To the Editors:
Amos Elon [“Exile’s Return,” NYR, November 18, 1999] refers to my September 1999 article in Commentary, “‘My Beautiful Old House’ and Other Fabrications by Edward Said,” calling it a “diatribe” no fewer than three times. That article, based on more than three years of research into, among other sources, libraries, public-record offices, and archives, as well as over eighty-five interviews, revealed a completely different picture of Edward Said from the one he himself had crafted over the decades.
In brief, Said, who has declared that the responsibility of the intellectual is “to speak the truth, as plainly, directly, and as honestly as possible,” has done precisely the opposite. Contrary to his pose as a Palestinian refugee, he did not grow up with his family in Jerusalem, and was not driven from there to Cairo by a Zionist sound truck in mid-December 1947. Rather, he spent his childhood in Cairo, the son of a wealthy businessman with American citizenship, living in luxurious apartments, enrolled in private English and American schools, playing tennis at the exclusive Gazira Sporting Club, and traveling first-class to visit relatives in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Said’s new memoir, Out of Place, the ostensible occasion of Elon’s piece, was released one month after I published my article. In it, he offers, for the first time, a detailed account of his childhood in Cairo. However, compounding deception with deceit, nowhere in its hundreds of pages does he acknowledge the bombshell disparity between this less fictional account of his youth and nearly everything he has said before. Now, feigning ignorance of this deception, Amos Elon writes: “I don’t know what Said has said or not said in his many radio and television appearances.”
It would be more accurate to say that Elon does not wish to know. In my article, quoting not from radio or television appearances but from written sources, I cited such unambiguous statements as these: “I was born in Jerusalem and spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt”(London Review of Books, May 7, 1998) and “my recollections of my early days in Palestine, my youth, the first twelve or thirteen years of my life before I left Palestine” (The Pen and the Sword, 1994).
Despite himself, Elon cannot help implicitly acknowledging that Out of Place is, after all, inconsistent with Said’s earlier autobiographical posture. And so he resorts to a fallback position: “It would scarcely make a difference if [Said] had spent all of his formative years outside Palestine (as did David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and a great many Israelis).” I myself would agree with this statement—if only, unlike “David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and a great many Israelis,” Said had told the truth instead of disseminating around the globe a story of having spent his formative years inside Palestine.
This is a matter of no little public consequence, for Said has masqueraded, and continues to masquerade, as what he is not: a dispossessed Palestinian refugee entitled to “reparations” from the state of Israel. Although Elon hotly condemns my “outrageous extrapolation” from Said’s “alleged fraud” to “the entire Palestinian case,” the shoe happens to be squarely on the other foot. In my article I explicitly stipulate that “hundreds of thousands of (genuine) Palestinian refugees [left] the Mandatory territory for various reasons,” and in a note I add that “whatever his own personal circumstances may have been, I am hardly questioning Said’s right to support personal and property claims by Palestinian refugees in general.” What I am questioning—what I have demonstrated to be wholly fraudulent—is Said’s claim to have been among those refugees and to have suffered such losses.
The issue, in short, is not my “extrapolation” but Said’s. Indeed, one might think that anyone genuinely concerned with “the entire Palestinian case” would find this extrapolation of his truly outrageous: a reckless and dishonest and morally quite shameful attempt to piggyback on the hard experiences of others for the sake of personal and political aggrandizement. But none of that seems to bother Amos Elon: since Said’s extrapolation happens to coincide with his politics, anything goes—lies included. In the circle they share, is this what is meant by the responsibility of intellectuals?
Justus Reid Weiner
Scholar in Residence
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Amos Elon replies:
Keats wrote that “fanatics have a dream by which they weave a paradise for a sect.” Justus Reid Weiner and his sect are locked into a curious fools’ paradise. They take comfort in the assumption that in the century-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the wrongs have all been on one side, as in an old cowboy movie. Weiner’s key argument in his recent diatribe in Commentary was that far from having been a refugee in 1948, the twelve-year-old Edward Said was only a spoiled rich boy playing tennis at the Gazira Sporting Club in Cairo; after this attempt to expose Edward Said as a fraud, Weiner went on to try to discredit the cause of the “Palestinian people” as a similar myth. He wrote this explicitly in the concluding part of his strange article. For Edward Said, he asked the reader,
now substitute the Palestinian people…and one begins to gain some apprehension of the myth-driven passions that have animated the revanchist program of so many Palestinian nationalistswhose expanding political ambitions often seem, even to sympathetic observers, permanently insusceptible of being satisfied through the normal processes of politics.
In his letter to The New York Review, Weiner still declines to retract or to elucidate this outrageous extrapolation. Instead, he continues his personal smear campaign. Weiner, who claims to have read everything Said wrote over the years, still insists that Said has tried to conceal the details of his childhood. This is simply false. Said has written extensively about this experience, in House and Garden, April 1987, and in The London Review of Books, May 7, 1998, both cited by Weiner in his article.
Edward Said could certainly have been more precise in some of his statements about himself. But the political cause he has advocated over the years on behalf of the stateless, dispossessed, and dispersed Palestinians is a just one. And not even Weiner in his diligent searches has managed to disprove Said’s claim that in the winter of 1947-1948 he and his family sought refuge from the war outside Palestine, as did hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians at the time. The fact remains that shortly afterward the family’s property in Jerusalem was confiscated. Said and his family became political refugees as the result of the Israeli government’s refusal to allow them to return to the country of their birth. The fact that the family was rich and lived, while in Egypt, in comfortable apartments is irrelevant.