The Interpreters of Maladies
Rodinson's experience in the Communist Party, with which he broke over Stalinism in 1958, left him with a horror of dogma and led him to renounce "the narrow subordination of efforts at lucidity to the exigencies of mobilization, even for just causes." From then on, he was a free man, and in the following decade Rodinson published some of the seminal texts in Middle Eastern studies, including Mohammed (1961), a biography still banned in parts of the Arab world for approaching the Prophet's life from a sociological perspective, and Islam and Capitalism (1966), a study of the economic decline of Muslim societies. Although he remained an independent (or, as he quipped, "agnostic") Marxist, he appreciated the powerful role that religion played in the Arab world at a time when many European leftist observers of the region preferred to see it as a form of false consciousness that would melt into air once the Arab masses awakened to their "true" class interests.
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Rodinson distinguished himself as a leading champion of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, publishing a major article in Jean-Paul Sartre's journal, Les Temps modernes, under the title "Israël, fait colonial," and establishing the Groupe de Recherches et d'Actions pour la Palestine with his colleague Jacques Berque, the renowned scholar of the Maghreb. The bravery of Rodinson's position at the time can hardly be overstated, and not only because he was Jewish. In 1967, owing in large part to guilt over the Holocaust, Israel still enjoyed the unconditional support of much of the European left, including Sartre. By contrast, as Rodinson sadly observed in an interview with a PLO-affiliated journal, pro-Palestinian sentiment in the West tended to be confined to the anti-Semitic right and the Maoist fringes of the left: "Are these the milieux that you want to win over?" Thus did he urge the Palestinians to take their case to liberal Europeans and not "simply write off people who, at a given moment, have expressed sentiments of sympathy towards Israel and the Israeli people." He also warned, presciently but with less success, that "in the ardor of the ideological struggle against Zionism, those Arabs most influenced by a Muslim religious orientation would seize upon the old religious and popular prejudices against the Jews in general" and further tarnish the reputation of a just cause in the West. "The question is whether the Arabs want to continue to accord Zionism such valuable assistance."
Though unwavering in his support of Palestinian rights, Rodinson made no secret of his disagreements with the PLO; and because he offered his counsel as a friend, he earned the trust and respect of his interlocutors. To be sure, the Palestinian people have suffered no shortage of friends since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when liberal opinion in the West began to turn overwhelmingly against the occupation and in favor of a Palestinian state. But, like the Kurds, they have had few friends who have spoken to them as honestly as Rodinson did. He sought to disabuse his contacts in the PLO of their most dangerous illusions, starting with the idea that Israel's Jews could be driven out by guerrilla warfare, as the colons had been in Algeria. While he regarded Israel as a colonial-settler state, the creation of the state was now a fact, and "the time for questioning its wisdom is past. A tree must be judged by its fruits." Israeli Jews were an ethno-national community, not, as he remarked in a 1969 speech before the Egyptian Popular Assembly, "a heterogeneous collection of gangs of occupiers who could be sent back where they came from with the greatest of ease." As such, Israeli Jews had collective rights which Palestinians would have to honor in order to secure a just and lasting peace: "If there are two or more ethnic groups in the same country, and if the danger of the domination of one by the other is to be avoided, then both these groups must be represented as distinct communities at the political level, and each must be accorded the right to defend its interests and aspirations."
While speaking frankly to his Palestinian friends, Rodinson never forgot on whose side lay the preponderance of power--and therefore responsibility. Israel, he stressed, could not turn its back on its neighbors and pretend that it was a part of Europe, nor could it forever postpone a reckoning with the injustices it had committed against the Palestinian people. Until Israel faced these facts, all its paeans to peace would ring hollow in the Arab world:
Instead of simply demanding, as it has done for 20 years, that the Arabs accept its presence as a fait accompli, it could offer, in the name of fairness, to compensate for the injustice that has been done.... The Jewish state is no longer a dream built on a 2,000 year old myth; it is a national fact, build on a few decades of hard work and suffering. But the only chance it has of gaining the acceptance it so craves from its neighbors is by adopting a language of conciliation and compromise.... Could there be some hope that these people, who declare themselves to be builders and planters above all else, might choose this path to survival?