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The David and Goliath exchange, part 3: On the dishonesty of Palestine’s most vocal intellectual

[additional-authors]
November 19, 2014

Joshua Muravchik is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies and formerly a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He has published more than three hundred articles on politics and international affairs, appearing in, among others, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New York Times Magazine, Commentary, the New Republic, and the Weekly Standard. Muravchik, who received his Ph.D. in International Relations from Georgetown University, serves on the editorial boards of World Affairs, Journal of Democracy, and the Journal of International Security Affairs. He formerly served as a member of the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Democracy Promotion, the Commission on Broadcasting to the People’s Republic of China, and the Maryland Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights.

This exchange focuses on his recent book Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel (Encounter Books, 2014). Parts one and two can be found here and here.

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Dear Professor Muravchik,

A very interesting chapter of your book is devoted to Edward Said's role in the rebranding of Israel as a colonialist “Goliath” among many western liberals (our readers can find your basic arguments in this article). Your narrative stresses the disingenuous aspect of Said's work, his positions, and even the way he presents his biography. The picture that arises is one of multi-faceted phony.

Of course, many important leaders and advocates of causes have embellished their biographies and taken intellectual 'shortcuts' in promoting the causes they believed in. While you convincingly argue that the picture Said presented to the world about Israel is black and white and deeply problematic, one could claim that that's the way people effectively advocate for what they believe in. After all, Palestinian suffering and difficult conditions in refugee camps cannot be dismissed as a lie invented by Edward Said…

What do you think makes Said worse than one-sided advocates of Israel? 

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

My criticism of Said is not that he is one-sided but that he is dishonest. His work deserves to be given no intellectual weight, no consideration, because at each crucial point it rests on lies, double-talk, and deception.

We can see this on three levels: his account of his own life, his presentation of the Palestinian position, and his theory of “orientalism,” which was his intellectual signature.  Let me elaborate.

He claimed for most of his career that his personal experience was emblematic of the plight of Palestinians: namely that he had grown up in Palestine until he and his family were expelled by the Jews in 1948 when he was a teen.  He even made a television documentary about it.  It turns out that, although he had occasionally visited some cousins in Jerusalem, he and his family lived his entire childhood in Cairo in resplendent upper class luxury.  When he was nailed on this by Justus Reid Weiner, his ultimate response (after orchestrating a vicious attack on Weiner) was to shrug off his deception by saying: “I have never represented my case as the issue to be treated. I’ve represented the case of my people.”

Throughout the years of flagrant PLO terror operations and while it openly espoused the position that Israel must disappear along with most of its Jewish citizens Said insisted to Western audiences that the Palestinians wanted only peace and compromise and that it was Israel that instigated violence and refused reconciliation.  He spoke with authority because he served on the Palestinian National Council, the highest body of the PLO, and his writings lionized Yassir Arafat.  Then when the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, and the Arafat renounced terror and accepted in principle Israel’s existence, Said turned against him in fury, denouncing him as a “loser” and “has-been” who had “sold his people in enslavement.”

Said’s immensely influential theory of “Orientalism,” presented in the book of that title that made him famous, boils down to the claim that “every European, in what he could say about the Orient was . . . .a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” (On another page he stated that whatever he said about Europeans went for Americans, too.)  In order to prove this he offered up a miscellany of quotes and snippets from Western writers, some of them distorted, some selected from individuals of little influence, while omitting or suppressing an abundance of evidence that disproved his contention. 

For example, he altogether left out, except for a glancing and misleading mention, the work of Ignaz Goldziher.  Although not a familiar name today, Goldziher, a late-19th century scholar, was a towering figure in the field of Orientalism.  As one authority relied upon by Said (but not quoted in this respect) put it: “It is no exaggeration to say that Goldziher had created Islamology in the full sense of the term.”  Far from reflecting the enmity Said attributes to Western scholars of the Orient, Goldziher, a Hungarian Jew, was flagrantly philo-Islamic.  Living for years in the Arab world, Goldziher wrote:

I truly entered into the spirit of Islam to such an extent that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Muslim, and judiciously discovered that this was the only religion which, even in its doctrinal and official formulation, can satisfy philosophic minds. My ideal was to elevate Judaism to a similar rational level.

In short, Said was, as the (not-pro-Israel) British scholar, Donald Irwin, put it, a “malign . . . charlatan.”  Like, say, the tracts of the great dictators, Said’s work is worth reading for what it tells us about the mind of the author, not for its mendacious characterizations of the world.  If there are advocates for Israel who rely on similar dishonest methods, theirs would be of no greater value.

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