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American Zionism (1)

By Edward Said

This is the first article in a series on the misunderstood and misjudged role of American Zionism in the question of Palestine. In my opinion, the role of organized Zionist groups and activities in the United States has not been sufficiently addressed during the period of the "peace process," a neglect that I find absolutely astonishing, given that Palestinian policy has been essentially to throw our fate as a people in the lap of the United States without any strategic awareness of how US policy is in effect dominated, if not completely controlled, by a small minority of people whose views about Middle East peace are in some way more extreme than even those of the Israeli Likud.

Let me give a small example. A month ago, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz sent over a leading columnist of theirs, Ari Shavit, to spend several days talking with me; a good summary of this long conversation appeared as a question-and-answer interview in the August 18 issue of the newspaper's supplement, basically uncut and uncensored. I voiced my views very candidly, with a major emphasis on right of return, the events of 1948, and Israel's responsibility for all this. I was surprised that my views were presented just as I voiced them, without the slightest editorializing by Shavit, whose questions were always courteous and un-confrontational.

A week after the interview there was a response to it by Meron Benvenisti, ex-deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek. It was disgustingly personal, full of insults and slander against me and my family. But he never denied that there was a Palestinian people, or that we were driven out in 1948. In fact he said, we conquered them, and why should we feel guilty? I responded to Benvenisti a week later in Ha'aretz: What I wrote was also published uncut. I reminded Israeli readers that Benvenisti was responsible for the destruction (and probably knew about the killing of several Palestinians) of Haret Al-Magharibah in 1967, in which several hundred Palestinians lost their homes to Israeli bulldozers. But I did not have to remind Benvenisti or Ha'aretz readers that as a people we existed and could at least debate our right of return. That was taken for granted.

Two points here. One is that the whole interview could not have appeared in any American paper, and certainly not in any Jewish-American journal. And if there had been an interview the questions to me would have been adversarial, hectoring, insulting, such as, why have you been involved in terrorism, why will you not recognize Israel, why was Hajj Amin a Nazi, and so on. Second, a right-wing Israeli Zionist like Benvenisti, no matter how much he may detest me or my views, would not deny that there is a Palestinian people which was forced to leave in 1948. An American Zionist for a long time would say that no conquest took place or, as Joan Peters alleged in a now-disappeared and all but forgotten 1984 book, From Time Immemorial (that won all the Jewish awards when it appeared here), there were no Palestinians with a life in Palestine before 1948.

Every Israeli will readily admit and knows perfectly well that all of Israel was once Palestine, that every Israeli town or village once had an Arab name...For the American, these are mostly fantasies, or myths, not realities.

Every Israeli will readily admit and knows perfectly well that all of Israel was once Palestine, that (as Moshe Dayan said openly in 1976) every Israeli town or village once had an Arab name. And Benvenisti says openly that "we" conquered, and so what? Why should we feel guilty about winning? American Zionist discourse is never straight out honest that way: it must always go round and talk about making the desert bloom, and Israeli democracy, etc., completely avoiding the essential facts about 1948, which every Israeli has actually lived. For the American, these are mostly fantasies, or myths, not realities. So removed from the actualities are American supporters of Israel, so caught in the contradictions of diasporic guilt (after all what does it mean to be a Zionist and not emigrate to Israel?) and triumphalism as the most successful and most powerful minority in the US, that what emerges is very often a frightening mixture of vicarious violence against Arabs and a deep fear and hatred of them, which is the result, unlike Israeli Jews, of not having any sustained direct contact with them.

For the American Zionist, therefore, Arabs are not real beings, but fantasies of nearly everything that can be demonized and despised, terrorism and anti-Semitism most specially. I recently received a letter from a former student of mine, who has had the benefit of the finest education available in the United States: he can still bring himself to ask me in all honesty and courtesy why as a Palestinian I let a Nazi like Hajj Amin still determine my political agenda. "Before Hajj Amin," he argued, "Jerusalem wasn't important to Arabs. Because he was so evil he made it an important issue for Arabs just in order to frustrate Zionist aspirations which always held Jerusalem to be important." This is not the logic of someone who has lived with and knows something concrete about Arabs. It is that of a person who speaks an organized discourse and is driven by an ideology that regards Arabs only as negative functions, as the embodiment of violent anti-Semitic violent passions. As such, therefore, they are to be fought against and if possible disposed of. Not for nothing was Dr Baruch Goldstein, the appalling murderer of 29 Palestinians who were quietly praying in the Hebron mosque, an American, as was Rabbi Meir Kahane. Far from being aberrations that have embarrassed their followers, both Kahane and Goldstein are revered today by others like them. Many of the most zealous far-right settlers sitting on Palestinian land, remorselessly speaking about "the land of Israel" as being theirs, hating and ignoring the Palestinian owners and residents all round them, are also American-born. To see them walking through the streets of Hebron as if the Arab city was entirely theirs is a frightening sight, aggravated by the defiance and contempt they display openly against the Arab majority.

When...the PLO took the strategic decision...to work with the American government and if possible with the powerful lobby that controls discussion of Middle Eastern politics, they had made the decision...on the basis of vast ignorance and quite extraordinarily mistaken assumptions.

I bring all this up here to make one essential point. When after the Gulf War the PLO took the strategic decision -- already settled on by two major Arab countries before the PLO -- to work with the American government and if possible with the powerful lobby that controls discussion of Middle Eastern politics, they had made the decision (as had the two Arab states before them) on the basis of vast ignorance and quite extraordinarily mistaken assumptions. The idea, as it was expressed to me shortly after 1967 by a senior Arab diplomat, was to surrender in effect, and say, we are not going to struggle any more. We are now willing to accept Israel and also to accept the US's determining role in our future. There were objective reasons for such a view at the time, as there are now, as to why continuing the fight as the Arabs had done historically would lead to further defeat and even disaster. But I firmly believe that it was a mistaken policy simply to throw Arab policy into the lap of the US and, since the major Zionist organizations are so influential everywhere in the United States, into their lap as well, saying, in effect, we won't fight you, let us join you, but please treat us well. The hope was that if we conceded and said, we are not your enemies, as Arabs we would become their friends.

The problem is with the disparity in power that remained. From the viewpoint of the powerful, what difference does it make to your own strategy if your weak adversary gives up and says I have nothing further to fight for, take me, I want to be your ally, just try to understand me a bit better and then perhaps you will then be fairer? A good way of answering this question in practical and concrete terms is to look at the latest turn of events in New York's senatorial race, where Hillary Clinton is competing with Republican Ric Lazio for the seat now held by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D), who is retiring. Last year Hillary said that she favored the establishment of a Palestinian state and, on a formal visit to Gaza with her husband, embraced Soha Arafat. Since entering the senatorial race in New Yorshe has outdone even the most right-wing Zionists in her fervour for Israel and opposition to Palestine, even going so far as to advocate moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and (more extreme) advocating leniency for Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy convicted for espionage against the US and now serving a life sentence. Her Republican antagonists have tried to embarrass her by depicting her as an "Arab-lover" and by releasing a photograph of her actually embracing Soha. Since New York is the citadel of Zionist power, attacking someone with such labels as "Arab-lover" and "friend of Soha Arafat" is tantamount to the worst possible insult. All this despite the fact that Arafat and the PLO are openly declared American allies, recipients of US military and financial aid, and in the security field the beneficiaries of CIA security support. In the meantime, the White House released a photo of Lazio shaking hands two years ago with Arafat. One blow clearly deserves another.

The real fact is that Zionist discourse is a discourse of power, and Arabs in that discourse are the objects of power -- despised objects at that. Having thrown in their lot with this power as its surrendered former antagonist, they can never expect to be on equal terms with it. Hence the degrading and insulting spectacle of Arafat (always and forever the symbol of enmity to the Zionist mind) being used in an entirely local contest in the US between two opponents who are trying to prove who of the two is the most pro-Israeli. And neither Hillary Clinton nor Ric Lazio is even Jewish.

What I shall discuss in my next article is how the only possible political strategy for the US so far as Arab and Palestinian policy are concerned is neither a pact with the Zionists here nor one with US policy, but a mobilized mass campaign directed at the American population on behalf of Palestinian human, civil and political rights. All other arrangements, whether Oslo or Camp David, are doomed to failure because, put simply, the official discourse is totally dominated by Zionism and, except for a few individual exceptions, no alternatives to it exist. Therefore all peace arrangements undertaken on the basis of an alliance with the US are alliances that confirm rather than confront Zionist power. To submit supinely to a Zionist-controlled Middle East policy, as the Arabs have done for almost a generation now, will neither bring stability at home nor equality and justice in the US.

Yet the irony is that there exists inside the US a vast body of opinion ready to be critical both of Israel and of US foreign policy. The tragedy is that the Arabs are too weak, too divided, too disorganized and ignorant to take advantage of it. I shall discuss the reasons for that as well in my next article since my hope is to try to reach a new generation that may be both puzzled and discouraged by the miserable, denigrated place in which our culture and people are now located, and the constant sense of indignant but humiliating loss that all of us experience as a result.

[From Al-Ahram Weekly Online (21 - 27 September 2000)]


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