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Stones, Glass Houses, Sontag and Said | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

Stones, Glass Houses, Sontag and Said

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To put it all in a nutshell, come
the month of May Edward Said won't be traveling to Vienna; Susan
Sontag will be traveling to Jerusalem.

It's a backhanded
tribute to his effectiveness as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause
that the attacks on the Palestinian Said have, across the past couple
of years, reached new levels of envenomed absurdity.

The
latest uproar over Said concerns a trip to Lebanon he made last
summer, in the course of which he and his family took the opportunity
to travel to the recently evacuated "security zone" formerly occupied
by Israeli forces. First they visited the terrible Khiam prison and
torture center, then a deserted border post, abandoned by Israeli
troops and now crowded with festive Lebanese exuberantly throwing
stones at the heavily fortified border.

In competitive
emulation of his son, Said pitched a stone and was photographed in
the act. You can scarcely blame the man for being stunned at the
consequences. Throw a rock at a border fence, and if you are a
Palestinian called Edward Said you'll be the object of sharply
hostile articles about the infamous stone toss in the New York
Times
, face a campaign to be fired from your tenured job at
Columbia University and--this is the latest at time of writing--be
disinvited by the Freud Society and Museum in Vienna from a
longstanding engagement to deliver the annual Freud lecture there in
May. (To its credit, Columbia stands by him and says the calls for
his removal are preposterous and offensive.)

What, aside
from being an articulate Palestinian, is Said's crime? As he himself
has written, while "I have always advocated resistance to Zionist
occupation, I have never argued for anything but peaceful coexistence
between us and the Jews of Israel once Israel's military repression
and dispossession of Palestinians has stopped." Perhaps that's the
problem. Said makes a reasoned and persuasive case for justice for
Palestinians. He doesn't say that the Jews should be driven into the
sea. These, not the fanatics, are the dangerous folks.

Let
us now contemplate the role of Susan Sontag, another public
intellectual of large reputation. You can pretty much gauge a
writer's political sedateness and respectability in America by the
kind of awards they reap, and it is not unfair to say that the
literary and indeed grant-distributing establishment deems Sontag
safe. Aside from the 2000 National Book Award for her latest novel,
In America, she received in 1990 the liberal imprimatur of a
five-year (and richly endowed) "genius" fellowship from the MacArthur
Foundation, which once contemplated giving just such a fellowship to
Said but retreated after furious protests from one influential Jewish
board member, Saul Bellow.

Now Sontag has been named the
Jerusalem Prize laureate for 2001, twentieth recipient of the
biennial award since its inauguration in 1963. The award, worth
$5,000, along with a scroll issued by the mayor of Jerusalem, is
proclaimedly given to writers whose works reflect the freedom of the
individual in society.

Sontag was selected by a
three-member panel of judges, comprising the Labor Party's Shimon
Peres (now Ariel Sharon's foreign minister) and two Hebrew University
professors, Lena Shiloni and Shimon Sandbank. Peres approvingly cited
Sontag's description of herself: "First she's Jewish, then she's a
writer, then she's American. She lives Israel with emotion and the
world with obligation." When notified of her latest accolade,
Sontag's response was, "I trust you have some idea of how honored and
moved, deeply moved, I am to have been awarded this year's Jerusalem
Prize." Sontag is now scheduled to go to Jerusalem for the May 9
awards ceremony.

Why dwell on the mostly tarnished currency
of international literary backslapping? I do so to make a couple of
points concerning double standards. American intellectuals can be
nobly strident in protesting the travails of East Timorese, Rwandans,
Central American peasants, Chechens and other beleaguered groups. But
for almost all of them the Palestinians and their troubles have
always been invisible.

It can scarcely be said that Sontag
is a notably political writer. But there was an issue of the 1990s on
which she did raise her voice. Along with her son, David Rieff,
Sontag became a passionate advocate of NATO intervention against
Yugoslavia, or, if you prefer, Serbia. On May 2, 1999, Sontag wrote
an essay in the New York Times Magazine, "Why Are We in
Kosovo?" urgently justifying NATO's intervention. "What if the French
Government began slaughtering large numbers of Corsicans and driving
the rest out of Corsica...or the Italian Government began emptying
out Sicily or Sardinia, creating a million
refugees...?"

Sontag cannot be entirely unaware of a
country at the eastern end of the Mediterranean from which at least
750,000 residents have been expelled. She has always been
appreciative of irony. Does she see no irony in the fact that she,
assiduous critic of Slobodan Milosevic, is now planning to travel to
get a prize in Israel, currently led by a man, Ariel Sharon, whose
credentials as a war criminal are robust? Does Sontag see no irony in
getting a prize premised on the recipient's sensitivity to issues of
human freedom, in a society where the freedom of Palestinians is
unrelentingly suppressed? Imagine what bitter words she would have
been ready to hurl at a writer voyaging to the Serb portion of
Sarajevo to receive money and a fulsome scroll from Radovan Karadzic
or Milosevic, praising her commitment to freedom of the
individual.

Yet here she is, packing her bags to travel to
a city over which Sharon declares Israel's absolute and eternal
control--in violation of international law--and whose latest turmoils
he personally provoked by insisting on traveling under the protection
of a thousand soldiers to provoke Palestinians in their holy
places.

When the South African writer Nadine Gordimer was
offered the Jerusalem Prize a number of years ago, she declined,
saying she did not care to travel from one apartheid society to
another. But to take that kind of position in the United States would
be a risky course for a prudent intellectual. Said knows he lives in
a glass house, yet he had the admirable effrontery to throw his
stone.

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