Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review Aug. 27, 1999 /15 Elul, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Suzanne Fields
Arianna Huffington
Tony Snow
Michael Barone
Michael Medved
Lawrence Kudlow
Greg Crosby
Kathleen Parker
Dr. Laura
Debbie Schlussel
Michael Kelly
Bob Greene
Michelle Malkin
Paul Greenberg
David Limbaugh
David Corn
Marianne Jennings
Sam Schulman
Philip Weiss
Mort Zuckerman
Chris Matthews
Nat Hentoff
Larry Elder
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Don Feder
Linda Chavez
Mona Charen
Thomas Sowell
Walter Williams
Ben Wattenberg
Bruce Williams
Dr. Peter Gott
Consumer Reports
Weekly Standard


Opening up Historical Cans of Worms: Myths and facts about Edward Said and Israel's War of Independence -- IN THE COURSE of the century-long Arab-Israeli dispute, there has been no more ubiquitous or interesting player than Edward Said. His personal history and that of the State of Israel have long been tangled up with each other. But, unbeknownst to those of us who have followed Said's career, his life story is significant, not only for his own Palestinian people, but for supporters of Israel as well.

Said is the Palestinian Arab-American academic who has been one of the most articulate voices raised against the idea of Israel for decades. He was more than just the mouthpiece for Yasser Arafat (though he has been down on Arafat ever since Oslo, as Said believes that the peace accord is a betrayal of Palestinian rights). He is the academic superstar whose eloquent anti-Zionist diatribes put a respectable face on the justification of terrorism and the delegitimization of the Jewish state.

Said's innovative academic approach to the understanding of language as a powerful political tool did much to change the way scholars think about the subject. The books, articles and lectures of this English-literature professor at my alma mater, Columbia University, galvanized intellectual support for the Palestinian Arab cause.

Indeed, those who have wondered why the inexact geographic term "West Bank" triumphed over the more exact and historic "Judea and Samaria" to describe a particularly coveted piece of real estate, need only look to Said's writings (such as his seminal 1978 book "Orientalism") for brilliant insight on the thesis that control of the words can often lead to political victory.

Notwithstanding his well-earned academic reputation, the keynote to his attacks on Israel has been his status as the quintessential Palestinian refugee. Said has written and spoken endlessly about growing up in Jerusalem in the 1940s, and about how he and his family were made homeless and destitute by a ruthless Jewish war on the indigenous Arabs of Palestine. Said didn't just write about the plight of the refugees in beautiful English prose; he embodied their suffering personally.

Thus, the publication this week of a groundbreaking article in Commentary magazine (always must reading but never more so than now) thoroughly debunking Said's biography as a refugee ought to be treated as a landmark in the intellectual history of the conflict.

For those of us who have suffered his self-righteous anti-Zionist vitriol for decades, it is a moment that can only be described as a delicious turnabout. As for Said's supporters and fans, well, they have a lot of explaining to do.

Leiters Sukkah Israeli scholar Justus Reid Weiner's article " 'My Beautiful Old House' and Other Fabrications by Edward Said" in the September issue of Commentary details and documents the tissue of lies that Said wove.

To sum up the article (though by no means to list all of Said's fabrications): Although Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, his parents were wealthy residents of Egypt. He didn't reside in the house he claims to have lived in, nor did he go to the school he claims he attended. Rather than growing up as a victim in war-torn Palestine, Said lived a privileged life as the son of a prominent businessman in Cairo with an American passport (!), whose livelihood was lost, not to Zionists, but to Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser's nationalization program.

This means that after all those years of decrying Israeli injustice - and calling for its destruction - Said turns out to be the wolf who cried boy. How significant are these revelations? Said's lies don't mean that all Palestinians are fake refugees, like him. The cruel irony is that Arabs were the prime victims of the Arab war against Israel.

But Weiner's revelations ought to make it clear that at a time when Israel has been re-examining the "myths" about its founding and the supposed debunking of the traditional Jewish understanding of the events of 1948, most of the real fibbing has been done by Israel's enemies, not its historians.

Ironically, only a week before the publication of the Commentary article on Said, The New York Times ran a front-page article on the change in Israel's classroom textbooks ("Israel's History Textbooks Replace Myths With Facts," Aug. 14).

The story told of how Israel's school of "new historians" is undertaking a revisionist revolution on the topic of the War of Independence. The ideas that Israel's victory was one of "the few against the many" and that all Palestinian Arabs became refugees due to their anticipation of a complete Arab victory are now being re-examined.

The battle among Israeli historians over these "myths" has been going on for some time, but clearly the revisionists are starting to win (in part, due to the patronage of their cause by Israel's left-wing political parties). Much of the "new history" is just as much a function of a post-Zionist desire to change Israel's self-image in the name of peace, as the traditional Zionist history was part of Israel's defense of its right to exist in the face of an Arab siege.

Unfortunately, much of this debate is posed in all-or-nothing terms, when the historical truth is, instead, a complex tapestry. A lot of the historical research of controversial Israeli writers like Benny Morris, Eyal Naveh and others is quite valuable. The problem lies in their extreme and often unjustified conclusions.

The point of these controversies is not really about the particular events (though a measured reading of even the "new" history shows that most Arab refugees were not thrown out by the Israelis and that Israel's forces were badly outnumbered when viewed as a whole), but about what the history means.

If the Jewish people can be shown to have not fought a just war against great odds for land that was theirs by right, then Israel's current position is compromised.

There is nothing shocking about the fact that the truth of 1948 (or any other historical topic) is more complicated than the shorthand history we were taught in school. Yet, there is a difference between stripping away the heroic dramatizing from our understanding of history and foolishly concluding that Israel - and not its numerous Arab foes - was the aggressor in that war.

Lies about history matter. In the case of Edward Said, it may be, as was the case with Guatemalan writer Rigoberta Menchu (whose award-winning personal account of the plight of peasants during that country's civil war was proved to be a total lie), that Said's fans will say the the truth doesn't matter and that his fiction is really true!

We can only hope that Palestinians will begin to honestly look into their own myths of 1948. If not, it shows that they are still more intent on promoting their propaganda about Israel than in coming to terms with it. Like Justus Weiner, I too wonder, "who among [Said's] legion of admirers, or among the friends of the Palestinian people, will notice or care" about the truth.

If they don't, I fear that it is the current belief in the imminence of peace for Israel that is the real myth of our own day.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

Jonathan Tobin Archives


©1999, Jonathan Tobin