Friday, April 17, 2009

Said's Encounter

Back in 2000, Edward Said wrote a piece in the LRB entitled My Encounter with Sartre. It's supposed to reveal Sartre's views on Zionism, but as Said indicates, the meeting he attended was not particularly illuminating regarding Sartre's thoughts. Nonetheless, it isn't really disputed that Sartre was a member of the pro-Zionist camp, and in any event the article is interesting for other reasons. It was interesting to read Said's descriptions of the event -- his reputation as a writer is not undeserved. And it was interesting to read how he described the women ("Beauvoir had been a serious disappointment, flouncing out of the room in a cloud of opinionated babble about Islam and the veiling of women. At the time I did not regret her absence; later I was convinced she would have livened things up.").

But most interesting, to me, came at the end, when Said tries to parse why Sartre identified as a Zionist:
For reasons that we still cannot know for certain, Sartre did indeed remain constant in his fundamental pro-Zionism. Whether that was because he was afraid of seeming anti-semitic, or because he felt guilt about the Holocaust, or because he allowed himself no deep appreciation of the Palestinians as victims of and fighters against Israel’s injustice, or for some other reason, I shall never know.

What is missing from this list? Answer: Sartre was pro-Zionist because he genuinely believed that Zionism was integral to the liberation of the Jew, and thus was entirely consonant with a broader progressive agenda.

I don't expect Prof. Said to agree with this evaluation, of course. But it does strike me as noteworthy that the concept didn't even occur to him.It is one thing to say "Zionism is unjust", it is quite another to say "it is inconceivable that someone might think that it is just -- and if they claim they do, they are masking their true motivations."

But this is a line of analysis I at least hear quite often. When a progressive person (particularly a Jew) is pro-Zionist, it is nearly always diagnosed as a pathology -- "John Doe is great on issues X, Y, Z ... kind of crazy on Israel though ....", where "crazy" is defined as "identifies as a Zionist." The cry goes up: "All my Jewish friends are so progressive on every other issue -- why are they so reactionary on Israel?" I know as a typical cloistered and provincial Jew that I'm grateful I can be guided back to the true path by bias-free Gentiles who truly understand what justice means. How ridiculous would it be to trust a Jew (or their mouthpieces) to talk about it?

There is no serious contemplation that anyone views Zionism as growing out of the same progressive commitments that caused them to adopt their positions on all other issues -- even though that is precisely how most Jews themselves conceptualize their position. Fundamentally, this is about waving away Jewish experience from the start, and seeking to replace it with externally imposed explanations that put us in our proper place. Perhaps this is why so much of the anti-Zionist rhetoric directed at Jews treats us a victims of some sort of mass communal psychosis. One would have thought the neurotic Jew would be cliche by now, but the alternative is that we actually have an argument here -- that Prof. Said and his ilk don't have a monopoly on the forces of light. For those invested in Manicheanism, this might be the most horrifying thought of all.

Said often indicated that he, more so than many of his fellow travelers, understood what motivated Jews who supported Israel and the experiences that made them Zionist (spend enough time at Columbia and you're going to run across a Jewish perspective or two). Everything I've read by him on the topic, though, betrays that Said fundamentally had no clue what makes Jews (or their supporters) tick on this issue. Sartre might have been Zionist out of fear, out of guilt, out of empathic failure. But because he actually thought Zionism was just? Impossible.



Matt said...

I had the same reaction. But thanks for articulating it better than I could.

PG said...

Said seems to be defining "pro-Zionism" in such a way as to mean not merely in favor of the existence of a Jewish state, but as someone who is uncritically pro-Israel (which is to say, as a bit of a strawman, but he apparently couldn't find any example of Sartre's criticizing Israel).

For example, Said contrasts Sartre with Bertrand Russell. Russell thought the state of Israel as established in 1948 ought to be preserved (and was writing as early as 1943 for the Zionist Organization of America that "I have come gradually to see that,
in a dangerous and largely hostile world, it is essential to Jews to have some country which is theirs,
some region where they are not suspected aliens, some State which embodies what is distinctive in their culture"). But Russell also thought also that Israel owed something to the Palestinian refugees and ought not expand as it did in 1967.

Russell, then, was not anti-Zionist, and anti-Zionism doesn't seem to be what Said demands. Said does seem to find a failure to acknowledge the suffering of Palestinians to be fundamentally incompatible with progressivism.

Matthew said...

Have you read Sartre's Anti-Semite and Jew by any chance? I read it for my independent study in the fall, its pretty good and not long.

JordanBaker said...

I am actually not a fan of Said's writing because I find him lacking in empathy and prone to essentialism (see wild claims of a comprehensive view of all literature written about the Middle East in Orientalism , and I think you've put your finger on another piece of it.

For this reason I think he's a poor mouth piece for the Palestinian cause, which I have a lot of sympathy for. If you can't see your opponents as fully human, having the same complex set of motivations as you do, then you give others cause to be wary.