Said critic blasts back at Hitchens

A third volley in the controversy over the leading Palestinian intellectual in America.

By Craig Offman
September 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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After Justus Reid Weiner, a 49-year-old lawyer and scholar who lives in Jerusalem, questioned Edward Said's right to call himself a Palestinian in an article in the September Commentary magazine, the backlash from the Said camp was swift and abrasive. In his response to Weiner's accusations, the prominent Palestinian intellectual called Weiner "a propagandist" for right-wing causes and accused him of trying to "make a name for himself by attacking a better known person's reputation."

Said's statement, titled "Defamation, Zionist-style," also alleges that Weiner has "tried to depict the dispossession of Palestinians as ideological fiction." Christopher Hitchens recently echoed Said's sentiments in Salon and the Nation, calling Weiner's article "an essay of extraordinary spite and mendacity."


In an interview with Salon Books Wednesday, Weiner replied to the counterattacks with equal vehemence. "The issue here is credibility, a man with an international reputation who made himself into a poster boy for Palestine," said Weiner. "He is wrapping himself in the Palestinian flag to give himself immunity from questions and doubt."

In "'My Beautiful Old House' and Other Fabrications by Edward Said," Weiner alleges that Said's nuclear family neither owned nor resided in the Jerusalem house where Said says he grew up during the 1940s. Weiner also writes that Said spent most of his formative years in Egypt, where his prosperous family's business was located and where, for the most part, he attended school. Weiner contends that these assertions cast doubt on whether Said has a right to claim that his family was dispossessed before Israel declared independence in 1948.

But in his rigorously detailed history of the Said family house, Weiner makes one crucial error. He insists that Nabiha Said, who held the title to the house during Said's boyhood, is merely the wife of Said's uncle. In fact, Nabiha is Said's father's sister as well; she married her cousin. While the deed to the "beautiful house" certainly remained in the Said family, whether Said can call it his house all depends on how one defines "family." Or, as Said puts it in his response to Weiner's article, "the family house was in fact a family house in the Arab sense, which meant that our families were one in ownership."


Weiner says that within a week he plans to post a larger version of his essay on Commentary's Web site, complete with 200 new footnotes and one correction. He does, however, insist that Said has used the word "family" disingenuously. "He understands that he's writing for a Western audience. He knows what people there consider a family home." Weiner also denies allegations that he never tried to contact Said for an interview. According to Weiner, when he was working on an article about Said for the Cornell Journal of International Law, he left a detailed message with Said's assistant at Columbia University, where Said is a literature professor. However, that was three years ago and only for a distantly related piece. "I would have been happy if he had chosen to call me back, but he didn't," Weiner said. When Salon Books asked Weiner why he didn't call Said for the Commentary piece, he said had no reason to do so. "The evidence became so overwhelming. It was no longer an issue of discrepancies. It was a chasm. There was no point in calling him up and saying, 'You're a liar, you're a fraud.'"

Christopher Hitchens told Salon Books that he believes that it is Weiner's article that is disingenuous, if not negligent. "It doesn't deserve to be called a hatchet job because it is so inept," he said. According to Hitchens, Said's forthcoming autobiography, "Out of Place: A Memoir" clears up a lot of confusion -- most notably the question of the family house's ownership. "Wadie [Said's father] didn't like having his name on anything he had to have it on. He didn't want his name on the title," he said.

Hitchens also emphasizes that by neglecting to incorporate the material in Said's memoir -- which comes out on Sept. 24 -- Weiner displays his invidious intentions. "If you're going to produce a long piece that says that somebody has totally fabricated their past, and you know that their memoir is about to come out, you have two courses of action. One is that I'd better publish this as soon as possible and spoil the publication of the book -- or try to. The other is that I'd better hold up until I get ahold of the copy and check it against what I've got." Charles Lane, editor of the New Republic, confirms rumors that his
magazine was offered Weiner's essay before Commentary. Lane says that Weiner
had refused to "look at the galley of Said's memoir and take it into
account. Discussions broke off at that point." Weiner then brought the story to Commentary.


The Said camp also takes exception to Weiner's allegation that Said never attended St. George's School in Jerusalem. Said claims that he studied there in 1947 after the school stopped keeping records. Weiner doesn't buy Said's explanation. "The real question is, where was he before that if not in Cairo?" Weiner also refutes charges that he threatened Said's cousin, Robert. "I never interviewed his cousin. I never met his cousin." Instead, Weiner sent Paul Lambert, a 24-year-old Belgian Catholic research assistant, to interview Robert Said in Amman, Jordan. According to Lambert's account, Robert Said became abusive and made anti-Semitic comments when he started to probe into the issue of the family house.

Before moving to Israel, Weiner, a native of Boston and a UC Berkeley law school graduate, says he worked at the Wall Street firm White & Case and has done pro bono work for the Legal Defense Fund for the NAACP. Weiner told Salon Books that after he moved to Israel in 1981 he worked for the Israeli Ministry of Justice under five administrations, investigating claims brought by human rights groups and media organizations about Israeli conduct toward Palestinians. He held the job until 1993.


When he was working for the Israeli government as a civil servant, Weiner, who told Salon Books that he is preparing several other articles about Said, says that he used to pass by the former Said house on 10 Brenner St. "As matter of curiosity, I knocked on the door, went in, and asked who was an old-timer there. It became a sort of an intellectual, or historical, riddle, an enigma I felt I wanted to uncover. Little by little, the parable Said constructed about himself fell apart."

Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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