In early June I sat on a panel, in front of a large and mainly Arab audience, with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. Our hosts, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, had asked for a discussion of contrasting images of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The general tempo of the meeting was encouragingly nontribal; there were many criticisms of Arab regimes and societies, and one of our co-panelists, Raghida Dergham, had recently been indicted in her absence by a Lebanese military prosecutor for the offense of sharing a panel discussion with an Israeli. However, it’s safe to say that most of those attending were aching for a chance to question Friedman in person. He was accused directly at one point of writing in a lofty and condescending manner about the Palestinian people. To this he replied hotly and eloquently, saying that he had always believed that "the Jewish people will never be at home in Palestine until the Palestinian people are at home there."
That was well said, and I hadn’t at the time read his then-most-recent column, so I didn’t think to reply. But in that article he wrote that Chairman Arafat, by his endless double-dealing, had emptied the well of international sympathy for his cause. This is a very Times-ish rhetoric, of course. You have to think about it for a second. It suggests that rights, for Palestinians, are not something innate or inalienable. They are, instead, a reward for good behavior, or for getting a good press. It’s hard to get more patronizing than that. During the first intifada, in the late 1980s, the Palestinians denied themselves the recourse to arms, mounted a civil resistance, produced voices like Hanan Ashrawi and greatly stirred world opinion. For this they were offered some noncontiguous enclaves within an Israeli-controlled and Israeli-settled condominium. Better than nothing, you might say. But it’s the very deal the Israeli settlers reject in their own case, and they do not even live in Israel "proper." (They just have the support of the armed forces of Israel "proper.") So now things are not so nice and many Palestinians have turned violent and even–whatever next?–religious and fanatical. Naughty, naughty. No self-determination for you. And this from those who achieved statehood not by making nice but as a consequence of some very ruthless behavior indeed.
I am writing these lines in memoriam for my dear friend and comrade Dr. Israel Shahak, who died on July 2. His home on Bartenura Street in Jerusalem was a library of information about the human rights of the oppressed. The families of prisoners, the staff of closed and censored publications, the victims of eviction and confiscation–none were ever turned away. I have met influential "civil society" Palestinians alive today who were protected as students when Israel was a professor of chemistry at the Hebrew University; from him they learned never to generalize about Jews. And they respected him not just for his consistent stand against discrimination but also because–he never condescended to them. He detested nationalism and religion and made no secret of his contempt for the grasping Arafat entourage. But, as he once put it to me, "I will now only meet with Palestinian spokesmen when we are out of the country. I have some severe criticisms to present to them. But I cannot do this while they are living under occupation and I can ‘visit’ them as a privileged citizen." This apparently small point of ethical etiquette contains almost the whole dimension of what is missing from our present discourse: the element of elementary dignity and genuine mutual recognition.