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Writers or Missionaries? | The Nation

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Writers or Missionaries?

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V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul

The author would like to thank Sara Roy and Elias Muhanna. This essay is an adaptation of the 2014 Hilda B. Silverman Memorial Lecture delivered in May at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University.

But to quote a poster I recently saw in the home of a solidarity activist, isn’t Palestine still the question? That “still,” you’ll note, qualifies the confident “the”: it suggests an anxious insistence, perhaps a fear, that Palestine might not be the only, or central, question in the contemporary Middle East—especially now that much of the region is preoccupied with other matters, like the wars in Iraq and Syria, Iran’s overture to the West and the re-emergence of military rule in Egypt. It is, of course, only natural that Palestinians would consider the question of Palestine to be the question; they experience the daily humiliations of occupation and the sorrows of exile, the ongoing and, it seems, ever-deepening results of the 1948 catastrophe. It is only natural that Arabs and Muslims, for national and religious reasons, see Palestine as a sacred cause. For them, Palestine is not just a national struggle but a metaphor for suffering and redemption, exile and return, dispossession and justice. But that does not explain why Palestine is seen on the Western left as the question, the key that opens all doors in the region, not just those to the homes from which Palestinians were driven in 1948.

“Do you know why we are so famous?” Mahmoud Darwish asks the Israeli writer Helit Yeshurun in Palestine as Metaphor. “It’s because you are our enemy. The interest in the Palestinian question flows from the interest in the Jewish question…. It’s you they’re interested in, not me!… So we have the misfortune of having an enemy, Israel, with so many sympathizers in the world, and we have the good fortune that our enemy is Israel, since Jews are the center of the world. You have given us our defeat, our weakness, our renown.” As Darwish suggests, this concern for the Palestinians is not a matter of anti-Semitism, as Israel supporters claim, so much as it is a reflection of self-absorption: the Palestinians are important to the West because, through their oppression by Israeli Jews, they have become characters in a Western narrative.

I thought of Darwish’s remark when I saw a poster in the Balata refugee camp declaring, in English, “Our existence is resistance,” as if opposition to oppression were a way of life. “A gift from our foreign guests,” the Fatah leader Hussam Khader explained to me, unable to suppress a smile.

In an essay on French opposition to the war in Algeria, Pierre Vidal-Naquet observed that for a small but influential current of French dissidents, identification with the FLN’s struggle was a kind of surrogate religion; for these so-called Third World–ists, “Algeria represented the suffering just man and thus a Christ-like figure…the symbol of a humanity to be redeemed, if not a redemptive humanity.” The most devout Third World–ists, he noted, believed that Algeria’s liberation might awaken the dormant French working class, spark a revolution in France and rescue the West from its spiritual decadence. Vidal-Naquet, a scholar of classical Greece who lost his parents in the Holocaust as well as an independent socialist who campaigned tirelessly against torture during the war, saw this faith for what it was: part of France’s conversation with itself. The Algerian struggle, he understood, was a struggle for national self-determination, not for humanity as a whole, and Algerian nationalists were themselves profoundly divided, not some unified subject of history who could replace the proletariat. Today, it seems to me, Palestinians are for the radical Western left what Algerians were for Third World–ists in Vidal-Naquet’s day: natural-born resisters, fighting not only Israel but its imperial patrons, as much on our behalf as theirs. That is the role assigned to them in the revolutionary imagination. Like the kaffiyeh worn by anti-globalization protesters, this Palestine is little more than a metaphor. Palestine is still “the question” because it holds up a mirror to us. “Too many people want to save Palestine,” one activist said to me. But it could just as well be said that too many people want to be saved by Palestine.

I understand this Palestine-centrism and have felt its gravitational pull. Israel’s occupation, now nearly a half-century old, is the longest in modern history. It is subsidized by US tax dollars and maintained by a state that claims to speak not only in the name of the Jewish people but, more obscenely, in the name of those who perished in the Holocaust. I have witnessed the occupation’s horrors firsthand: the subjugation of an entire people through a system of pervasive control and countless petty humiliations, always backed by the threat of violence; the confiscation not only of that people’s land, but of its future. I have been shamed, as well as touched, by the hospitality for which Palestinians are rightly famous. While traveling in other Arab countries, I have seen the poisonous effect that the occupation has had on the perception of the United States, the well of resentment, suspicion and rage it has bred. Still, I am not sure that the Palestinians benefit when their struggle—an anticolonial, nationalist struggle like that of Algeria, no more, no less—becomes a matter of metaphysics rather than politics; when their suffering is romanticized, even sanctified. Palestinians need friends, not missionaries or fellow travelers.

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When Gershom Scholem scolded Hannah Arendt for showing no love of the Jewish people in her book on Eichmann, Arendt replied that she could not love a people, only friends. Her point was overdrawn for dramatic effect; our political positions are almost always influenced by the bonds we form. I would be the first to admit that my own hatred of the occupation has been deepened by spending time in Palestine with friends like Raja Shehadeh, a man who embodies sumud—steadfastness in the face of a system of oppression as absurd as it is cruel. But, as Arendt warned, too strong a bond with one people can lead to a contraction of empathy for others: the case of Israel illustrates this all too well. Love of a people in particular can lead us to engage in moral calculations that betray the principles we claim to hold, even to defend the indefensible. Now we are told, by some who call themselves friends of Palestine, that we shouldn’t concern ourselves too much with war crimes in Syria, unless they are committed by jihadists in the opposition; that, all things considered, perhaps Assad, the butcher of Yarmouk, deserves our “critical” support, since he is a leader of the resistance front, in the cross hairs of the West and the Gulf states. I have seen this argument made privately by one well-known champion of Palestinian rights; this person is a Quaker, but then so was Richard Nixon. According to Amal Saad Ghorayeb, writing in the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar, support for Assad is a litmus test of support for Palestine. How different, morally, is this from saying, as Benjamin Netanyahu has done, that Israel is better off if its Arab neighbors remain dictatorships? Can Palestinian emancipation be served by such vulgar anti-imperialism?

* * *

As the regional balance of power has shifted and American dominance wanes, I have begun to worry that an all-consuming preoccupation with America and Israel leads progressive writers to become strangely incurious about the crimes for which the West can’t be blamed and the developments, such as the politicization of sectarian identity, that are shaking the region far more profoundly than the Israeli-Palestinian arena. This paradigm also leads them to belittle, or simply to overlook, what academics call “agency”: the fact that people act in this region, and are not merely acted upon by more powerful external forces. And it has increasingly been my sense that much of the work Said inspired fails to examine the lived experience of people in the region; it often relegates much of that experience to silence, as if it were unworthy of attention or politically inconvenient.

Enormously liberating when it was developed, the critique of Orientalism has often resulted in a set of taboos and restrictions that inhibit critical thinking. They pre-emptively tell us to stop noticing things that are right under our noses, particularly the profound cleavages in Middle Eastern societies—struggles over class and sect, the place of religion in politics, the relationship between men and women; struggles that are only partly related to their confrontation with the West and with Israel. Indeed, it is sometimes only in those moments of confrontation that these very divided societies achieve a fleeting sense of unity. The theoretical intricacy of academic anti-Orientalism, its hermetic and sophisticated language, sometimes conceals an attempt to wish away the region’s dizzying complexity in favor of the old, comforting logic of anticolonial struggle. Anti-Orientalism will continue to provide a set of critical tools and a moral compass, so long as it is understood as a point of departure, not a destination. Like all old maps, it has begun to yellow. It no longer quite describes the region, the up-ender of all expectations, the destroyer of all missionary dreams.

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