Sep 21, 2022

Edward Said, center, speaks to reporters at the State Department after a meeting with Secretary of State George Shultz, March 26th, 1988.

Charles Tasnadi/AP Photo

An Open Letter to American-Jewish Intellectuals

In an unpublished 1989 letter, Palestinian American scholar Edward Said calls on his Jewish counterparts to take a stance against Israel’s abuses of Palestinians.

Edward Said wrote this open letter in 1989, but decided it would be too incendiary to publish. It is appearing here in print for the first time, with introductions by Nubar Hovsepian and Peter Beinart.

I have often heard Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg[1] say that for American Jews the cause of Israel is a sort of secular religion. As if to corroborate this, in his recent book on stints as a reporter in Beirut and Jerusalem, New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman, who grew up in Minneapolis, documents aspects of the extraordinary importance that post-1967 Israel has had for the intellectual and cultural formation of young Jews of his generation: pride, cultural identification with Israel as a robust state, renewed interest in Hebrew and the Jewish past. Since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising[2], however, there has been a change in Israel’s status among American Jews: To the small number of Palestinians in the US this change has been quite evident, for instance, in the new, troubled perception of Israel’s unresolved difficulties over the occupied territories, the treatment of Palestinians by military and settlers, the whole concept of a democratic Jewish state in what is still an inhospitable Arab and Islamic environment.

To address American Jewish intellectuals as a group is of course to assume that a large number of individuals is more homogenous and coherent than it really is. Certainly there are the serious differences that have enabled some intellectuals openly to discuss peace and reconciliation with Palestinians, and others (e.g. Irving Kristol[3] in The Wall Street Journal, July 21[4]) for whom Kristol’s title “Who needs peace in the Middle East?” summarizes the stonewalling attitude of people who want the appalling status quo to change as little as possible. Nevertheless I think I am right in believing that for American­ Jewish individuals as well as the various camps into which they are divided, the fact of Israel in late 1989 is a strong theme and a common concern; it permits me to address you collectively at a time when in the name of the Jewish people Israel is engaged in a battle with the Palestinian people, a conflict whose course, I am convinced, you can definitely influence, if not determine.

At no time in the century-old conflict between Palestinians and Jews has the struggle over land, national rights, and political destiny been sharper or more critical. For Pales­tinians—and though I have no mandate to speak for anyone except myself, I shall try to articulate my sentiments as well as those of the numerous Palestinians I personally know—this has been the most momentous period in our postwar history. There has been the generally non-lethal and principled resistance against occupation of the intifada itself; there have been the many seismic changes in the Palestinian social body since the intifada began, the dramatic improvement in the condition of women, the greater coherence and political vision, the tremendous increase in self-esteem that has accompanied the banishment of fear, the inspiring mobilization of Palestinian resources in aid of the intifada, at a time when “friends” (the Arabs, chief among them) and foes had almost gotten used to indifference in dealing with the question of Palestine; above all, there has been the historical compromise achieved at the Algiers PNC meeting in mid November of 1988[5]. At that meeting was charted the political ground for what transpired even more explicitly thereafter—recognition of Israel, a resolved partition of mandatory Palestine into two states, acceptance of UN Resolutions 242 and 338[6], renunciation of terrorism, a formal undertaking to end the conflict by political negotiation, not by violence.

Some of these things can be rendered more concretely, their profoundly significant and difficult meaning for many Palestinians given a human content, if I translate them into the material of my own experience. Like most of the exiled community, I am not from the West Bank or Gaza. I was born in West Jerusalem in a family home now occupied by a European Jewish family (or families); my mother was born in Nazareth and grew up there and in Safad, which have been Israeli towns since 1948. I have had an extravagantly fortunate life, but literally every single member of my family, maternal and paternal, has been a refugee adversely and in several cases catastrophically affected by the loss of property, citizenship, and political rights attendant upon the destruction of Palestinian society in 1948; one member of my extended family lost his life violently because of the conflict. That the PNC (of which I was a member) and Yasir Arafat[7], could together solemnly accept a state not only in less than 25% of former Palestine, but also in that part of the land precisely not our native area is therefore a major sacrifice of considerable magnitude.

When Jews speak of Israel as a place they come home to, you will allow that their word “home” to Palestinian ears has a death-like effect.

When Jews speak of Israel as a place they come home to, you will allow that their word “home” to Palestinian ears has a death-like effect. I do not minimize what for Jews is an age-old problem of persecuted alienation and exile, but you also must understand the wounding immediacy for us of quite literally witnessing our home turned into someone else’s house, country, even as the number of Palestinian dead—shot, beaten, asphyxiated—by Israel for the past five decades continues to increase and is now in the uncounted thousands. During the intifada alone the toll has gone beyond the 600-person mark. So what was decided at the Algiers PNC meetings therefore has an import little short of national self-amputation, done consciously and, I would want to insist, courageously in the interests of peace and some measure of justice for a deprived, much aggrieved and suffering nation. Palestinians of my generation knew Palestine as a predominantly Arab country, albeit one held by the British and, to us, gradually infiltrated by European Jews, who for all their theoretical protestations seemed to be coming to a land they knew principally via religion and ideology. The sudden cataclysmic rupture whereby a land and home once ours were declared to be the Jewish state of Israel cannot be contemptuously dismissed since its definitiveness affected every single Palestinian.

These are facts, and they require understanding no less than the understanding of your past that you as Jews have required from the world. I do not say that the facts shouldn’t be interpreted, I only say they shouldn’t be interpreted away. Yet I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that with only a few exceptions American Jewish support for Israel from 1948 on (and especially after 1967) has been tied prescriptively to a dehumanization, dismissal, and, after the mid-1970s, a demonization of the Palestinian people. In this tremendously important and, to us (since we were there to watch it happen) horrifically diminishing process, American Jewish intellectuals have played a critical role.

The truth is what is important here, not a settling of scores, nor a bill of particulars. It is true, to begin with, that as Arabs, Muslims, non-Westerners we have never had access to, nor did we completely master, the political and cultural discourse of Europe or America. Even so we need not have emerged during the post-1948 period only as faceless “Arabs,” murderers, enemies, subject to a whole gamut of unattractive, automatically and ceaselessly repeated deformations (irrationality, fanaticism, misanthropy, unadulterated barbarism). Yet we did so emerge, if that is not too strong a word for the minimally human profile we acquired as a result. Always it was our negative features that allowed Israel’s intellectual apologists to set us off against, in order then to underscore, Israeli liberalism, democracy, enlightenment, etc. And, I must add quickly, our dehumanization occurred as an extension of the already quite formidable battery of measures taken by Israel to erase most of our presence from our native land. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were made refugees; over 400 Palestinian villages destroyed; endless wars and punishing military as well as civil measures were implemented by Israel against us. By the middle of 1967 the entirety of historic Palestine was placed under Israeli rule.

You will surely have read or heard about the work of revisionist Israeli historians (Morris, Segev, Flapan, et al.)[8] whose reconstructions of the ravages of 1948 and after mostly coincide with the testimony of Palestinian words and voices that were never heard in the US. Not heard because unpublished and undisseminated in media where, as several critics have shown in detail, fear of the Israeli lobby or outright suppression determined that we, our story, our deprivations were to be given no outlet, allowed no significant space. That this corresponded exactly with the blindness of the Zionist pioneers who came to Palestine and ignored, or overlooked, the presence there of another people is only part of the story. The other part is even more unattractive: the overt attacks in this country upon everything to do with Palestinians, even their arithmetical claims to human existence. I could list many more names than, say, Joan Peters[9], or Leon Uris[10], or Cynthia Ozick[11], or Norman Podhoretz[12], or the ugly racist parodies of Palestinian history that have appeared in Commentary, Midstream, The New Republic[13], but the point is clear enough.

After 1967, but emphatically after the 1973 war, when America became Israel’s mainstay, the rhetorical, discursive, and ideological reduction as well as invalidation of the Palestinian experience to a couple of dreadful cliches became more important than ever. Huge amounts of money and arms went to Israel; at the UN every just or unjust criticism of Israel was blocked (not always successfully) by the US. Almost without exception, US politicians learned the art of ignoring the truth—such inconvenient things as the bombing of refugee camps, or of the USS Liberty, the daringly lawless behavior of Israeli troops towards unarmed Palestinian civilians, the expropriations, censorships, preventive detentions, expulsions, torture, home demolitions, the unending killings—and at the same time placating the lobby with more financial aid and more praise for Israel, more anxiety about what is “good for Israel,” regardless of how bad it might be not just for Palestinians but for Americans as well.

Before the Reagan era, when it still had not become a habit to associate Israel with the strategies and defense of the Free World, a particularly unpleasant intellectual gambit emerged among liberals (Jews and non-Jews alike) for whom anti-war, human rights, anti-imperial and anti-nuclear causes were justifiably current, yet who either explicitly or implicitly exempted Israel from mention. Somehow the norms governing criticism of regimes who imprisoned people unjustly, or who discriminated against citizens for reasons of race or religion, or who mocked international law, or who engaged in acts of piracy, collective punishment and censorship, or who refused even to abide by conventions on nuclear nonproliferation, were condoned or judgment was suspended most of the times that Israel was concerned. And as cruel Israeli policies without a shred of magnanimity or compassion (this was the period when Israel’s “benign occupation” kept turning up in print) were routinized as far as the Palestinian people was concerned, so too did American Jewish intellectuals habitually accept these abuses as required for Israeli security.

Raw, naked evidence can be overridden by American intellectuals just because the “security” of Israel demands it.

Toughness of heart and mind became the order of the day. What has always been sensationally eccentric about even the most cultivated intellectual justifications of Israel’s behavior was that such justifications ignored or refused to consult the plentiful evidence available. These are matters documented by the Israeli and, generally speaking, the world press. When a Syrian airliner was hijacked[14] by the Israeli military in December 1954 for the purposes of hostage taking it was done publicly, openly, unashamedly. When houses are blown up, or doctors, priests, or university presidents expelled as they have been on a daily basis since 1967, or hundreds of books banned, these facts are published in Israel’s official journals, to say nothing of the Israeli daily press. I cannot understand how raw, naked evidence can be overridden by American intellectuals just because the “security” of Israel demands it. But it is overridden or hidden no matter how overpoweringly cruel, no matter how inhuman and barbaric, no matter how loudly Israel proclaims what it is doing. To bomb a hospital; to use napalm against civilians; to require Palestinian men and boys to crawl, or bark, or scream “Arafat is a whore’s son”;[15] to break the arms and legs of children; to confine people in desert detention camps without adequate space, sanitation, water or legal charge; to use teargas in schools: All these are horrific acts, whether they are part of a war against “terrorism” or the requirements of security. Not to note them, not to remember them, not to say, “Wait a moment: Can such acts be necessary for the sake of the Jewish people?” is inexplicable, but it is also to be complicit in these acts.

The self-imposed silence of intellectuals who possess, in other cases and for other countries, supremely fine critical faculties is stunning. One still—I say “still” with some incredulity—hears exonerations of Israeli practices that employ phrases like “Israel’s special vulnerability to terror against civilians” or “Israel is a democracy surrounded by totalitarian enemies sworn to destroy it.” I suppose that these apocalyptic notions underwrite at least some of the silence. But here, it would seem, some tiny attention to truth, to reality, to history and rationality might dispel such notions as little short of grotesque. Every Arab state of consequence has accepted UN Resolution 242 for over two decades; for at least a decade, until recently with some humanly understandable waffling and ambiguity, the Palestinian position has been to partition the land into two states. Where in fact is the alleged evidence for “Arab states sworn to destroy Israel?” It just doesn’t exist, but even if it did, is there no proportionality, no symmetry between oaths on the one hand, and on the other the obdurate, systematic oppression for four decades of precisely those people dispossessed and displaced by Israel in the first place? As for “terrorism,” that lumbering ideological Trojan horse, we must at last open our eyes to the massive harm done in the name of opposing it. The bodies are there to be counted—thousands of Palestinians, over and above the massacres of 1948, and the invasion of 1982, the attempted starvation today of whole towns and camps in Gaza and the West Bank, versus the relative handful of Israeli fatalities, all of them the results of practices that are shocking and condemnable—but never are, so that we are to assume that as Palestinians our deaths and suffering count for 100 times less than those of real people like the Israelis.

Nor is this all. When in relatively few instances the facts do get through, attempts at suppression occur (who can forget Henry Kissinger advising the American Jewish leaders to ban the press, South African style[16], or Joseph Papp cancelling a Palestinian theater company’s performances?[17]) and sophisticated as well as bludgeon-like counterattacks are launched. After the siege of Beirut in 1982, AIPAC sent lecturers around the country to demonstrate that the media had been antisemitic. When Noam Chomsky’s work is alluded to, he, the person, not what he says, is attacked mercilessly despite the mountains of evidence he presents; the same sordid fate awaits any critic of Israel’s misdeeds. One is accused of Stalinism, or of being a PLO stooge, or even of being an “Arab-lover,” epithets that are endurable if at the same time the evidence, the facts and figures, are actually analyzed, debated, rebutted. Most of the time these things aren’t even mentioned, so viciously comprehensive has been the mode of personal attack. Just smear the person, just discredit his or her character or history, and always avoid any discussion of the messy details.

I cannot say who is responsible for this state of affairs, but it surely could not have occurred without some calculation on the part of the Israeli lobby (which in·l988 alone spent over 3.8 million dollars for congressional races, more than any other single issue set of PACs) that ordinarily vociferous intellectuals would either cooperate or keep silent. In time, non-Jewish intellectuals were affected too, and all discourse about the Middle East began to conform to these obedient and servile modes, nowhere with more distastefully apparent effect than in the common language of presidential, congressional, and even municipal politics. I must note with respect and admiration that because of the Lebanese War[18] and the intifada a few American Jewish intellectuals began to speak up. But even in these instances the habits of a generation influenced and contained what they said. Israel’s soul and moral idealism, many of the dissenters now said, were being corrupted, thus curtaining off what happened before 1987, 1982, or 1967. Then as the orthodox “alternative” discourse continued timidly forward it began to focus on Palestinians principally as a “demographic problem,” as unflattering a notion as any that has emerged out of the rhetoric of classical antisemitism. And, when courage and enthusiasm ran really high, Palestinians were advised by some well-meaning American Jewish intellectuals to change the Charter,[19] not to sing their national songs or to ask for the right of return—in other words, to continue making unilateral concessions while these same intellectuals would once again begin to get ready to start the business of trying (maybe) to persuade Israel to accept not so much the reality of Palestinian existence but the possibility that if the intifada were given up then, maybe, just maybe, Israel might smile or otherwise look favorably on the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, whose major offense was their existence.

Very few American Jewish intellectuals said loudly and clearly that as mainstream Palestinian political positions moderated, Israeli positions became more irrational, more extreme, more unyielding.

Very few American Jewish intellectuals said loudly and clearly that as mainstream Palestinian political positions moderated, Israeli positions became more irrational, more extreme, more unyielding. Differences between Labor and Likud were stressed, yes, but with a breathtaking dishonesty that didn’t point out that Labor began the settlements[20], Labor cooperated fully with the “Peace for Galilee” campaign[21] and in the violent attempts to defeat the intifada, Labor just as unflinchingly denied Palestinian rights in the hypocritical “search for peace” as Likud. Whenever Israeli demands were met, three or four more new ones suddenly made their appearance. The main contribution of the Reagan-Schultz era[22] was to instill in all of Israel’s supporters the discipline of “not pressuring” Israel. On the very day in late 1987 that Ronald Reagan gently upbraided Israel for shooting unarmed Palestinian children,[23] an additional $280 million was earmarked for our strategic ally. How much more aid (now set at over three billion per annum), how many more cringing apologies, how many more Palestinian lives are necessary as “confidence-building measures” (to use the dreadful jargon of conflict-resolution professionals) in order that Israel and its supporters may at last condescend to survey the damage?

Note again that whatever debate abut Israel gets started (e.g. at the Tikkun conference) it is based on the premise that Palestinians are not, and have never been, the issue. Only Jews are. Palestinian sources are cited mainly to show how contradictory, ambiguous, unreliable Palestinians are, how little they can be trusted. I have yet to encounter serious attention to the reams of painstaking evidence and testimony compiled by Palestinian lawyers, researchers, poets, novelists, filmmakers. All this material antedates the various international human rights reports, the doctors’, lawyers’, journalists’ white papers that have since flooded the world outside the US with scant effect on Israeli practices. Juxtapose the two sets of testimonials and you would have a composite portrait of a real flesh-and-blood people enduring real travails, a portrait that would, I think, disturb the caricatural reductions on which many of your ruminations and reflections about Israel are based.

You have The New York Review, The New York Times, New Republic, Atlantic Monthly, and nearly every major newspaper, weekly, and quarterly open to you; each of the networks consults you 150 times to the once they consult Arab Americans. When a film such as Days of Rage displeases you, you can prevent it from being shown, you can have stations surround the film with pro-Israeli material, you can stack any panel. All of this to maintain Palestinians as ragtag terrorists, thereby to keep their torture and killing a matter of swatting flies or stepping on roaches. All of this to permit Israel in the name of the Jewish people to go on with the repression.

That what Israel and its supporters have done to the Palestinians is to punish an entire nation cannot at bottom be gainsaid. Nor can it be argued that fear and “insecurity” have in fact dictated a policy of denying hundreds of thousands of Palestinian schoolchildren an education by closing schools and universities for months on end. A sobering rehearsal of various categories of official Israeli behavior in the last 18 months deserves your notice: I quote from the table of contents of Punishing a Nation, published by Law in the Service of Man, a Palestinian affiliate of the International Commission of Jurists (which is neither a Soviet nor PLO front).[24] Ask yourselves as you read whether “fear” and “insecurity” warrant these things. Under “Use of Force” we have: statistics on Deaths and Casualties; The Use of Force in Response to Demonstrations; Live Ammunition; Plastic Bullets; A Policy of Beatings; The Practice of Beatings; Army Brutality— Use of Rubber Bullets; Use of Tear Gas as a Means of Terrorization; Harassment and Destruction of Property; Army Raids on Villages and Refugee Camps; Other Forms of Brutality; Death Squads. Under “Obstruction of Medical Treatment” there are: Obstruction of Health Care; Denial of Medical Services to Population under Prolonged Curfew; Attacks on Medical Personnel in the Field; Military Raids on Hospitals, etc. Do not forget for a moment that these abominations are carried out by one of the world’s major military powers against an unarmed civilian population.

This sorry list of items substantially documented, verified, attested to in the 475 pages that follow goes on for six pages. It makes for unpleasant, perhaps even chastening reading. Do these infractions done in the name of the Jewish people stimulate any public outcry? No, not if they are not treated as public in the public eye by public intellectuals. And not if, as is by now so customary, it is argued that because they had the temerity to resist Israeli practices, Palestinians actually deserve and are exclusively to blame for their half-century-long calvary. And so it has gone, whereas in fact Israel’s war on Palestinian civilians under its military occupation (remember too that a generous swatch of South Lebanon is also under Israeli occupation, a fact never mentioned in the uproar over Sheikh Obaid’s abduction[25]) costs $500,000 a day, is subsidized by the United States, is kept in place and undeterred in its relentless, rationally planned and executed cruelty because American Jewish intellectuals do not object, do not raise their voices, do not refuse to accept so degenerate, dishonorably shameless a policy carried out, in effect, in their name.

Israel’s war on Palestinian civilians persists in its relentless, rationally planned and executed cruelty because American Jewish intellectuals do not object, do not raise their voices, do not refuse to accept so degenerate, dishonorably shameless a policy carried out, in effect, in their name.

True, a new pro-peace American Jewish lobby has been announced; true, there have also been petitions, articles, protests—intermittently. But where is the response, for example, when within days of each other Ariel Sharon[26] and the Lubavitcher Rebbe call for Yasir Arafat’s abduction and murder? No one expects you to like Arafat (“unspeakable” said one of your luminaries a couple of years ago) but at least remember that to Palestinians and to the world he is a national symbol, received as a state visitor virtually everywhere. To call for his death is no act of bravado or unnerving chutzpah: It is a direct consequence of the permission you have given, and have financed, to Israel’s politicians more or less to do anything they want to Palestinians with impunity. Sharon is, I believe, a war criminal, yet a few weeks ago Mayor Koch took him on an exuberant walking tour of Brooklyn.

Lest you turn on me instead of on what I am saying and on the facts that cannot easily be refuted, I shall concede to you that our situation as Arabs and as Palestinian American intellectuals is not something to boast about. The Arab states and their rulers are an appalling lot. Iraq massacres Kurds, Lebanese liquidate each other, Syria bombs anything it can, Libya finances terror: These and similar outrages take place in societies bereft of democratic freedoms, in which corruption, incompetence, and a collective lack of seriousness rule pretty much unchecked and unchallenged. The revival of Islam, no less than those of Christianity and Judaism, has brought forth a ghastly procession of unbalanced clerics and frothing enthusiasts. Ours are no more unattractive than yours, any more than one theocratic alternative is preferable to another. In addition, I could make a case for fulminating against the Palestinian leadership which we all admit is not up to the caliber of the people’s stubborn and resourceful will to resist.

I thus concede all that and more, but this in no way relieves you of your responsibilities and positions. Celebrating Israel’s considerable achievements, indulging in triumphalism, turning a blind eye to the daily bullying persecutions on the West Bank and Gaza are just no good. What I think we need to start with therefore is a common acknowledgement of the asymmetry in the power between Israel and the Palestinians, and second, an acknowledgment that Israel and its supporters bear a major responsibility for the present situation of the Palestinian people. I cannot measure exactly how much responsibility, but that there is responsibility not only for the past but for the present and by implication of the future—in all of which American Jewish intellectuals play a privileged part—should no longer be stepped around.

Despite the rhetoric of its victimization by the Palestinians, Israel is a formidable power today: As Abba Eban[27] has said, the military threat that a Palestinian state might pose to Israel is like Luxembourg threatening the Soviet Union. The basic question is how American Jewish intellectuals relate to that power: the power of the state, of the lobby, of the status quo, and of the major Jewish organizations which I have heard many of you say privately do not represent you at all. I do not think it is unfair to say that in the main American Jewish intellectuals serve, but neither strenuously dissent from nor oppose, that array of powers. If you accept the Israeli government line (so unctuously projected by non-Israeli apologists for it like Conor Cruise O’Brien[28]) you are in effect accepting an endlessly prolonged state of hostility not only between Israel and the Palestinians, but between Israel and virtually all its neighbors.

What such a future really means is a good deal less happy than can be herded under such (for intellectuals as distinguished from lobbyists) phrases as “Israel’s security.” It means continued repression of Palestinians. It means keeping up the distortedly high proportion of the Israeli budget that goes into “defense”: Before the intifada, to take one small item, fewer than 10,000 Israeli soldiers did the job now undertaken by over 100,000. Add costs for new planes, tanks, submarines and you have about 40% of the state’s expenditures going to the military. Israel’s military needs will go on demanding more US support, and it doesn’t need an Aristotelian intelligence to surmise that in time, and given the changes in public opinion here that have already occurred, US aid to Israel is going to be reduced. In the Middle East itself, the beginnings of bloody internecine conflicts (with religion and ethnic identity at their roots) are already straining state structures, which have been unresponsive to minority demands; this pattern is readily discernible in Israel today, and will get worse.

Zionism in practice and in the Middle East has always been more honest than in the US. Ben-Gurion never made a secret of how he preferred an Israel at war than one at peace with the Arabs. If such a policy seemed necessary during the early years of the state, it has continued into the present with startlingly dangerous and even stupidly self-destructive ramifications. The idea that if Israel is in trouble at home or with the US it can suddenly launch a diversionary “pre-emptive” strike somewhere is bad enough; that it does so with the illusion that the US will always (as in 1982) cover Israeli deeds with its money and power, thanks to the lobby and its servants, is suicidal. The logic of military escalation is thereby justified in an Arab world now fully armed with a “deterrent” to Israeli nuclear capability: the name of the deterrent is chemical and biological arms. With this logic in place, the social and economic consequences attendant upon full-scale militarism will be dreadful. The harshness, zealotry, and recklessness of Israeli actions today therefore appear quite bad enough without further intensifications in hostility of the overall environment. To encourage Israel in its present policy of sticking a boot in Arab and Islamic faces is insane; are you not aware of how resentment, hate, and a desire for vengeance are being laid up in Arab and Muslim hearts, already dangerously full of uninformed passion, indiscriminate hate, unfocused anger? Are you not sensitive to the truths that no one is likely to forget or forgive years of Israeli insults, arrogance, vindictiveness?

American Jewish intellectuals have to declare themselves plainly and in the full light of day either for the joint, politically equal survival of two peoples, or they should say openly that they feel Palestinians are and should remain less equal than Jews.

To say that Israel is not alone to blame, or that there has been too much media attention paid to its treatment of the Palestinians, do not count as serious justifications of Israel’s lamentable policies. Again, the facts are that Israel is unique in its demand for, and acquisition of, both money and attention from the US. Neither Israel nor its supporters can one day ask for scrupulous, principled scrutiny of the heartrending Jewish past as well as the dangers to Jews in the present, and then the next day, when Palestinians claim the same right, say that Jews needn’t look too closely at either the Palestinian past or present. Palestinian and Jewish histories are, for the 20th century at least, inscribed within each other; they cannot be separated, and they must be evaluated and acknowledged in moral terms, in terms of a future in which both peoples have the rights of survival and decent existence in a shared Palestine, partitioned into two states. No less than Jews, Palestinians have achieved an undeniable and irreversible degree of national self-consciousness which it would be (and is) ethnocidal to oppose.

If I am right, then American Jewish intellectuals have to declare themselves plainly and in the full light of day either for the joint, politically equal survival of two peoples, or they should say openly that they feel Palestinians are and should remain less equal than Jews. If the second option is chosen then one can fight it directly as so many have fought Rabbi Kahane. If the first, we—Palestinians and Jews in America—can fight together, on the same side. The imperatives are an end to occupation and, even more important, some effective pressure on the US government in order to modify and inform Israeli policy. You have the resources, and you can have ours as well to achieve such a goal. But whatever you do, please do not look the other way or waffle, or talk about everything except the Middle East, or impugn my character and say that the problems are terrorism, Islam, and Arab culture or intransigence. As Palestinians are being killed every day by Israeli soldiers, and as the Palestinian nation is being punished mercilessly by the state of the Jewish people, your role as intellectuals, I think, is to bear witness to, to testify against, those crimes. It is also to provide embattled Israelis and their supporters with an alternative model to coercion or to unending abrasive militancy directed against a region in which, for better or worse, Israel must try to survive humanely and appropriately. At a time such as this, political bargaining is indecent, and if our positions were reversed you would dismiss me if I tried it.

It seems to me then that the way before us is quite clearly marked. We are either to fight for justice, truth, and the right to honest criticism, or we should quite simply give up the title of intellectual.


Hertzberg was an American scholar, activist, and Conservative rabbi who edited the influential anthology, The Zionist Idea. He supported the Zionist cause while remaining critical of certain policies of the Israeli state.


Said is referring to the First Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that began in 1987 and was ongoing at the time of this writing in late 1989.


The New York Times dubbed Kristol “the godfather of modern conservatism.” Kristol was the founder of the neoconservative magazine The Public Interest.


In his Wall Street Journal article, Kristol argues that far from bringing peace to the Middle East, an Israel-Palestine peace settlement would act as “a guaranteed prelude to a war that might convulse the entire Middle East.”


At its November 1988 session in Algiers, the Palestine National Council (PNC) adopted a “Declaration of Independence of the State of Palestine” which was drafted by Said alongside Palestinian poet laureate Mahmoud Darwish. The declaration was seen as making major concessions, including an indirect recognition of the state of Israel.


Resolution 242, adopted by the United Nations Security Council in 1967, called on Israel to cede the territories it had occupied in the Six-Day War. Resolution 338, adopted in 1973, called for a ceasefire in the Yom Kippur War as well as the implementation of Resolution 242.


Arafat was Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from 1969 to 2004 and President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) from 1994 to 2004.


Said is referring to Benny Morris, Tom Segev, and Simha Flapan, prominent figures in a group known as the “New Historians,” who challenged mainstream Zionist narratives of Israel’s founding.


A journalist whose 1984 book From Time Immemorial argued that Palestinians were recent immigrants to the land that became the state of Israel, not a group with deep historical ties to the region.


Author of the bestselling 1958 novel Exodus, which David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s prime minister at the time, described as “propaganda” and “the greatest thing ever written about Israel.”


A prominent novelist and essayist, Ozick was also a committed Zionist. In a 2003 Wall Street Journal article, Ozick described the Palestinian nation’s contribution to the world as “terror, terror, terror.”


A writer and political commentator who served as the editor-in-chief of the conservative magazine Commentary from 1960 to 1995.


Throughout the 1980s, each of these magazines published articles describing Palestinians as terrorists seeking to destroy a Jewish homeland. In a 1986 Commentary article, Palestinian claims of continuous settlement in the region are referred to as “egregious Arab myths.” In the same year, The New Republic’s editor-in-chief wrote that “nonviolence is foreign to the political culture of Arabs generally and of the Palestinians particularly.”


In December 1954, Israeli warplanes intercepted and landed a Syrian passenger craft, detaining its passengers so they could be exchanged for the Israeli soldiers who had recently been taken prisoner in Syria.


The hospital bombings and napalm attacks described here most likely took place during Israel’s invasions of Lebanon in the 1970s and in 1982. Elsewhere, Said writes that during a 1982 attack on a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, Israeli Border Guards forced people to perform their submission by crawling, barking, and hailing the Israeli prime minister.


At a 1988 meeting of American Jewish leaders in New York, Kissinger reportedly suggested that Israel should emulate South Africa in banning television cameras from the occupied territories.


In 1989, Papp—a Jewish American theater producer—canceled a production of “The Story of Kufur Shamma” by the El-Hakawati Palestinian Theater Company, which was scheduled to run at the Public Theater in New York.


Said is referring to Israel’s invasion and occupation of parts of Lebanon in 1982. In particular, the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were killed by a right-wing Lebanese militia abetted by the Israeli military, generated a global outcry.


Referring to the Palestinian National Charter adopted by the PNC in 1968 that declared the establishment of the state of Israel “entirely illegal” and asserted Palestinian people’s “absolute determination” to continue their armed struggle for liberation.


Beginning in the late 1960s, successive Labor governments carried out the Allon Plan—named for former Minister of Labor Yigal Allon—under which Israeli settlements were constructed in the West Bank, and Jerusalem was marked out for annexation.


“Operation Peace for Galilee” was the Israeli government’s term for its invasion of Lebanon in 1982.


Said is referring to the Ronald Reagan presidency (1981-1989). As Reagan’s Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989, George Shultz played a major role in shaping American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.


In December 1987, Israeli soldiers shot and killed at least 22 unarmed Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The Reagan administration responded by calling on Israel to use “restraint” in the use of live ammunition in suppressing protests.


Said is referring to the report Punishing a Nation: Human Rights Violations During the Palestinian Uprising which was published by Ramallah-based human rights organization Al-Haq (Law in the Service of Man) in 1988. Al-Haq was one of six NGOs recently declared a terrorist group by the Israeli government and subsequently raided. European governments that have reviewed the Israeli government’s dossier of “evidence” against the NGOs say it contains no substantial proof for the terrorist designation.


On July 28th, 1989, Lebanese cleric Abdul Karim Obaid (also spelled Obeid) was kidnapped and held hostage by the Israeli army as a bargaining chip to secure information about a missing Israeli air force navigator.


At the time of Said’s writing, Sharon was the Israeli Minister of Industry, Trade, and Labor. He went on to become the 11th prime minister of Israel in 2001.


Eban was an Israeli politician and diplomat who served in various ministerial positions in the Knesset from the 1960s to the 1980s.


O’Brien was an Irish politician and diplomat, as well as author of the 1986 book The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism.

Edward W. Said (1935–2003) was a Palestinian American professor of literature at Columbia University, a public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies. His books include Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, and The Question of Palestine

Nubar Hovsepian teaches political science at Chapman University in Orange, CA. He is finalizing his forthcoming book, Edward W. Said: The Politics of an Oppositional Intellectual.

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.