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 Edward Said, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and a Palestinian scholar. (BAP photo)

Edward Said scorns U.S. military action against Iraq, asserts Israeli human rights abuses — yet still sees hope for peace with Israel

topkey  Webcast: Watch Said's full lecture | 1 hour, 39 minutes.

- There can be no peace in the Middle East until the injustices committed by the Israeli government against Palestinians cease, argued Edward Said. Rather than go to war against Iraq, the United States should examine its support of Israel and by extension that country's considerable human rights violations, said the well-known writer, scholar, literary critic and political activist.

Delivering a lecture titled "The United States, the Islamic World, and the Question of Palestine" to the UC Berkeley community on Wednesday evening, February 19, Edward Said stuck mainly to his notes, glancing up from them only occasionally. But his voice, although it rarely strayed from a monotone, hinted of a controlled fury that kept the packed audience of Zellerbach Hall still in its seats for more than an hour, aside from a few moments of applause.

Born in Jerusalem in 1935, Said and the rest of his Palestinian Christian family were forced to leave for Cairo in 1948. He attended college in the United States and has lived in New York for decades. A member of the Palestinian National Council, the parliament in exile, for 14 years until 1991, Said was not allowed to visit Palestine until several years ago.

Although he admits, as he did in the UC Berkeley lecture, "I'm a partisan..but who is truly independent?" he has often refused to toe any particular partisan line. In the past he has criticized Yasir Arafat, saying the P.L.O. lacked credibility and moral authority; called the Oslo peace agreements between Israel and the P.L.O. "an instrument of Palestinian surrender"; and attacked the United States repeatedly for its longstanding support of Israel despite what he calls its numerous human-rights violations of Palestinians.

Will work for ticket

At UC Berkeley, Said was introduced first by Chancellor Robert J. Berdahl, then by Nezar AlSayyad, chair of UC Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a professor of architecture and planning. "Said represents many things to many people," said AlSayyad, citing the breadth of Said's scholarship. He has written more than 20 books about the Middle East and its relationship with the West — including "Orientalism," considered the origin of postcolonial theory — and his writings have been translated into 35 languages.

AlSayyad concluded his introduction with an anecdote. Accustomed to getting his coffee early in the morning from Café Strada, AlSayyad has passed the same panhandler at the café's entrance for years. For some reason, the beggar has never asked the professor for change. "But last week, for the very first time, he extended his hand," recounted AlSayyad. "He said, 'Do you have an Edward Said ticket for me?'"

Over the laughter of the audience, AlSayyad chuckled: "Some of might think of this as a Berkeley story. I think of it as an Edward Said story."

'If Iraq were the largest exporter of oranges'

The gray-haired, silver-bearded Said, now a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, looked well, showing no sign of the leukemia that has dogged him for years. He began his lecture with a critique of the Bush administration's rationale for regime change in Iraq.

"Were Iraq the world's largest exporter of apples or oranges, no one would care about its weapons of mass destruction or human rights exploitation," he said to scattered applause. "Saddam's regime has violated many human rights, there's no arguing. But everything [Colin] Powell has accused the Ba'athists of has been the stock in trade of the Israeli government since 1948."

Said then began to catalog the human rights violations that he says Israel has committed against the Palestinians, including torture, assassination, assault against civilians, annexation of territory, mass killing, denial of the right to free passage, denial of medical aid, use of citizens as human shields, expropriation of water, and economic pauperization. "Short of genocide, I cannot think of a single human right that has not been violated in Gaza," he said. "And it has all been carried on with the total support of the U.S. government."

He detailed the amount of aid, "upwards of $135 billion," that the United States has given to Israel, money that he maintains is primarily spent on tanks, F-16s, helicopters, and weaponry with which to subdue and terrorize Palestinians. In addition to supporting Israel, the United States has also mistreated American citizens of Palestinian origin, he alleged, through racial profiling and detention.

Surprisingly, Said also criticized other Middle Eastern governments for their treatment of Palestinians. He singled out Lebanon, where more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees live, as the most guilty of depriving them of basic human rights.

'Not a competition of victimhood'

Said disputed Israel's justification for its actions as derived from a divine right to holy land. "There's no convincing way to assert special claims whose origins are divine," he shrugged, before turning his attention to the Israeli government's claims of retaliation as a form of self-defense.

"You will say something about those terrible suicide bombers, and I will agree," he conceded. "But how many Israelis have had to endure the bulldozing of their homes, their stores, or being strip searched and subjected to rocket attacks?"

He excoriated the Western media for its unequal treatment of the violence, through which "a suicide bomb in December prompted 875 speculations in the media of a new wave of violence, while 75 Palestinians were killed in the preceding month, many under 14 years old, and it went unreported."

Comparing the situation of Palestinians to that of nonwhites under apartheid in South Africa and Indians under British colonial rule, Said observed that the main difference was that those oppressed peoples "didn't have to face missiles, hundreds of tanks, F-16s and rocket attacks."

Said asserted that "Palestine has taken the place of Israel in the world's affections for the oppressed" although "it is not a competition of victimhood." In one of the most animated parts of his lecture, he called on the listeners to condemn the historical mistreatment of the Jewish people, but to understand that "respecting the past injustices does not excuse what has been done to Palestinians since."

For the last several decades, Israeli Jews have been guilty of committing many of the human rights violations they themselves suffered. Right now in Israel there are "two communities of suffering, but at the present time, one has tremendous power. The other is a victim of this former victim," Said emphasized.

'A nation in exile'

Yet despite the human rights violations he detailed and the breakdown in peace talks between the two groups, Said evinced a cautious optimism about the future.

He first congratulated Palestinians - whether living in fear in Gaza, dispossessed in Lebanon, or comfortably ensconced in the United States - for thwarting what he called the Israeli government's campaign to eradicate any sense of national identity: "During my own lifetime, Palestinians have gone from being nonpersons, to a people, even a stateless and dispossessed one."

A moral and political solidarity has been building among Palestinians all over the world, Said said, forming "a nation in exile with an unmistakable identity all its own. There is a Palestinian literature, a legal and scholarly discourse, a theater, a Palestinian cinema, a Palestinian style that invigorates and informs this far-flung community."

With this strength comes a new chance at rapprochement between the two combatants, Said believes, although probably not in the near term and not through any of the usual historical models.

"Neither people has been blessed with a Mandela, or even a de Clerk [the white former South African president]," he observed. "We're far from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission" - the grassroots judicial process that has allowed South Africa's oppressors and victims to arrive at a tentative peace.

'An alternate model'

To conclude his lecture, Said offered an inspirational story of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation that he believes is the kind of partnership that may one day transcend the violence.

"Despite the incredible polarized and discordant world we live in, there is always the possibility of an alternate model," he began, telling how in the early 1990s in a London hotel lobby, he had met Daniel Barenboim, the world-renowned pianist and symphony director - who also happens to be an Israeli Jew. Said, himself an accomplished amateur pianist, struck up a friendship with Barenboim. In February 1999, Barenboim played a piano recital at the Palestinian Birzeit University on the West Bank. He was the first major Israeli artist to ever perform there, and he followed the recital with more at other Palestinian venues.

Approached by the German city of Weimar to play a concert together, the two men decided to use music to stage a political and social experiment. In late 1999 they convinced Weimar to fund a workshop for young Middle Eastern musicians and auditioned talented youngsters between the ages of 14 and 25 from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Israel. Weimar, with its rich political and literary history - including Goethe, who Said called one of the earliest to synthesize "Orientalism" with Western culture - proved a fertile ground for both musical training and late-night discussions. Coached by members of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and taken on field trips such as to the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp, the young musicians worked and played in increasing harmony.

The experiment was held again in Weimar in summer 2000, in Chicago the following year, and in Seville, Spain in 2002 - the music camp's new home.

"Separation between peoples, war between peoples, is not a solution to the problem that divides them," summarized Said. "Cooperation, through music or something else, might be. I am optimistic."

After his lecture, Said answered questions from the audience that had been submitted in advance to AlSayyad. In answer to the final question, "What can we, as ordinary citizens do, to help peace in Israel and Palestine?" he urged listeners to "have the courage to speak out. Everybody knows that we as U.S. citizens are the suppliers and guarantors of the Israeli war machine."

He also cautioned those weary of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to avoid succumbing to the view that the violence will never stop, "that 'these people have hated each other for generations and they always will.' That's not true," he said. "All human conflict is created by humans and it can be solved by humans."

Said received a standing ovation from nearly the entire crowd.