      the establishment media, from left liberal all the way over to fringe
      right, are unanimously anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian.
      Look at the pusillanimity of the media during the buildup to an
      illegal and unjust war against Iraq, and look at how little coverage
      there was of the immense damage against Iraqi society done by the
      sanctions, and how relatively few accounts there were of the immense
      world-wide outpouring of opinion against the war. Hardly a single
      journalist except Helen Thomas took the administration directly to
      task for the outrageous lies and confected "facts" that were spun out
      about Iraq as an imminent military threat to the US before the war,
      just as now the same government propagandists who cynically invented
      and manipulated "facts" about WMD are let off the hook by media
      heavies in discussing the awful, the literally inexcusable situation
      for the people of Iraq that the US has irresponsibly and almost
      single-handedly created there. However else one blames Saddam Hussein
      as a vicious tyrant, which he was, he had provided the people of Iraq
      with the best infrastructure of services like water, electricity,
      health and education of any Arab country. None of this is any longer
      in place.

      With the extraordinary fear of seeming anti-Semitic by criticizing
      Israel for its daily crimes of war against innocent, unarmed
      Palestinian civilians, or seeming anti-American for criticizing the
      US government for its illegal war and its dreadfully run military
      occupation, it is no wonder, then, that the vicious media and
      government campaign against Arab society, culture, history and
      mentality that has been led by Neanderthal publicists and
      Orientalists like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes has cowed far too
      many of us into believing that Arabs really are an underdeveloped,
      incompetent and doomed people, and that with all the failures in
      democracy and development, Arabs are alone in this world for being
      retarded, behind the times, unmodernized and deeply reactionary. Here
      is where dignity and critical historical thinking must be mobilized
      to see what is what and to disentangle truth from propaganda.

      No one would deny that most Arab countries today are ruled by
      unpopular regimes and that vast numbers of poor, disadvantaged young
      Arabs are exposed to the ruthless forms of fundamentalist religion.
      Yet it is simply a lie to say, as The New York Times regularly does,
      that Arab societies are totally controlled, and that there is no
      freedom of opinion, no civil institutions, no functioning social
      movements for and by the people. Press laws notwithstanding, you can
      go to downtown Amman today and buy a Communist Party newspaper as
      well as an Islamist one; Egypt and Lebanon are full of papers and
      journals that suggest much more debate and discussion than these
      societies are given credit for; the satellite channels are bursting
      with opinions of a dizzying variety; civil institutions are, on many
      levels having to do with social services, human rights, syndicates
      and research institutes, very lively all over the Arab world. A great
      deal more must be done before we have the appropriate level of
      democracy, but we are on the way.

      In Palestine alone there are over 1000 NGO's and it is this vitality
      and this kind of activity that has kept society going. Under the
      worst possible circumstances, Palestinian society has neither been
      defeated nor has it crumbled completely. Kids still go to school,
      doctors and nurses still take care of their patients, men and women
      go to work, organizations have their meetings, and people continue to
      live, which seems to be an offense to Sharon and the other extremists
      who simply want Palestinians either imprisoned or driven away
      altogether. The military solution hasn't worked at all, and never
      will work. Why is that so hard for Israelis to see? We must help them
      to understand this, not by suicide bombs but by rational argument,
      mass civil disobedience, organized protest, here and everywhere.

      The point I am trying to make is that we have to see the Arab world
      generally and Palestine in particular in more comparative and
      critical ways than superficial and dismissive books like Lewis's What
      Went Wrong and Paul Wolfowitz's ignorant statements about bringing
      democracy to the Arab and Islamic world even begin to suggest.
      Whatever else is true about the Arabs, there is an active dynamic at
      work because as real people they live in a real society with all
      sorts of currents and crosscurrents which can't be easily caricatured
      as just one seething mass of violent fanaticism. The Palestinian
      struggle for justice is especially something with which one must
      express solidarity, rather than endless criticism and exasperated,
      frustrating discouragement, or crippling divisiveness. Remember the
      solidarity here and everywhere in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia
      and Australia, and remember also that there is a cause to which many
      people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles
      notwithstanding. Why? Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a
      moral quest for equality and human rights.

      I want now to speak about dignity, which of course has a special
      place in every culture known to historians, anthropologists,
      sociologists and humanists. I shall begin by saying immediately that
      it is a radically wrong, Orientalist and indeed racist proposition to
      accept that, unlike Europeans and Americans, Arabs have no sense of
      individuality, no regard for individual life, no values that express
      love, intimacy and understanding which are supposed to be the
      property exclusively of cultures that had a Renaissance, a
      Reformation and an Enlightenment. Among many others, it is the vulgar
      and jejune Thomas Friedman who has been peddling this rubbish, which
      has alas been picked up by equally ignorant and self-deceiving Arab
      intellectuals-I don't need to mention any names here-who have seen in
      the atrocities of 9/11 a sign that the Arab and Islamic worlds are
      somehow more diseased and more dysfunctional than any other, and that
      terrorism is a sign of a wider distortion than has occurred in any
      other culture.

      We can leave to one side that, between them, Europe and the US
      account for by far the largest number of violent deaths during the
      20th century, the Islamic world hardly a fraction of it. Behind all
      of that specious, unscientific nonsense about wrong and right
      civilizations, there is the grotesque shadow of the great false
      prophet Samuel Huntington, who has led a lot of people to believe
      that the world can be divided into distinct civilizations battling
      against each other forever. But Huntington is dead wrong on every
      point he makes. No culture or civilization exists by itself; none is
      made up of things like individuality and enlightenment that are
      exclusive to it; and none exists without the basic human attributes
      of community, love, value for life and all the others. To suggest
      otherwise as he does is the purest invidious racism of the same
      stripe as that of people who argue that Africans have naturally
      inferior brains, or that Asians are really born for servitude, or
      that Europeans are a naturally superior race. This is a sort of
      parody of Hitlerian science directed uniquely today against Arabs and
      Muslims, and we must be very firm as to not even go through the
      motions of arguing against it. It is the purest drivel. On the other
      hand, there is the much more credible and serious stipulation that,
      like every other instance of humanity, Arab and Muslim life has an
      inherent value and dignity that are expressed by Arabs and Muslims in
      their unique cultural style, and those expressions needn't resemble
      or be a copy of one approved model suitable for everyone to follow.

      The whole point about human diversity is that it is in the end a form
      of deep co-existence between very different styles of individuality
      and experience that can't all be reduced to one superior form: this
      is the spurious argument foisted on us by pundits who bewail the lack
      of development and knowledge in the Arab world. All one has to do is
      to look at the huge variety of literature, cinema, theater, painting,
      music and popular culture produced by and for Arabs from Morocco to
      the Gulf. Surely that needs to be assessed as an indication of
      whether or not Arabs are developed, and not just how on any given day
      statistical tables of industrial production either indicate an
      appropriate level of development or show failure.

      The more important point I want to make, though, is that there is a
      very wide discrepancy today between our cultures and societies and
      the small group of people who now rule these societies. Rarely in
      history has such power been so concentrated in so tiny a group as the
      various kings, generals, sultans and presidents who preside today
      over the Arabs. The worst thing about them as a group, almost without
      exception, is that they do not represent the best of their people.
      This is not just a matter of no democracy. It is that they seem to
      radically underestimate themselves and their people in ways that
      close them off, that make them intolerant and fearful of change,
      frightened of opening up their societies to their people, terrified
      most of all that they might anger big brother, that is, the United
      States. Instead of seeing their citizens as the potential wealth of
      the nation, they regard them all as guilty conspirators vying for the
      ruler's power.

      This is the real failure, how during the terrible war against the
      Iraqi people, no Arab leader had the self-dignity and confidence to
      say something about the pillaging and military occupation of one of
      the most important Arab countries. Fine, it is an excellent thing
      that Saddam Hussein's appalling regime is no more, but who appointed
      the US to be the Arab mentor? Who asked the US to take over the Arab
      world allegedly on behalf of its citizens and bring it something
      called "democracy", especially at a time when the school system, the
      health system and the whole economy in America are degenerating to
      the worst levels since the 1929 Depression? Why was the collective
      Arab voice NOT raised against the US's flagrantly illegal
      intervention, which did so much harm and inflicted so much
      humiliation upon the entire Arab nation? This is truly a colossal
      failure in nerve, in dignity, in self-solidarity.

      With all the Bush administration's talk about guidance from the
      Almighty, doesn't one Arab leader have the courage just to say that,
      as a great people, we are guided by our own lights and traditions and
      religions? But nothing, not a word, as the poor citizens of Iraq live
      through the most terrible ordeals and the rest of the region quakes
      in its collective boots, each one petrified that his country may be
      next. How unfortunate the embrace of George Bush, the man whose war
      destroyed an Arab country gratuitously, by the combined leadership of
      the major Arab countries. Was there no one who had the guts to remind
      George W. that he has brought more suffering to the Arab people than
      anyone before him? Must he always be greeted with hugs, smiles,
      kisses and low bows? Where is the diplomatic and political and
      economic support necessary to sustain an anti-occupation movement on
      the West Bank and Gaza? Instead all one hears is foreign ministers
      preaching to the Palestinians to mind their ways, avoid violence and
      keep at the peace negotiations, even though it has been so obvious
      that Sharon's interest in peace is just about zero. There has been no
      concerted Arab response to the separation wall, or to the
      assassinations, or to collective punishment, only a bunch of tired
      clichés repeating the well-worn formulas authorized by the State

      Perhaps the one thing that strikes me as the low point in Arab
      inability to grasp the dignity of the Palestinian cause is expressed
      by the current state of the Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen, a
      subordinate figure with little political support among his own
      people, was picked for the job by Arafat, Israel and the US precisely
      because he has no constituency, is not an orator or a great
      organizer, or anything really except a dutiful aide to Yasser Arafat,
      and because I am afraid they see in him a man who will do Israel's
      bidding. How could even Abu Mazen stand there in Aqaba to pronounce
      words written for him, like a ventriloquist's puppet, by some State
      Department functionary, in which he commendably speaks about Jewish
      suffering but then amazingly says next to nothing about his own
      people's suffering at the hands of Israel? How could he accept so
      undignified and manipulated a role for himself, and how could he
      forget his self-respect as the representative of a people that has
      been fighting heroically for its rights for over a century just
      because the US and Israel have told him he must? And when Israel
      simply says that there will be a "provisional" Palestinian state,
      without any contrition for the horrendous amount of damage it has
      done, the uncountable war crimes, the sheer sadistic, systematic
      humiliation of every single Palestinian, man, woman, child, I must
      confess to a complete lack of understanding as to why a leader or
      representative of that people doesn't so much as take note of it. Has
      he entirely lost his sense of dignity?

      Has he forgotten that he is not just an individual but also the
      bearer of his people's fate at an especially crucial moment? Is there
      anyone who was not bitterly disappointed at this total failure to
      rise to the occasion and stand with dignity-the dignity of his
      people's experience and cause-and testify to it with pride, and
      without compromise, without ambiguity, without the half embarrassed,
      half apologetic tone that Palestinian leaders take when they are
      begging for a little kindness from some totally unworthy white

      But that has been the behavior of Palestinian rulers since Oslo and
      indeed since Haj Amin, a combination of misplaced juvenile defiance
      and plaintive supplication. Why on earth do they always think it
      absolutely necessary to read scripts written for them by their
      enemies? The basic dignity of our life as Arabs in Palestine,
      throughout the Arab world, and here in America, is that we are our
      own people, with a heritage, a history, a tradition and above all a
      language that is more than adequate to the task of representing our
      real aspirations, since those aspirations derive from the experience
      of dispossession and suffering that has been imposed on each
      Palestinian since 1948. Not one of our political spokespeople-the
      same is true of the Arabs since Abdel Nasser's time-ever speaks with
      self-respect and dignity of what we are, what we want, what we have
      done and where we want to go.

      Slowly, however, the situation is changing, and the old regime made
      up of the Abu Mazens and Abu Ammars of this world is passing and will
      gradually be replaced by a new set of emerging leaders all over the
      Arab world. The most promising is made up of the members of the
      National Political Initiative; they are grassroots activists whose
      main activity is not pushing papers on a desk, nor juggling bank
      accounts, nor looking for journalists to pay attention to them, but
      who come from the ranks of the professionals, the working classes,
      the young intellectuals and activists, the teachers, doctors,
      lawyers, working people who have kept society going while also
      fending off daily Israeli attacks. Second, these are people committed
      to the kind of democracy and popular participation undreamt of by the
      Authority, whose idea of democracy is stability and security for
      itself. Lastly, they offer social services to the unemployed, health
      to the uninsured and the poor, proper secular education to a new
      generation of Palestinians who must be taught the realities of the
      modern world, not just the extraordinary worth of the old one. For
      such programs, the NPI stipulates that getting rid of the occupation
      is the only way forward, and that in order to do that, a
      representative national unified leadership must be elected freely to
      replace the cronies, the outdated perspectives and the
      ineffectiveness that have plagued Palestinian leaders for the past

      Only if we respect ourselves as Arabs and understand the true dignity
      and justice of our struggle, only then can we appreciate why, almost
      despite ourselves, so many people all over the world, including
      Rachel Corrie and the two young people wounded with her from ISM, Tom
      Hurndall and Brian Avery, have felt it possible to express their
      solidarity with us.

      I conclude with one last irony. Isn't it astonishing that all the
      signs of popular solidarity that Palestine and the Arabs receive
      occur with no comparable sign of solidarity and dignity for
      ourselves, that others admire and respect us more than we do
      ourselves? Isn't it time we caught up with our own status and made
      certain that our representatives here and elsewhere realize, as a
      first step, that they are fighting for a just and noble cause, and
      that they have nothing to apologize for or anything to be embarrassed
      about? On the contrary, they should be proud of what their people
      have done and proud also to represent them.

      Edward Said was a professor at Columbia University. He was a
      contributor to Cockburn and St. Clair's, The Politics of Anti-
      Semitism (AK Press).

      © Edward W. Said, 2003.



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