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Marking Balfour Declaration's 80th Anniversary, Edward Said Calls for Arab-Jewish Reconciliation And Reconsideration of Binational State
By Laurie King-Irani
In a speech that ought to send cultural and political reverberations throughout the Arab world, renowned literary critic Dr. Edward Said reviewed the results of the Balfour Declaration on its 80th anniversary.
The Palestine-born Columbia University professor delivered his hour-long presentation before a standing-room-only audience Nov. 2, the final day of the annual convention of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates in Washington, DC. In addition to his moving personal reminiscences and incisive political analysis, Dr. Said challenged his audience with an eloquent and carefully reasoned plea for Palestinian-Jewish reconciliation and an open-minded reconsideration of the option for a secular, democratic, binational state.
Recounting his childhood memories of the 30th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration (the document issued during World War I in which the hard-pressed British government declared that it "view[s] with favor" the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine so long as it does not prejudice the rights of the indigenous inhabitants), Said said that as a 12-year-old schoolboy in Jerusalem he had neither the awareness nor the vocabulary to comprehend the significance of the Declaration for his family's future. He recalled only that some older cousins cursed the British and spoke in somber tones about the deteriorating situation in the Holy City.
Early in 1948 members of the extended Said family fled their homes in Jerusalem, relocating in Cairo, where the pain and chaos of their new refugee status was never discussed in detailed political terms.
"My only memory is that there had been a crisis," Said said. "The metaphor which best described it was that of a huge medical emergency and immense human suffering that had to be attended to immediately. I did not think of it in political terms."
Said recalled visiting the family of an elderly relative in Cairo after the catastrophic events of 1948. He found the man psychologically shattered and his daughters virtually mute, living in a shabby, scantily furnished apartment in the suburb of Heliopolis.
When he returned to his own comfortable Cairo home later that day, he searched for words to ask his father what had happened to his relatives. "They lost everything, just like us," was his father's restrained reply. When the young Said looked at him quizzically, his father clarified his statement with one word, "Palestine."
As the years went by, Said obviously gained the awareness, vocabulary and courage to discuss the political dimensions of the loss of Palestine, becoming the best known of many eloquent spokespersons for the Palestinian diaspora. He told the AAUG audience that his growing political activism made his family anxious, not proud. Shortly before dying, his father told him, "I am worried about your political activism; I am scared of what the Zionists might do to you. Be careful!" It is to the world's benefit that Said ignored this piece of fatherly advice.
Turning from his own recollections, Said outlined the reasons for Zionist successes and Arab failures during the past 50 years. From his personal study of the founding texts of Zionism, he concluded that while Arabs have constantly changed their goals and shifted priorities, Zionists have always had a consistent and clearly stated goal.
While Arabs have rarely made serious attempts to influence world opinion, Zionists have maintained a century-long publicity campaign to convince the world of the integrity and worth of their endeavors. And, most importantly, Zionists have always had a compelling, unified vision. The lack of such a motivating vision in the Arab camp is, according to Said, the primary reason why Palestinians now find themselves in the worst state they have experienced since the advent of the crisis of 1947-48.
Citing a "lack of democracy" and "rampant corruption" at "the root of the multi-faceted problems facing the entire Arab world," Said continued:
"The current Arab situation is truly depressing. So many resources, human and otherwise, are just not being tapped. In spite of the size and potential of the Arab world, the average Arab individual feels a sense of impotence. Economically, the Arab world is a disaster area. The combined GNP of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt is still lower than Israel's GNP. Exports are going down throughout the Arab world, and the per capita income has been declining at a rate of 2 percent each year. For the rich in these countries, it is a tax-free zone; the poor are the only ones paying taxes. Meanwhile, illiteracy and health problems are on the rise among children and youth. There is no excuse for this state of affairs, and it all stems from a lack of vision, leadership, and democracy in the region."
Said related that he and his friend and colleague, Dr. Iqbal Ahmed, recently had an informal meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Responding to their concern, Annan commented, "I really don't understand what is going on; all the leaders of this area give lip service to the plight of the Palestinians and constantly make speeches condemning U.S. hegemony and Israeli intransigence. But when you talk to them privately, every Arab leader is concerned with only one thing: America—what it thinks of them, what it can do for them."
Said concluded his presentation with an arresting call for Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement and reconciliation.
"We must think seriously of the bases of coexistence for the next generation. We cannot wait for Dennis Ross or Madeleine Albright. Oslo is dead, and the situation is a mess. If we continue, we will end up not with a Palestinian state, but with a collection of powerless, exploited bantustans. A new path must be taken, and it may be up to us, the Arabs living outside in the West, to lead the way."
Noting that the Palestinians are the "victims of victims," Said made a plea for greater Arab understanding of the World War II Holocaust experience and how this has influenced and affected Palestinian realities over the past 50 years. Explaining that he had recently seen the acclaimed film "Schindler's List" for the first time, Said stressed that leaders and people in the Arab world must understand the extent to which "the enormous evil of the Holocaust warped the Jewish people." Said charged that Arab intellectuals bear part of the burden for the lack of awareness and understanding in the Arab world of the historical and psychological precedents of their own disaster of 1948:
"It is simply remarkable that, in the entire Arab world, you cannot find a single institute devoted to the study of Israel, Judaism, the Holocaust, or even American Studies," he said. "This lack of knowledge and interest partly explains the lack of Arab success in dealing with U.S. and Israeli strategies in the region."
Said called for an honest discussion and dialogue between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews concerning the ways that the two people are inextricably connected.
"Like it or not, this is the historical reality," he explained. "We must better understand them, and they must better understand us. We must make clear the link between the Shoah (the European Jewish Holocaust) and the Nakba (the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948). Neither experience is equal to the other, and neither should be minimized. We must emphasize this link not for short-term political gains, but because we cannot continue to work apart as two wounded yet incommunicado communities. We have to begin to admit the universality and integrity of each other's experience of suffering. As Arabs, we demand acknowledgement and reparations. We cannot accept that the 'redemption of the Jews' required the dispossession of millions of Palestinian people.
"We must rethink our common past if we want to have a future, and it is time to honestly state that we are fated to have a common, not a separate, future."
Laurie King-Irani is an anthropologist and free-lance journalist living in Beirut and Washington, DC. This article first appeared in the Beirut Daily Star on Nov. 7, 1997.