Before a packed house, Said has his say
Activist scholar scorns U.S. military action against Iraq, asserts Israeli human-rights abuses — yet still sees hope for peace
| 26 February 2003
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.
Said began his Feb. 19 Zellerbach Hall lecture, titled “The United States, the Islamic World, and the Question of Palestine,” 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’
“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.”
‘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 though 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.” 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.
He offered the example of a music camp that he and Daniel Barenboim, the world-renowned pianist and symphony director (who also happens to be an Israeli Jew) had created as an experiment to bring Middle Eastern youth of diverse nationalities and religions together. The camp is now in its fourth year.
“Separation between peoples, war between peoples, is not a solution to the problem that divides them,” Said said in summary. “Cooperation, through music or something else, might be. I am optimistic.”