Commentary's scurrilous attack on Edward Said

Enemies are calling him "the Palestinian Tawana Brawley," but Said's stories of displacement and diaspora are true.

Published September 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Israeli schoolchildren returned to their desks this year to find a new history curriculum. In place of the self-pitying and self-justifying standard story about the War of Independence, with its David and Goliath mythology and its deceitful propaganda about how the Arabs of Palestine were not expelled but were told by their leaders to flee, the updated texts acknowledge that Zionist forces were actually quite well prepared for combat by 1947, and that those same forces often dispossessed and drove out the Palestinians.

These admissions, which come perhaps a little too late to be termed magnanimous, at least reflect a new confidence and a new candor, born -- at least in part -- from the recognition of Palestinian existence that results from the Oslo accords. (Many of the same recognitions were on show in Israeli TV's 50th anniversary documentary series last year, a series it would be nice to see on an American network.)

This wholesome and overdue revision, of course, does not sit well with the sympathizers of that traditional Zionist revisionism -- the militantly chauvinist variety advocated by Vladimir Jabotinsky and his followers. Resentment against Israeli "concessions" and Palestinian claims remains very intense, and has just found expression in an essay of extraordinary spite and mendacity. Sarcastically entitled "'My Beautiful Old House' and Other Fabrications by Edward Said," it appears in the September issue of Commentary under the byline of one Justus Reid Weiner of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

After a claimed three years of research into Edward Said's own account of his and his family's history, Weiner alleges:

1. That Said did not live in a house owned by his family in Mandate Palestine, and was not expelled.

2. That he did not attend St George's School in Jerusalem.

3. That as a boy he lived instead, and was educated, in luxurious conditions in Cairo.

4. That he has never tried to bring any claim for compensation for the "loss" that he did not really suffer.

The implication -- made explicit not just by Weiner but by some extremely hasty and cheap seconders in the conservative tabloids -- was that such myth-making by Said discredited the entire Palestinian "narrative" of diaspora and dispossession. But it takes only about three minutes to demonstrate that Weiner's three years were a malicious waste of time.

In order, then:

1. Said's cousin Yusuf (the nephew of his father) confirms that the house on Brenner Street in Jerusalem was the home of an extended family, and that the name of the family member on the title deed -- the legal owner was Edward's aunt -- is irrelevant. Not only Edward but also his sister Jean were born in the house, occurrences unlikely to have taken place on random visits.

Yusuf Said lives in Toronto but was never contacted by Weiner, who anyway has a difficulty with kinship ties. He describes Boulos Said, cousin of Edward's father, as his brother, for instance. As to the expulsion, Edward Said has never claimed to have suffered in person, but only to have been withdrawn from school and sent to Egypt, to be followed by every single adult member of his extended family, who were indeed ethnically cleansed and deprived of large holdings in land and business.

2. I know myself, from speaking to former teachers and pupils, that Said was -- like his father before him -- indeed a student at St. George's School in Jerusalem. An Armenian classmate named Haig Boyagian and a former instructor, Michel Marmoura, are both in North America and easily located. Weiner makes the cretinous error of citing another schoolmate, David Ezra, who while mentioned in Said's recollections does not recall things as Edward recalls them.

Maybe so: But misremembering a boy from the school is not quite the same as inventing him.

3. I quote from the concluding interview of "Edward Said: A Critical Reader," published by Blackwell in 1992, in which Said says: "To go back to the early years of my awareness of Cairo: I grew up there, spending a large part of my youth in the place, but strangely not as an Egyptian."

Elsewhere, and within easy reach of any reader, he has written of "the Cairo-Jerusalem-Beirut axis, which is the one I grew up in." Nor has he ever concealed the fact that his haute bourgeois family was well-enough cushioned from the disasters that overtook the evicted Palestinian peasantry.

It seems to me a bit much that Weiner, whose "Center" in Jerusalem is underwritten by Michael Milken of the junk-bond fortune, should dwell so enviously on this acknowledged fact. Having spent much time in both Lebanon and Egypt, Said chooses to describe the period he spent in Palestine as a youth as "formative." That seems like a matter for him -- born of two Palestinian parents -- to decide.

4. From a wealth of material about the family's long and bitter struggle for compensation I select the fact that cousin Yusuf, only three years ago, took his title deeds to Israel and reregistered his claim, while yet another family property was being torn down to make way for the new Jerusalem Hilton.

All of the above, and much besides, is spelled out with almost painful honesty in Said's forthcoming memoir "Out of Place." He deals with numerous anomalies, such as the fact that his mother, born in Nazareth, finally got a passport which gave her place of birth as Cairo. (Is it too much to ask that those with family histories extending to Riga and Vilnius be aware of discrepant documents and tangled records?)

Aware of Said's book's disclosures, Weiner now says that its veracity should be credited to him. In other words, he contends that an exhaustive book commissioned in 1989, begun in 1994 (after Edward had learned that leukemia had set a term to his life) and completed in 1998, was undertaken to rebut a half-baked article in Commentary that had not yet been written. Such conceit -- and such elegance, too.

Weiner's emulators, like the New York Post editorialist who referred to Said as "the Palestinian Tawana Brawley," manifest the same distraught vulgarity. By defaming and vilifying him -- without going to the effort of contacting one of the most-interviewed men on the planet -- they of course hope to heap insult on the injuries already suffered by the Palestinians, and to negate the work done by the Jewish and Israeli peace camp.

No magazine I know of would have published such an article without trying to confront its subject. Commentary is evidently immune to such scruples. It ought to be taught, as G.K. Chesterton said in another context, that when a man decides that any stick will do, he picks up a boomerang.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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