Edward Said's March 2001 Op-Ed Endorsing the One State Solution

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Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
1 - 7 March 2001
Issue No.523

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The only alternative

By Edward Said

Edward SaidI
first visited South Africa in May 1991: a dark, wet, wintry period,
when Apartheid still ruled, although the ANC and Nelson Mandela had been
freed. Ten years later I returned, this time to summer, in a democratic
country in which Apartheid has been defeated, the ANC is in power, and a
vigorous, contentious civil society is engaged in trying to complete
the task of bringing equality and social justice to this still divided
and economically troubled country. But, the liberation struggle that
ended Apartheid and instituted the first democratically elected
government on 27 April 1994, remains one of the great human achievements
in recorded history. Despite the problems of the present, South Africa
is an inspiring place to visit and think about, partly because for
Arabs, it has a lot to teach us about struggle, originality, and
perseverance.

I came here this time as a participant in a conference on values
in education, organised by the Ministry of Education. Qader Asmal, the
minister of education, is an old and admired friend whom I met many
years ago when he was in exile in Ireland. I shall say more about him in
my next article. But, as a member of the cabinet, a longtime ANC
activist, and a successful lawyer and academic, he was able to persuade
Nelson Mandela (now 83, in frail health, and officially retired from
public life) to address the conference on the first evening. What
Mandela said then made a deep impression on me, as much because of
Mandela's enormous stature and profoundly affecting charisma, as for the
well-crafted words he uttered. Also a lawyer by training, Mandela is an
especially eloquent man who, in spite of thousands of ritual occasions
and speeches, always seems to have something gripping to say.

This time it was two phrases about the past that struck me in a
fine speech about education, a speech which drew unflattering attention
to the depressed present state of the country's majority, "languishing
in abject conditions of material and social deprivation." Hence, he
reminded the audience, "our struggle is not over," even though -- here
was the first phrase -- the campaign against Apartheid "was one of the
great moral struggles" that "captured the world's imagination." The
second phrase was in his description of the anti-Apartheid campaign not
simply as a movement to end racial discrimination, but as a means "for
all of us to assert our common humanity." Implied in the words "all of
us" is that all of the races of South Africa, including the
pro-Apartheid whites, were envisaged as participating in a struggle
whose goal finally was coexistence, tolerance and "the realisation of
humane values."

The first phrase struck me cruelly: why did the Palestinian
struggle not (yet) capture the world's imagination and why, even more to
the point, does it not appear as a great moral struggle which, as
Mandela said about the South African experience, received "almost
universal support... from virtually all political persuasions and
parties?"

True, we have received a great deal of general support, and yes,
ours is a moral struggle of epic proportions. The conflict between
Zionism and the Palestinian people is admittedly more complex than the
battle against Apartheid, even if in both cases one people paid and the
other is still paying a very heavy price in dispossession, ethnic
cleansing, military occupation and massive social injustice. The Jews
are a people with a tragic history of persecution and genocide. Bound by
their ancient faith to the land of Palestine, their "return" to a
homeland promised them by British imperialism was perceived by much of
the world (but especially by a Christian West responsible for the worst
excesses of anti-Semitism) as a heroic and justified restitution for
what they suffered. Yet, for years and years, few paid attention to the
conquest of Palestine by Jewish forces, or to the Arab people already
there who endured its exorbitant cost in the destruction of their
society, the expulsion of the majority, and the hideous system of laws
-- a virtual Apartheid -- that still discriminates against them inside
Israel and in the occupied territories. Palestinians were the silent
victims of a gross injustice, quickly shuffled offstage by a
triumphalist chorus of how amazing Israel was.

After the reemergence of a genuine Palestinian liberation
movement in the late '60s, the formerly colonised people of Asia, Africa
and Latin America adopted the Palestinian struggle, but in the main,
the strategic balance was vastly in Israel's favour; it has been backed
unconditionally by the US ($5 billion in annual aid), and in the West,
the media, the liberal intelligentsia, and most governments have been on
Israel's side. For reasons too well known to go into here, the official
Arab environment was either overtly hostile or lukewarm in its mostly
verbal and financial support.

Because, however, the shifting strategic goals of the PLO were
always clouded by useless terrorist actions, were never addressed or
articulated eloquently, and because the preponderance of cultural
discourse in the West was either unknown to or misunderstood by
Palestinian policymakers and intellectuals, we have never been able to
claim the moral high ground effectively. Israeli information could
always both appeal to (and exploit) the Holocaust as well as the
unstudied and politically untimely acts of Palestinian terror, thereby
neutralising or obscuring our message, such as it was. We never
concentrated as a people on cultural struggle in the West (which the ANC
early on had realised was the key to undermining Apartheid) and we
simply did not highlight in a humane, consistent way the immense
depredations and discriminations directed at us by Israel. Most
television viewers today have no idea about Israel's racist land
policies, or its spoliations, tortures, systematic deprivation of the
Palestinians just because they are not Jews. As a black South African
reporter wrote in one of the local newspapers here while on a visit to
Gaza, Apartheid was never as vicious and as inhumane as Zionism: ethnic
cleansing, daily humiliations, collective punishment on a vast scale,
land appropriation, etc., etc.

But, even these facts, were they known better as a weapon in the
battle over values between Zionism and the Palestinians, would not have
been enough. What we never concentrated on enough was the fact that to
counteract Zionist exclusivism, we would have to provide a solution to
the conflict that, in Mandela's second phrase, would assert our common
humanity as Jews and Arabs. Most of us still cannot accept the idea that
Israeli Jews are here to stay, that they will not go away, any more
than Palestinians will go away. This is understandably very hard for
Palestinians to accept, since they are still in the process of losing
their land and being persecuted on a daily basis. But, with our
irresponsible and unreflective suggestion in what we have said that they
will be forced to leave (like the Crusades), we did not focus enough on
ending the military occupation as a moral imperative or on providing a
form for their security and self-determinism that did not abrogate ours.
This, and not the preposterous hope that a volatile American president
would give us a state, ought to have been the basis of a mass campaign
everywhere. Two people in one land. Or, equality for all. Or, one
person one vote. Or, a common humanity asserted in a binational state.

I know we are the victims of a terrible conquest, a vicious
military occupation, a Zionist lobby that has consistently lied in order
to turn us either into non-people or into terrorists -- but what is the
real alternative to what I've been suggesting? A military campaign? A
dream. More Oslo negotiations? Clearly not. More loss of life by our
valiant young people, whose leader gives them no help or direction? A
pity, but no. Reliance on the Arab states who have reneged even on their
promise to provide emergency assistance now? Come on, be serious.

Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are locked in Sartre's vision
of hell, that of "other people." There is no escape. Separation can't
work in so tiny a land, any more than Apartheid did. Israeli military
and economic power insulates them from having to face reality. This is
the meaning of Sharon's election, an antediluvian war criminal summoned
out of the mists of time to do what: put the Arabs in their place?
Hopeless. Therefore, it is up to us to provide the answer that power and
paranoia cannot. It isn't enough to speak generally of peace. One must
provide the concrete grounds for it, and those can only come from moral
vision, and neither from "pragmatism" nor "practicality." If we are all
to live -- this is our imperative -- we must capture the imagination not
just of our people, but that of our oppressors. And, we have to abide
by humane democratic values.

Is the current Palestinian leadership listening? Can it suggest
anything better than this, given its abysmal record in a "peace process"
that has led to the present horrors?

 

 

 

 

 

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