The Interpreters of Maladies
"Maxime Rodinson is dead, but his work is not," the Algerian historian Mohammed Harbi wrote in an obituary in Le Monde. Indeed, if the French have pursued a far-sighted, balanced policy in the Middle East, it is partly because men like Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin have listened to the sober wisdom of Rodinson and protégés like Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy, rather than to the purring assurances of Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis.
Rodinson was born in 1915 in Marseille, the son of Russian-Polish working-class immigrants. Rodinson's parents were Communists, and he, too, joined the party as a young man. Yet it was not revolutionary Russia, the land of his parents, that captured his imagination but the Middle East. After studying at the École des Langues Orientales in Paris, Rodinson landed a job at the French Institute in Damascus--a haven, in 1940, from the gathering flames of French anti-Semitism. Eight years later he returned to France an orphan, his parents having been deported to Auschwitz by the Vichy authorities.
The murder of his parents did not, however, lead Rodinson to embrace Zionism, whose support among Jews had swiftly grown after the Holocaust, and whose triumph would ultimately lead to the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs--the Palestinian Nakba, or "catastrophe." If anything, the creation of Israel made him feel "a special duty" toward the people it had dispossessed: "I prefer to link myself to Judaism in this manner rather than others." As he put it:
I would be the last to minimize the atrocity of Auschwitz, where my father and mother perished. But don't the tears of others count? Must I turn a blind eye to the tears caused by those who call themselves--and are to some degree--my congeners, even if they too are survivors of Auschwitz?... I am not saying...that it has attained the dimensions of Auschwitz, but many Jews have made many tears flow in the land of Palestine."
Vilified by his detractors as an uncritical apologist for the Arabs, he was nothing of the kind. "I have never subscribed to all the political attitudes, tactics, and strategies of the Arabs," he once said. "Arab intellectuals are well aware of this, and some of them have accused me...of being anti-Arab, anti-Islam, and even guilty of a crypto-Zionism all the more dangerous for its subtlety. The parallel between the apologetic methods (both defensive and offensive) of Zionism and those of the extreme forms of Arab nationalism, or of any nationalism for that matter, is striking."