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Dignity, Solidarity and the Penal Colony

by via Parmenides Tuesday, Sep. 30, 2003 at 3:23 AM

As of yesterday on CounterPunch at: http://www.counterpunch.org/said09252003.html there is a 13-page Said excerpt from the book ‘The Politics of Anti-Semitism’, from which further extracts below: --------------------------------------------------------

Dignity, Solidarity and the Penal Colony
By Edward Said

Aside from the obvious physical discomforts, being ill for a long period of time fills the spirit with a terrible feeling of helplessness, but also with periods of analytic lucidity, which, of course, must be treasured. For the past three months now I have been in and out of the hospital, with days marked by lengthy and painful treatments, blood transfusions, endless tests, hours and hours of unproductive time spent staring at the ceiling, draining fatigue and infection, inability to do normal work, and thinking, thinking, thinking.

But there are also the intermittent passages of lucidity and reflection that sometimes give the mind a perspective on daily life that allows it to see things (without being able to do much about them) from a different perspective.


I am not speaking only about Israel's manipulation of opinion, but its exploitation of the American equivalent of the campaign against terrorism without which Israel could not have done what it has done. (In fact, I cannot think of any other country on earth that, in full view of nightly TV audiences, has performed such miracles of detailed sadism against an entire society and gotten away with it.) That this evil has been made consciously part of George W. Bush's campaign against terrorism, irrationally magnifying American fantasies and fixations with extraordinary ease, is no small part of its blind destructiveness. Like the brigades of eager (and in my opinion completely corrupt) American intellectuals who spin enormous structures of falsehoods about the benign purpose and necessity of US imperialism, Israeli society has pressed into service numerous academics, policy intellectuals at think tanks, and ex-military men now in defense-related and public relations business, all to rationalize and make convincing inhuman punitive policies that are supposedly based on the need for Israeli security.


With the exception of reports by a few intrepid journalists and writers such as Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Amos Elon, Tanya Leibowitz, Jeff Halper, Israel Shamir and a few others, public discourse in the Israeli media has declined terribly in quality and honesty. Patriotism and blind support for the government has replaced skeptical reflection and moral seriousness. Gone are the days of Israel Shahak, Jakob Talmon and Yehoshua Leibowitch. I can think of few Israeli academics and intellectuals-men like Zeev Sternhell, Uri Avnery and Ilan Pappe, for instance-who are courageous enough to depart from the imbecilic and debased debate about "security" and "terrorism" that seems to have overtaken the Israeli peace establishment, or even its rapidly dwindling left opposition. Crimes are being committed every day in the name of Israel and the Jewish people, and yet the intellectuals chatter on about strategic withdrawal, or perhaps whether to incorporate settlements or not, or whether to keep building that monstrous fence (has a crazier idea ever been realized in the modern world, that you can put several million people in a cage and say they don't exist?) in a manner befitting a general or a politician, rather than in ways more suited to intellectuals and artists with independent judgment and some sort of moral standard. Where are the Israeli equivalents of Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink, Athol Fugard, those white writers who spoke out unequivocally and with unambiguous clarity against the evils of South African apartheid? They simply don't exist in Israel, where public discourse by writers and academics has sunk to equivocation and the repetition of official propaganda, and where most really first-class writing and thought has disappeared from even the academic establishment.

But to return to Israeli practices and the mind-set that has gripped the country with such obduracy during the past few years, think of Sharon's plan. It entails nothing less than the obliteration of an entire people by slow, systematic methods of suffocation, outright murder and the stifling of everyday life. There is a remarkable story by Kafka, In the nal Colony, about a crazed official who shows off a fantastically detailed torture machine whose purpose is to write all over the body of the victim, using a complex apparatus of needles to inscribe the captive's body with minute letters that ultimately causes the prisoner to bleed to death. This is what Sharon and his brigades of willing executioners are doing to the Palestinians, with only the most limited and most symbolic of opposition.


Israel is frequently referred to as a democracy. If so, then it is a democracy without a conscience, a country whose soul has been captured by a mania for punishing the weak, a democracy that faithfully mirrors the psychopathic mentality of its ruler, General Sharon, whose sole idea-if that is the right word for it-is to kill, reduce, maim, drive away Palestinians until "they break". He provides nothing more concrete as a goal for his campaigns, now or in the past, beyond that, and like the garrulous official in Kafka's story he is most proud of his machine for abusing defenseless Palestinian civilians, all the while monstrously abetted in his grotesque lies by his court advisers and philosophers and generals, as well as by his chorus of faithful American servants. There is no Palestinian army of occupation, no Palestinian tanks, no soldiers, no helicopter gun-ships, no artillery, no government to speak of. But there are the "terrorists" and the "violence" that Israel has invented so that its own neuroses can be inscribed on the bodies of Palestinians, without effective protest from the overwhelming majority of Israel's laggard philosophers, intellectuals, artists, peace activists. Palestinian schools, libraries and universities have ceased normal functioning for months now; and we still wait for the Western freedom-to-write groups and the vociferous defenders of academic freedom in America to raise their voices in protest. I have yet to see one academic organization either in Israel or in the West make a declaration about this profound abrogation of the Palestinian right to knowledge, to learning, to attend school.

In sum, Palestinians must die a slow death so that Israel can have its security, which is just around the corner but cannot be realized because of the special Israeli "insecurity". The whole world must sympathize, while the cries of Palestinian orphans, sick old women, bereaved communities and tortured prisoners simply go unheard and unrecorded. Doubtless, we will be told, these horrors serve a larger purpose than mere sadistic cruelty. After all, "the two sides" are engaged in a "cycle of violence" which has to be stopped, sometime, somewhere. Once in a while, we ought to pause and declare indignantly that there is only one side with an army and a country: the other is a stateless, dispossessed population without rights or any present way of securing them. The language of suffering and concrete daily life has either been hijacked, or it has been so perverted as, in my opinion, to be useless except as pure fiction deployed as a screen for the purpose of more killing and painstaking torture-slowly, fastidiously, inexorably. That is the truth of what Palestinians suffer. But in any case, Israeli policy will ultimately fail.


One in particular has struck me as significant (and I have attached myself to it) inasmuch as it now provides the only genuine grassroots formation that steers clear both of the religious parties and their fundamentally sectarian politics, and of the traditional nationalism offered up by Arafat's old (rather than young) Fateh activists. It's been called the National Political Initiative (NPI) and its main figure is Mostapha Barghuti, a Moscow-trained physician, whose main work has been as director of the impressive Village Medical Relief Committee, which has brought health care to more than 100,000 rural Palestinians. A former Communist Party stalwart, Barghuti is a quiet-spoken organizer and leader who has overcome the hundreds of physical obstacles impeding Palestinian movement or travel abroad to rally nearly every independent individual and organization of note behind a political program that promises social reform as well as liberation across doctrinal lines. Singularly free of conventional rhetoric, Barghuti has worked with Israelis, Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asians, Arabs to build an enviably well-run solidarity movement that practices the pluralism and co-existence it preaches. NPI does not throw up its hands at the directionless militarization of the intifada. It offers training programs for the unemployed and social services for the destitute on the grounds that this answers to present circumstances and Israeli pressure. Above all, NPI, which is about to become a recognized political party, seeks to mobilize Palestinian society at home and in exile for free elections-authentic elections which will represent Palestinian, rather than Israeli or US, interests. This sense of authenticity is what seems so lacking in the path cut out for Abu Mazen.

The vision here isn't a manufactured provisional state on 40 percent of the land, with the refugees abandoned and Jerusalem kept by Israel, but a sovereign territory liberated from military occupation by mass action involving Arabs and Jews wherever possible. Because NPI is an authentic Palestinian movement, reform and democracy have become part of its everyday practice. Many hundreds of Palestine's most notable activists and independents have already signed up, and organizational meetings have already been held, with many more planned abroad and in Palestine, despite the terrible difficulties of getting around Israel's restrictions on freedom of movement. It is some solace to think that, while formal negotiations and discussions go on, a host of informal, un-coopted alternatives exist, of which NPI and a growing international solidarity campaign are now the main components.

In early May, I was in Seattle lecturing for a few days. While there, I had dinner one night with Rachel Corrie's parents and sister, who were still reeling from the shock of their daughter's murder on March 16 in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer.


I want now to speak about dignity, which of course has a special place in every culture known to historians, anthropologists, sociologists and humanists. I shall begin by saying immediately that it is a radically wrong, Orientalist and indeed racist proposition to accept that, unlike Europeans and Americans, Arabs have no sense of individuality, no regard for individual life, no values that express love, intimacy and understanding which are supposed to be the property exclusively of cultures that had a Renaissance, a Reformation and an Enlightenment.


This is a sort of parody of Hitlerian science directed uniquely today against Arabs and Muslims, and we must be very firm as to not even go through the motions of arguing against it. It is the purest drivel. On the other hand, there is the much more credible and serious stipulation that, like every other instance of humanity, Arab and Muslim life has an inherent value and dignity that are expressed by Arabs and Muslims in their unique cultural style, and those expressions needn't resemble or be a copy of one approved model suitable for everyone to follow.

The whole point about human diversity is that it is in the end a form of deep co-existence between very different styles of individuality and experience that can't all be reduced to one superior form: this is the spurious argument foisted on us by pundits who bewail the lack of development and knowledge in the Arab world.


The more important point I want to make, though, is that there is a very wide discrepancy today between our cultures and societies and the small group of people who now rule these societies. Rarely in history has such power been so concentrated in so tiny a group as the various kings, generals, sultans and presidents who preside today over the Arabs. The worst thing about them as a group, almost without exception, is that they do not represent the best of their people. This is not just a matter of no democracy. It is that they seem to radically underestimate themselves and their people in ways that close them off, that make them intolerant and fearful of change, frightened of opening up their societies to their people, terrified most of all that they might anger big brother, that is, the United States. Instead of seeing their citizens as the potential wealth of the nation, they regard them all as guilty conspirators vying for the ruler's power.

This is the real failure, how during the terrible war against the Iraqi people, no Arab leader had the self-dignity and confidence to say something about the pillaging and military occupation of one of the most important Arab countries. Fine, it is an excellent thing that Saddam Hussein's appalling regime is no more, but who appointed the US to be the Arab mentor? Who asked the US to take over the Arab world allegedly on behalf of its citizens and bring it something called "democracy", especially at a time when the school system, the health system and the whole economy in America are degenerating to the worst levels since the 1929 Depression? Why was the collective Arab voice NOT raised against the US's flagrantly illegal intervention, which did so much harm and inflicted so much humiliation upon the entire Arab nation? This is truly a colossal failure in nerve, in dignity, in self-solidarity.

With all the Bush administration's talk about guidance from the Almighty, doesn't one Arab leader have the courage just to say that, as a great people, we are guided by our own lights and traditions and religions? But nothing, not a word, as the poor citizens of Iraq live through the most terrible ordeals and the rest of the region quakes in its collective boots, each one petrified that his country may be next. How unfortunate the embrace of George Bush, the man whose war destroyed an Arab country gratuitously, by the combined leadership of the major Arab countries. Was there no one who had the guts to remind George W. that he has brought more suffering to the Arab people than anyone before him? Must he always be greeted with hugs, smiles, kisses and low bows? Where is the diplomatic and political and economic support necessary to sustain an anti-occupation movement on the West Bank and Gaza? Instead all one hears is foreign ministers preaching to the Palestinians to mind their ways, avoid violence and keep at the peace negotiations, even though it has been so obvious that Sharon's interest in peace is just about zero. There has been no concerted Arab response to the separation wall, or to the assassinations, or to collective punishment, only a bunch of tired clichés repeating the well-worn formulas authorized by the State Department.

Perhaps the one thing that strikes me as the low point in Arab inability to grasp the dignity of the Palestinian cause is expressed by the current state of the Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen, a subordinate figure with little political support among his own people, was picked for the job by Arafat, Israel and the US precisely because he has no constituency, is not an orator or a great organizer, or anything really except a dutiful aide to Yasser Arafat, and because I am afraid they see in him a man who will do Israel's bidding. (...) Has he entirely lost his sense of dignity?


But that has been the behavior of Palestinian rulers since Oslo and indeed since Haj Amin, a combination of misplaced juvenile defiance and plaintive supplication. Why on earth do they always think it absolutely necessary to read scripts written for them by their enemies? The basic dignity of our life as Arabs in Palestine, throughout the Arab world, and here in America, is that we are our own people, with a heritage, a history, a tradition and above all a language that is more than adequate to the task of representing our real aspirations, since those aspirations derive from the experience of dispossession and suffering that has been imposed on each Palestinian since 1948. Not one of our political spokespeople-the same is true of the Arabs since Abdel Nasser's time-ever speaks with self-respect and dignity of what we are, what we want, what we have done and where we want to go.

Slowly, however, the situation is changing, and the old regime made up of the Abu Mazens and Abu Ammars of this world is passing and will gradually be replaced by a new set of emerging leaders all over the Arab world.


I conclude with one last irony. Isn't it astonishing that all the signs of popular solidarity that Palestine and the Arabs receive occur with no comparable sign of solidarity and dignity for ourselves, that others admire and respect us more than we do ourselves? Isn't it time we caught up with our own status and made certain that our representatives here and elsewhere realize, as a first step, that they are fighting for a just and noble cause, and that they have nothing to apologize for or anything to be embarrassed about? On the contrary, they should be proud of what their people have done and proud also to represent them.
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