From edition

An interview with Edward Said

Prof. Said, many Israelis – and not only Israelis – were astonished to learn that you, a distinguished scholar, threw stones at an Israeli army post on the Lebanese border earlier this summer. What led you to take such extraordinary action, after Israel pulled out of Southern Lebanon?

“I was in Lebanon for a summer visit. I gave two lectures and stayed with family and friends. Then I had a meeting with [Hezbollah spiritual leader] Sheikh [Hassan] Nasrallah, whom I found to be a remarkably impressive man. A very simple man, quite young, absolutely no bullshit. A man who adopted a strategy toward Israel quite similar to that of the Vietnamese against the Americans: We cannot fight them because they have an army, a navy and a nuclear option, so the only way we can do it is to make them feel it in body bags. And that’s exactly what he did. In the one conversation that we had, I was impressed by the fact that among all the political leaders I met in the Middle East, he alone was precisely on time, and there were no people around him waving Kalashnikovs. We agreed that as far as reclaiming Palestinian rights, the Oslo accord was a total mess. And then he told me
that I must go down south, and so I did, a few days later.

“There were nine of us. My son and his fiancee, my daughter and her friend, myself and a few others, and a guide from the Lebanese resistance. First we went to Khiam prison, which made a very strong impression on us. I’ve seen a lot of unpleasant sights in my life, but this was probably the
worst. The solitary confinement cells, the torture chambers. The instruments of torture were still there, the electrical probes they used. And the place just reeked of human excrement and abuse. Words cannot express the horror, so much so that my daughter started crying, sobbing.

“From there we went straight to the border, to a place called
Bab-el-Fatma, Fatma’s Gate, where hundreds of tourists faced an enormous amount of barbed wire. About 200 meters further down stands a watchtower, also surrounded by barbed wire and concrete. Presumably, inside the tower were Israeli soldiers, but I didn’t see them. It was quite far.

“What I regret in all this is that the comic quality of the situation did not come out. The assumption was that I was throwing stones at someone. But there was nobody there. And in fact what happened was that my son and some of the other young men were trying to see who could throw stones furthest. And since my son is a rather big fellow – he is an American who plays baseball – he threw furthest. My daughter said to me, ‘Daddy can you throw a stone as far as Wadia?’ and that of course stirred the usual kind of oedipal competition. So I picked up a stone and threw it.”

Throwing stones at Fatma Gate when Israel had just ended its occupation of southern Lebanon seems to be not only a celebration of liberation, but a very basic rejection of something. Of what?

“A rejection of Israelis. The feeling is that after 22 years of occupying our land, they left. And there is also a sense of dismissal. Not only are you leaving, but good riddance to you. We don’t want you to come back. So the atmosphere is rather ‘carnivalesque,’ a sense of healthy anarchy, a
triumphant feeling. For the first time in my life, and in the lives of the people gathering at Fatma Gate, we won. We won one.

Prof. Said, this summer Israelis and Palestinians are trying to put an end to the 100-year conflict between you and us. Can it be done? Can the conflict be resolved?

“Yes, I think it can. But I don’t think Yasser Arafat can sign off on the termination of the conflict. Nor does he have the right to do so on an occasion provided by Bill Clinton at Camp David. Until the time comes when Israel assumes moral responsibility for what it has done to the Palestinian people, there can be no end to the conflict.

“What is needed is a ‘bill of particulars’ of all our claims against Israel for the original dispossession and for the occupation that began in 1967. What is needed, at the very least, is an acknowledgment of the destruction of Palestinian society, of the dispossession of the Palestinian people and the confiscation of their land. And also of the deprivation and the suffering over the last 52 years, including such
actions as the killing at Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.

“I believe that the conflict can only end when Israel assumes the burden of all that. I think an attempt should be made to say ‘this is what happened.’ This is the narrative.”

What is the narrative? What is the conflict all about?

“It is an almost sublime conflict. I was telling [Daniel)] Barenboim the other night, think of this chain of events: anti-Semitism, the need to find a Jewish homeland, Herzl’s original idea, which was definitely colonialist, and then the transformation of that to the socialist ideas of the moshav and the kibbutz, then the urgency during Hitler’s reign, and
people like Yitzhak Shamir who were really interested in cooperating with Hitler, then the genocide of the Jews in Europe and the actions against the Palestinians in Palestine of 1948.

“When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes – opposites in the Hegelian sense – that is
yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom. But the people dealing with this gigantic painting are ‘quick-fix’ Clinton, Arafat and Barak, who are like a group of single-minded janitors who can only sweep around it, who can only say let’s move it a bit – let’s put it in the corner. That’s how I see the peace process.”

Is this a symmetrical conflict between two peoples who have equal rights over the land they share?

“There is no symmetry in this conflict. One would have to say that. I deeply believe that. There is a guilty side and there are victims. The Palestinians are the victims. I don’t want to say that everything that happened to the Palestinians is the direct result of Israel. But the original distortion in the lives of the Palestinians was introduced by Zionist intervention, which to us – in our narrative – begins with the Balfour Declaration and events thereafter that led to the replacement of one people by another. And it is continuing to this day. This is why Israel is not a state like any other. It is not like France, because there is continuing injustice. The laws of the State of Israel perpetuate injustice.

“This is a dialectical conflict. But there is no possible synthesis. In this case, I don’t think it’s possible to ride out the dialectical contradictions. There is no way I know to reconcile the messianic-driven and Holocaust-driven impulse of the Zionists with the Palestinian impulse to stay on the land. These are fundamentally different impulses. This is
why I think the essence of the conflict is its irreconcilability.

Are you saying we should not have come?

“Your question is too much in the realm of ‘what if.’ The actualities are too strong. To say that you shouldn’t have come, is to say you should leave. And I’m against that. I’ve said it many times. I’m totally against you leaving. The furthest I would go is to say that, given the logic of the Zionist idea, when you came, you should have understood you were coming to an inhabited land.

“I would also say that there were those who thought that it was wrong to come. Ahad Ha’am, for one. And had I been there in 1920, I would have cautioned against it. Because the Arabs were there, and because I myself am not terribly enamoured of movements of mass immigration and conquest. So I wouldn’t have encouraged it.

Are you willing to acknowledge that we had a need to come? That most of those who came in the 1920s and ’30s would have perished in Europe had they not come?

“I am one of the few Arabs who have written about the Holocaust. I’ve been to Buchenwald and Dachau and other death camps, and I see the connection. The chain of events. I am willing to accept that much of the evidence suggests that there was a felt need to come. But am I deeply sympathetic
with those who came? Only modestly. I find it difficult to accept Zionism as Zionism. I think European Jews could have been accommodated in other countries, such as the U.S., Canada and England. I still blame the British for allowing Jews to come to Palestine, rather than accommodating them

How about later: Would you have accepted the 1947 Partition Plan?

“My instinct is to say no. It was an unfair plan based on the minority getting equal rights to those of the majority. Perhaps we shouldn’t have left it there. Perhaps we should have come up with a plan of our own. But I can understand that the Partition Plan was unacceptable to the Palestinians of the time.”

And in 1948, does the moral responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy of that year lie only with the Jews? Don’t the Arabs share the blame?

“The war of 1948 was a war of dispossession. What happened that year was the destruction of Palestinian society, the replacement of that society by another, and the eviction of those who were considered undesirable. Those who were in the way. It is difficult for me to say that all responsibility
lies with one side. But the lion’s share of responsibility for depopulating towns and destroying them definitely lies with the Jewish-Zionists. Yitzhak Rabin evicted the 50,000 inhabitants of Ramle and Lydda, so it is difficult for me to see anyone else as responsible for that. The Palestinians were only responsible for being there.”

When you look at this sequence of events, the narrative as you see it, what is your emotional reaction?

“Anger. I feel tremendous anger. I think it was so mindless, so utterly, utterly gratuitous to say to us in so many ways, ‘We’re not responsible for you, just go away, leave us alone, we can do what we want.’

“I think this is the folly of Zionism. Putting up these enormous walls of denial that are part of the very fabric of Israeli life to this day. I suppose that as an Israeli, you have never waited in line at a checkpoint or at the Erez crossing. It’s pretty bad. Pretty humiliating. Even for
someone as privileged as I am. There is no excuse for that. The inhuman behavior toward the other is unforgivable. So my reaction is anger. Lots of anger.”

Do you hate us?

“No. Funny, hate is not one of the emotions I feel. Anger is much more productive.”

But in your version of the Palestinian narrative, hate seems almost inevitable.

“What do you feel about the Germans?”

Is it the same?

“I’m not saying it’s the same. I’m just wondering. If you have been massively wronged, what do you feel?”

I suppose I do hate the German Nazis, but hate alone cannot encompass it.

“It’s a strong emotion, especially because we are still being wronged. It hasn’t stopped. It’s not as if Oslo brought an end to it. No, it still continues. Go and see Khiam. Go and see Erez. It’s appalling.”

So you feel you’re facing evil? That even an Israel that retreats to its pre-1967 borders would still represent ongoing evil?

“It’s a set of evil practices, whose overall effect is a deeply felt, humiliating injustice. And it is ongoing. Every day. In every conceivable way.

“That’s what strikes me about it. That it is willfully maintained. Now I’m not talking about every Israeli. There are all kinds of Israelis. But the ensemble of practices, the Israeli practices vis-a-vis Palestinians, are profoundly wrong. And it’s profoundly stupid. What can Palestinians harbor in their hearts and minds? Not only a feeling of ‘I want it to stop,’ but a feeling of ‘I want my turn’ of ‘One day you’re going to get it.”‘

Do you see it happening? Do you feel that the balance of power is beginning to shift toward the Palestinians?

“I never use terms like balance of power. But I think that even the person doing the kicking has to ask himself how long he can go on kicking? At some point your leg is going to get tired. One day you’ll wake up and ask, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’

“In my opinion, not enough people in Israel have woken up to that understanding. In my reading of the last 100 years, there has been an assumption on the Israeli-Zionist side that if we fight hard enough, and beat them down long enough and if we erect enough walls and if we make it hard for them in every way possible, they will give up.

“But that didn’t happen. It didn’t work. Today, among Palestinians, there is an even greater desire not to give up. On the evidence of my subjective experience, I can say that Palestinians of all generations feel a very strong sense of injustice. They feel that justice denied compels them to
go on struggling. That’s why they feel that arrangements like those discussed at Camp David in July would not be satisfactory, would not bring real reconciliation.”

Are you saying that for Palestinians, without justice there can be no peace?

“Yes. No one gets absolute justice, but there are steps that must be taken, like the ones taken at the end of apartheid. Israel and South Africa are different, but there are commonalities. They are not entirely incomparable. One of these commonalities is that a large part of the
population feels itself denied access to resources, rights, ownership of land and free movement. What I learned from the case of South Africa is that the only way to deal with a complex history of antagonism based on ethnicity is to look at it, understand it and then move on. What I have in
mind is something like the Truth and Reconciliation committee. And I think we, the Palestinians, are the ones who have to do it. Just as Desmond Tutu and the blacks did it. Of course, they had first won. They got rid of apartheid.”

To what extent would a post-occupation Israel still resemble the old South Africa?

“There is certainly an ideology of difference. The sense that Israelis created a system in which one people has more than others. Is it total apartheid like it was in South Africa? Probably not. But there are similarities. The Afrikaners had a proto-Zionist ideology. They felt they were chosen by God.

“But what is more important in my mind is the question of responsibility. I think it should be in the consciousness and conscience of every Israeli that his state obliterated the Arab life of pre-1948. That Jaffa was formerly an Arab city from which the Arabs were expelled. And I think Israelis should be aware that their presence in many places in the country entails the loss of a Palestinian family, the demolition of a house, the destruction of a village. In my mind, it is your duty to find out about it. And act in consequence, in the Kantian sense.

“Many Israelis resist this because they think the consequence would be to leave. Not at all. As I told you, I’m against that. The last thing I want to do is to perpetuate this process by which one distortion leads to another. I have a horror of that. I saw it happen too many times. I don’t
want to see more people leave.”

What you are saying is that Israelis should know that, like white South Africans, they have a right to stay as long as they give up their ideology.

“Yes, an ideology that denies the rights of others.”

So what is needed is a process of de-Zionization?

“I don’t like to use words like that. Because that’s obviously a signal that I’m asking the Zionists to commit harakiri. They can be Zionists, and they can assert their Jewish identity and their connection to the land, so
long as it doesn’t keep the others out so manifestly.”

Following this logic, it would then be necessary to replace the present Israel with a New Israel, just as the New South Africa replaced the old. Unjust state mechanisms would have to be dismantled.

“Yes. Correct. Let’s say reformed. I am ill at ease with talk of dismantling. It is apocalyptic language. And I would like to use words that are as little as possible taken from the context of apocalypse and miraculous rebirth. This is why I don’t say de-Zionize. It’s like waving a red flag in front of an angry bull. I don’t see what purpose it serves. So
I prefer to talk about transformation. The gradual transformation of Israel. As well as the gradual opening of all Middle East countries.

Two years ago you wrote an article in The New York Times endorsing a one-state solution. It seems you’ve come full-circle – from espousing a one secular-democratic-state solution in the ’70s, to accepting the two-state solution in the ’80s, back to the secular-democratic idea.

“I would not necessarily call it secular-democratic. I would call it a binational state. I want to preserve for the Palestinians and the Israeli Jews a mechanism or structure that would allow them to express their national identity. I understand that in the case of Palestine-Israel, a
binational solution would have to address the differences between the two collectives.

“But I don’t think that partition or separation would work. The two-state solution can no longer be implemented. And given the realities of geography, demography, history and politics, I think there is a tremendous amount to be gained from a binational state.”

Do you think the idea of a Jewish state is flawed?

“I don’t find the idea of a Jewish state terribly interesting. The Jews I know – the more interesting Jews I know – are not defined by their Jewishness. I think to confine Jews to their Jewishness is problematic. Look at this problem of ‘Who is a Jew.’ Once the initial enthusiasm for
statehood and aliyah subsides, people will find that to be Jews is not a lifelong project. It’s not enough.”

But that’s an internal Jewish question. The question for you is whether the Jews are a people who have a right to a state of their own?

“If enough people think of themselves as a people and need to constitute that, I respect that. But not if it entails the destruction of another people. I cannot accept an attitude of ‘You shall die in order for us to rise.'”

Are you saying to Israelis that they should give up the idea of Jewish sovereignty?

“I am not asking people to give up anything. But Jewish sovereignty as an end in itself seems to me not worth the pain and the waste and the suffering it produced. If, on the other hand, one can think of Jewish sovereignty as a step toward a more generous idea of coexistence, of being-in-the-world, then yes, it’s worth giving up. Not in the sense of
being forced to give it up. Not in the sense of we will conquer you, as many Arabs think when they call Arafat Salah-a-Din – which means that he is going to kick you out. No, not in that sense. I don’t want that dynamic. And you don’t want that dynamic. The better option would be to say that sovereignty should gradually give way to something that is more open and more livable.”

In a binational state, the Jews will quickly become a minority, like the Lebanese Christians.

“Yes, but you’re going to be a minority anyway. In about 10 years there will be demographic parity between Jews and Palestinians, and the process will go on. But the Jews are a minority everywhere. They are a minority in America. They can certainly be a minority in Israel.”

Knowing the region and given the history of the conflict, do you think such a Jewish minority would be treated fairly?

“I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.”

Do you personally have a right to return, a right to return to Talbieh in Jerusalem?

“For me, Talbieh is a house. The family house, located on Brenner Street, by what is today a small park. When I went there for the first time in 1992, I had with me a deed to my family’s house, given to me by my uncle. He wanted me to see what could be done. Four years later, he came himself
and registered with some organization in order to get the house back. He wanted the house back.

“So this is a very specific thing. If you ask me in the abstract, I would say that I have a right to return just as my Jewish colleague has a right under the Israeli Law of Return. But if you ask me specifically, I would affiliate with my cousin, whose father’s name is on the deed, and would
like to get some recognition that it was taken from him. That the house is his.”

Do you really expect to go back to that house? Would you really want to return to Talbieh?

“I wonder. I feel the pressure of mortality. For me to disconnect myself from my life in New York would be difficult. But, would I want to return to those places of my youth, not as a tourist – I’d say yes. And in the case of my son, he wants to be able to go back there. To the house. He
would like that. Yes, why not?

So the demand to return is not abstract. It’s not only a metaphor. Do you really mean it?

“Yes. It’s a real problem, and a real attachment for real people. That’s what it has been all along. A lot of Israelis say, well, in that case, that’s the destruction of the State of Israel. But I don’t see it like that at all.

“The refugee problem is the most difficult to solve, because it involves moral questions of expulsion. But I think Israel must acknowledge the plight of the refugees. And I think the refugees must have a right to return. I’m not sure how many will want to return, but I think they should be entitled to return.

“Studies have been written that address feasibility and what I can only call decency regarding this issue. How you can accomplish it with the least harm. Without literally throwing people off land they cultivated. According to these studies, you could quite easily settle a million people in present-day Israel with a minimal disruption. I think this could be a
beginning. A good point to discuss and converse about. Of course, it must be a regulated return. Not just anyone getting on a boat and coming back.”

Let’s go back to Talbieh. How would this work in the neighborhood where you lived 55 years ago, and where I live today?

“My relatives whose names are on the deed believe the house is theirs, so they should have a right to it. In the case of that house, there is no problem because it is not owned by an Israeli family. It is owned by a fundamentalist Christian organization. From South Africa, by the way. So my family should have the house back. Will any one of them go back to live there? I think, yes. But in this particular case, they should definitely be given the option. Regarding other houses, which people live in and have been living in for years, my instinct is not to drive them out. I think
some humane and moderate solution should be found where the claims of the present and the claims of the past are addressed. I don’t have easy solutions, but I told you, I’m averse to the notion of people leaving their houses, forced to leave. Even if it’s on behalf of an international tribunal, or a people that says this is our right. It is their right. But to actually put it into practice in that particular way – I can’t do it.”

Aren’t you worried that among Palestinians there are those who feel differently? That given the right to return, there would be an impulse of eviction?

“I suppose, but I would oppose that. I’m totally against eviction. My entire philosophy is designed to prevent that. I’m not sure I’ll be around when it happens, but if I am, I shall fight it very strongly.

“I look at this in terms of the Zimbabwe situation. There is no doubt in my mind that the people there – the whites who farm the land – have a very powerful attachment to the land, the property, the cultivation they made possible. I believe they should stay. As long as they admit the others
were dispossessed and robbed of their rights. The same applies here. But it’s a very troubling ethical question. It far exceeds the capacity of any one person to answer.”

So what you envision is a totally new situation in which a Jewish minority would live peacefully within an Arab context?

“Yes. I believe it is viable. A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities in the Arab world survived. I hate to say it, but in a funny sort of way, it worked rather well under the Ottoman Empire, with its
millet system. What they had then seems a lot more humane than what we have now. So as you see it, the Jews would eventually have a cultural autonomy within a pan-Arab structure?

“Pan-Arab or Mediterranean. Why should it not include Cyprus? What I would like is a kind of integration of Jews into the fabric of the larger society, which has an extraordinary staying power despite mutilation by the nation-state. I think it can be done. There is every reason to go for
the larger unit. The social organization that would be required is something I haven’t really pondered, but it would be easier to organize than the separation that Mr. Barak and his advisors dream of. The genius of Arab culture was catholicism. My definition of pan-Arabism would
comprise the other communities within an Arab-Islamic framework. Including the Jews.”

So in a generation or two, what we will have is an Arab-Jewish minority community in an Arab world?

“Yes. Yes. I would have thought.”

Many Jews would find that frightening.

“As a Jew, you obviously have good reasons to be afraid. But in the long run, one should move toward less rather than more anxiety. Maybe I’m wrong, but the way I read it, the present existence of Israel is based largely upon fending off what’s around and preventing it, as it were, from crashing in. That’s an unattractive way to live, I think. The nationalistic option created an anxiety-ridden society. It produced paranoia, militarization and a rigid mindset. All for what? The other way, the option I’m talking about, would give you, the Jews, a much more mobile and open life. It would give the project of the Jews coming to Palestine,
to Israel, a much saner basis.”

Are you a refugee?

“No, the term refugee has a very specific meaning for me. That is to say, poor health, social misery, loss and dislocation. That does not apply to me. In that sense, I’m not a refugee. But I feel I have no place. I’m cut
off from my origins. I live in exile. I am exiled.”

The title of your recently published memoir is “Out of Place.” What does that mean?

“Not being able to go back. It’s really a strong feeling I have. I would describe my life as a series of departures and returns. But the departure is always anxious. The return always uncertain. Precarious. So even when I go on a short trip, I overpack, on the chance that I won’t be able to

“You always have the feeling you don’t belong. You really don’t belong. Because you don’t really come from here. And the place you do come from, someone else is saying it’s not yours, it’s his. So even the idea of where you came from is always challenged.”

Given that, did you have to invent yourself?

“In a very particular meaning of the word. In Latin, invencio is to find again. It was used in classical rhetoric to describe a process by which you find past experiences and rearrange them to give them eloquence and novelty. It’s not creating from nothing, it’s reordering. In that sense, I
invented myself.

“First, under the influence of (the Italian historian) Vico, I saw that people make their own history. That history is not like nature. It’s a human product. And I saw that we can make our own beginnings. That they are not given, they are acts of will.

“But in recent years, when I was facing terminal illness – with a tremendous amount of uncertainty – I discovered that I wasn’t afraid of death. Not even of the suffering associated with the terminal phases of the disease. But I was afraid of not being able to recapture and to restate and to reinterpret those aspects of my life that I thought had some value.

“It was then, while looking back, that I realized that the world I grew up in, the world of my parents, of Cairo and Beirut and pre-1948 Talbieh, was a made-up world. It wasn’t a real world. It didn’t have the kind of objective solidity that I wanted it to have. For many years, I mourned the
loss of this world. I truly mourned it. But now I discovered the possiblity of reinterpreting it. And I realized that it’s true not only for me, but for most of us: We move through life shedding the past – the forgotten, the lost. I understood that my role was to tell and retell a story of loss where the notion of repatriation, of a return to a home, is basically impossible.”

So for you personally there is no return?

“While I was writing my memoir, my dear friend Abu Lourd, who is a refugee from Jaffa, went back to Palestine and settled in Ramallah. That was an option for me, too. I could have gotten a job at Bir Zeit. But I realized this is something I cannot do. My fate is to remain in New York. On a
constantly shifting ground, where relationships are not inherited, but created. Where there is no solidity of home.”

Are you addicted to homelessness?

“I don’t know if I’m addicted. But I don’t own any real estate. The flat I live in is rented. I see myself as a wanderer. My position is that of a traveler, who is not interested in holding territory, who has no realm to

“[Theodore] Adorno says that in the 20th century the idea of home has been superseded. I suppose part of my critique of Zionism is that it attaches too much importance to home. Saying, we need a home. And we’ll do anything to get a home, even if it means making others homeless.

“Why do you think I’m so interested in the binational state? Because I want a rich fabric of some sort, which no one can fully comprehend, and no one can fully own. I never understood the idea of this is my place, and you are out. I do not appreciate going back to the origin, to the pure. I
believe the major political and intellectual disasters were caused by reductive movements that tried to simplify and purify. That said, we have to plant tents or kibbutz or army and start from scratch.

“I don’t believe in all that. I wouldn’t want it for myself. Even if I were a Jew. I’d fight against it. And it won’t last. Take it from me, Ari. Take my word for it. I’m older than you. It won’t even be remembered.” You sound very Jewish.

“Of course. I’m the last Jewish intellectual. You don’t know anyone else. All your other Jewish intellectuals are now suburban squires. From Amos Oz to all these people here in America. So I’m the last one. The only true follower of Adorno. Let me put it this way: I’m a Jewish-Palestinian.”

Interview conducted by Ari Shavit for Ha’aretz.

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