Fighter for democracy and Palestinian rights

Ian Donovan's obituary for Edward W Said, 1935-2003

The death from leukaemia on September 25 of Edward W Said, the noted Palestinian intellectual, scholar, outspoken truth-teller about the Middle East and non-aligned political activist, is a terrible loss for all those opposed to the oppression of the Palestinian people and committed to the rights of all the peoples of the region. Born in 1935 in Jerusalem into a privileged Palestinian family, after a period in Cairo in the aftermath of the Naqba (the mass expulsion of Arabs from the territory of what is today Israel), he spent much of his adult life in the United States.

There he became arguably the most noted intellectual, cultural and indeed in many ways, despite his non-aligned status, ideological-political figure in the Palestinian diaspora. He was of course renowned worldwide for his academic achievements as professor of literature and humanities at New York’s Columbia University. Indeed his critical analysis of various classical writers and their works, particularly with regard to their being influenced by, and indeed their contribution to, the interests of imperialism and colonialism were a major contribution to leftwing and democratic culture in themselves.

His major work in this field was Orientalism (1978), which included a broad analysis of the influence of imperialist/colonialist conceptions, particularly about the Middle East, in a wide range of western literature, broadening out into a critique of virtually the entire body of mainstream western scholarship and historiography regarding the region. Then there was its 1993 sequel, Culture and imperialism, which extended similar forms of analysis to a much wider range of literature, dealing with Africa, the far east, Australia and the Caribbean, as well as the Middle East.

Edward Said could not be called a Marxist; his ideas were influenced by a range of political thinkers, such as Gramsci, Adorno and Focault, and possibly could therefore be characterised as falling into the political spectrum of some kind of very leftwing social democracy. Such a mixed and eclectic theoretical standpoint, including bowdlerised elements of Gramsci’s revolutionism, has in recent decades been the mark of intellectuals retreating from a proclaimed Marxism and therefore from the struggle to fundamentally overturn the existing social order, in favour of a reconciliation with the increasingly reactionary, neoliberal international status quo. It is to Said’s great credit that, despite these limitations to his political framework, he became a figure of true stature as a tribune of the real interests of the Palestinian people.

He has attempted to put forward democratic solutions to the national complexities of the Arab-Israel conflict, in several trenchant and often very powerful books. His critiques were directed against the oppressive and racist Israeli state, against those in the Palestinian leadership who have shown themselves prepared to sell out the interests of the Palestinians and also against those Arabs and Palestinians who out of comprehensible rage at the dispossession and exile of the Palestinian people over decades, beginning in 1948, have embraced reactionary and anti-democratic ideas in relation to the resulting national conflict; the latter programmatically deny any rights to the Israeli people, who have now acquired the material reality of a historically constituted nation.

Said’s writings chronicled with great clarity and alacrity the brutal realities and uncomfortable facts, carefully hidden by western media and politicians, that lay behind the Oslo accord. Despite the fine words of Yizhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and indeed Bill Clinton about Palestinian rights and a two-state solution, the theft of Arab land in the occupied West Bank and Gaza continued throughout the initial period of Oslo’s supposed honeymoon under Labour in the early 1990s. Said accurately noted that Arafat’s regime was turning a deliberate blind eye to these blatant Israeli violations; he compared it to the collaboration of the Vichy regime of occupied France with the Nazi invaders during World War II.

Since 1977 Said had been a member of the Palestinian National Council, but in 1991, as the real nature of the deal that was being cooked up became clear, he resigned his membership in protest. He vigorously denounced the increasing corruption and repression of Arafat’s developing regime in the Palestine National Authority, which was the product of the Oslo accord. As a result, Arafat was moved to ban the publication of Said’s books in 1996. However, if anything, this impotent censoriousness only increased Said’s authority as a dissident. Although for reasons of failing health (he was in fact first diagnosed with leukaemia 12 years ago) he had been forced to confine much of his political activity to the literary field, nevertheless in the realm of ideas his writings contain a wealth of insights into the moral and political issues behind the conflict.

Edward Said was, like many on the left, torn by the contradictory realities of the whole Palestine/Israel question, and has played a major role in the debates among Palestinians, and indeed socialists and other defenders of Palestinian rights internationally, about the kind of demands and perspectives that should be advanced in fighting to resolve it in a democratic manner. He was actually the author of one of the draft formulations on this question, when the Palestine National Council adopted the position of two states and recognition of Israel’s right to exist in 1988.

However, his formulation of the demand for a Palestinian state, to exist alongside Israel, was overruled by the pressure of the Reagan/Bush senior administration on the leadership of the PLO/PNC. The result was that the Palestinian leadership capitulated to a much more equivocal formulation on the road to the creation of some kind of Palestinian entity, overlaid with humiliating declarations from the PLO side in the negotiations about renouncing ‘terrorism’. Under the later Clinton administration, this series of capitulations by Arafat and his cronies gave birth to the Oslo accord.

Said was savagely critical of the sell-out of Palestinian rights that the accord represented: of the parcelling up of the occupied territories into various ‘zones’, the piecemeal and grudging handovers of miserly fragments of territory to the new Palestinian Authority and, most of all, the continuation of settlements. A few years later, he was able powerfully to put the latter question in perspective by seizing on the perversely ‘modest’ and basically true statement by Binyamin Netanyahu, the hard-line Likud successor to the Rabin/Peres administration that was supposed to be implementing a peace deal. Netanyahu stated that settlements in the territories had grown twice as fast under Rabin/Peres as they had under his own regime, which hardly bothered to pretend to favour peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

But though he was savagely critical of the Oslo accord, Said’s hostility was not from the standpoint of some kind of ultra-rejectionist hostility in principle to any agreement with the Israeli nation to share the land of historic Palestine on an equal basis. Indeed, he was forthright in rejecting guerrilla-style armed struggle as a strategy for Palestinian liberation, not least because of the special nature and status of the Jewish people of Israel and their origins in the horror of Nazism and the holocaust. He repeatedly hammered home the difficulty of the position that Palestinians found themselves, as the “victims of the victims” of this horrific chain of events, which meant it was politically and morally unfeasible to treat the Israeli Jews as simply another group of colonists, in the manner of the Boers in South Africa or the pieds noirs in Algeria, for instance.

Rather his critique of Oslo was based on its betrayal of a two-state solution, its one-sided and anti-democratic nature. For this writer, this was spelled out particularly powerfully in his 1994 collection of essays, The politics of dispossession: the struggle for Palestinian self-determination 1969-74 (Verso). Said not only argued hard for a genuine, equal and dignified accommodation with Israel; he was also scathingly critical of such reactionary and counterproductive activities as suicide bombings of Israeli civilians, of the politics of the islamist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, of the moral and political corruption of the Arafat leadership and of such idiocies as Arafat’s public support and approval of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

While he gave no ground and credibility to islamism as a political ideology or as a movement that embodied any positive solutions to the sufferings of Palestinians and indeed of the Arab peoples in a wider sense, he was also acutely sensitive to the sense of national oppression that often fuelled such movements. Thus he noted repeatedly that the real basis of Hamas’s mass support was its nationalist appeal. Similarly with regard to the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, he recognised the liberatory nature of the expulsion of Israel that the Hizbollah fighters brought about in 2000. At the same time he disputed the claim that this achievement could be put down to political islam as opposed to nationalism. Said predicted that secular and democratic politics would ultimately win out in the national struggle over the ideologies of the likes of Hizbollah and Hamas.

The latter points were made in a rather fine essay, ‘South Lebanon and after’, published in The end of the peace process, another collection of Said’s political writings on the further development and decay of the imperialist-sponsored ‘peace process’ in the Middle East. Originally published in 2000 by Granta, it was subsequently updated in 2002 to include several essays dealing with the events following the al Qa’eda attacks on the United States on September 11 2001. In this collection, apart from his passionate opposition to the subsequent imperialist wars, again very much from a democratic and secular standpoint, we see what looks like a real shift in the emphasis of Said’s thought on the Israel-Palestine question.

It does appear that Said at least toyed with the idea of renouncing the perspective of a two-state solution, in favour of a single democratic and secular state encompassing both Jews and Arabs. He appears to have considered the possibility, as several of the essays in this book testify, that in particular the continuing march of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories might make the creation of two distinct states no longer feasible.

Yet he never definitively embraced this conclusion. In his last pre-9/11 essay, ‘Occupation is the atrocity’ (August 16-22 2001), he unmistakably compares Israel’s colonial occupation of the West Bank and Gaza with its former occupation of Lebanon: “All colonisers have gone that way, learning or stopping at nothing, until at last, as Israel turned tail from its 22-year occupation of Lebanon, they exit the territory, leaving behind an exhausted and crippled people … What we need is a unified leadership of people who are on the ground … that takes positions and plans mass actions designed not to return to Oslo (can you believe the folly of that idea?), but to press on with resistance and liberation …” (p368). So Said’s in-depth knowledge and understanding of the realities of the situation once again seem to return him to the perspective implied here of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, as at least a first step to real liberation.

The political activities which his writings and political work inspired in Palestine itself make clear the two-statist logic of his perspectives. He was - albeit with limitations, given his state of health and US residency - the mentor and one of the founders of the National Political Initiative, a secular, democratic political formation based in the West Bank. He laid out some of its aims and achievements as part of a critique of Bush’s so-called ‘road map’ in an essay written about three months before he died:

“… its main figure is Mustafa Barghouti, a Moscow-trained physician, whose main work has been as director of the impressive Village Medical Relief Committee, which has brought healthcare to more than 100,000 rural Palestinians. A former Communist Party stalwart, Barghouti is a quiet-spoken organiser and leader who has overcome the hundreds of physical obstacles impeding Palestinian movement or travel abroad to rally nearly every independent individual and organisation of note behind a political programme that promises social reform as well as liberation across doctrinal lines. Singularly free of conventional rhetoric, Barghouti has worked with Israelis, Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asians, Arabs to build an enviably well-run solidarity movement that practises the pluralism and co-existence it preaches …

“The vision here isn’t a manufactured provisional state on 40% 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” (‘Archaeology of the road map’, in Al Ahram Weekly Cairo, June 15).

A perspective that, though it is not a worked out revolutionary programme by any means, is certainly something with a real democratic thrust and class struggle logic.