Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
26 Aug. - 1 Sep. 1999
Issue No. 444
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Defamation, Zionist-style

By Edward Said

Given the approach of the final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, it seems worthwhile to record here the lengths to which right-wing Zionists will go to further their claims on all of Palestine against those of the country's native Palestinian inhabitants who were dispossessed as an entire nation in 1948. To this very end, an article has recently appeared in Commentary, a small, extremely conservative Jewish monthly, which attacks my life and story as a Palestinian by pretending to show that I am neither Palestinian, nor ever lived in Palestine, nor that my family was evicted from Palestine in 1948. It should be remarked that this is the third such attack on me by Commentary in 20 years, the first being an enormously long critique in 1981 of my book The Question of Palestine, the second a reckless article in l988 or l989 entitled "The Professor of Terror," the third being this one, written by someone called Justus Weiner, an Israeli who claims to work for an obscure Israeli right-wing research centre in Jerusalem. Weiner's argument is buttressed by his pretence that he spent three years on his study of my life, spoke to 80 or so witnesses, and found many inconsistencies in what he says is "my story", which he fabricates more or less at will. It seems astonishing that he obtained funding for this project, although he tactfully doesn't say why, how much, for and from whom. Thanks to the extremely pro-Zionist British Daily Telegraph, his article has aroused the interest of the international press, which has been calling me for comment and reaction. It is part of the Palestinian fate always to be required to prove one's existence and history!

The only problem with the current hullabaloo, at the outset, is that during his three years of assiduous research Weiner never once contacted or in any way spoke to me, an extraordinary omission by a man who pretends that he is both a scholar and a journalist but actually uses the methods of neither one nor the other. Another fact about his method is that he did not properly consult my memoir, Out of Place, completed in September 1998, and to appear next month. (Extracts from it will appear shortly in the New York Review of Books, The Observer, Harper's and Granta.) There, I scrupulously record the facts of my early life spent between Jerusalem, Cairo and Dhour Al-Shweir (Lebanon), making clear that, being the member of a privileged class, I was spared the worst ravages of the Nakba. I have never claimed to have been made a refugee, but rather that my extended family, all of it -- uncles, cousins, aunts, grandparents -- in fact was. By the spring of 1948, not a single relative of mine was left in Palestine, ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces. Commentary's Weiner does not mention that, allowing himself the preposterous claim that my memoir (begun in 1994 and completed in 1998) was written to refute him in 1999.

To make matters worse, Weiner's strenuous display of scholarly rigour is undercut by many mistakes of fact. He calls Boulos Said my father's brother, whereas he was my father's cousin. Boulos's wife, Nabiha, was my father's sister. Weiner does not know that. He does not realise that the kuchan or tabo is rarely complete, and that the family house was in fact a family house in the Arab sense, which meant that our families were one in ownership. Together Boulos and Wadie Said, cousins, partners, and close friends, owned the Palestine Education Company, with branches in Jerusalem and Haifa. All, plus the house, were lost to Israel in 1948. Weiner says that we didn't try for reparations, thereby deliberately obfuscating two facts: that my father did in fact try to sue the Israeli government for reparations and, second, that by l950 the law of absentee property passed by Israel had converted all Palestinian property into Israeli property, illegally of course. No wonder our efforts were unrewarded. He says that I didn't attend St George's School. This is an outright lie. He does not admit that the school's records end in l946 and I was there in 1947, or that my father and cousins had attended the school starting in 1906. Had he been a decent researcher, he might have sought out one of my classmates, Haig Boyagian (who lives in the US now and quite coincidentally called me a week ago) and my math teacher, Michel Marmoura, a retired professor at the University of Toronto, for verification. Weiner says that my mother was Lebanese, whereas she was only half Lebanese; her father was Palestinian. She had a Palestinian passport, and in 1948 did in point of fact become a refugee. The Talbiyeh house was built for my family in 1932 by Sab' Samaha. Weiner gets that wrong too. The Egyptian branches of the family business were not nationalised, but sold to the Nasser government; nor were they burned by revolutionary mobs but rather by the Muslim Brothers. And so on and on.

All this from someone who claims that I have falsified the past to pretend that I am a victim. What he cannot understand, and has not been able to understand from any of my writings, is the fact that I have been moved to defend the refugees' plight precisely because I did not suffer and therefore feel obligated to relieve the sufferings of my people, less fortunate than myself. Weiner is a propagandist who, like many others before him, has tried to depict the dispossession of Palestinians as ideological fiction: this has been a constant theme of Zionist "information" since the 1930s. Actual sources are never given, but innuendoes are used. In the body of his article, he does not name the people he allegedly talked to "on four continents" or the documents he consulted, what exactly they said, or when, and in answer to what question. My cousin Robert, for example, told me that when at first he refused to talk to Weiner, Weiner threatened him. And because he is relatively unknown, Weiner tries to make a name for himself by attacking a better known person's reputation. I have had many such attacks levelled against me in the past. Weiner's attempt now may be useful as a way of discrediting all Palestinian claims to return and compensation, which will be a central issue in the terminal phase of the peace process. Weiner's polemic also covers up the racism of Israel's Law of Return, which allows any Jew anywhere to emigrate to Israel, whereas no Palestinian, even someone born there, has no such right. If someone like Edward Said is a liar, runs the argument, how can we believe all those peasants who say they were driven off their land? The Likud argument (Weiner's) is that the land all belongs to the people of Israel, since it was given to them by God. All the other claimants are therefore prevaricators and pretenders.

Luckily, several survivors of 1948 from my family are still alive and well. My oldest cousin, the last person to leave our Talbiyeh house, is 80 years old now and lives in Toronto. Why was he not contacted? As my widowed aunt's oldest son, he negotiated with Martin Buber and took him to court when he refused to leave the house after his lease was up and our family returned from a year in Cairo. What about our neighbours, other relatives, friends, members of the church community? They were never contacted. Several children of the pastor who baptised me are still alive also: they could have been contacted. No: what Commentary wants is not the truth but the Big Zionist Lie. The irony is that a few weeks ago American newspapers carried a front page story on the revision of Israeli history schoolbooks which, thanks to the efforts of the New Israeli Historians and of course the Palestinians themselves, are beginning to acknowledge the events of 1948 as they really occurred, with the ethnic cleansing, destruction of villages, massacres, etc, which have for so long been denied. It is not entirely surprising, however, that an American Israeli and an American Zionist journal turn out to be more Israeli than Israelis themselves, less honest, less willing to deal with facts, more inclined to propaganda and smear tactics, less likely ever to understand history or how their skewed perspective produces only calumny and falsehood.

I have always advocated the acknowledgement by each other of the Palestinian and Jewish peoples' past sufferings. Only in this way can they coexist peacefully in the future. Weiner is more interested in using the past -- either an individual or collective past -- to prevent understanding and reconciliation. It is a pity that so much time and venom as he has expended couldn't have been used for positive purposes.

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