Review of Edward Said’s “The Question of Palestine”

In world where political analysis and philosophical theory are generally kept apart by institutional forces, Said’s book on Palestine is a breath of fresh and rigorous air. Said’s book covers three basic issues or questions, and does so in a largely conceptual rather than historical manner. Slightly paraphrased for clarity, these questions are: What is Palestine? (Chapter 1), What is Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims? (Chapter 2) and What are the historical movements and future possibilities for Palestinian Self-Determination?(Chapter 3 and 4). Rather than attempt to be traditionally objective and give “both sides” of each issue, Said confronts the questions from his own perspective as a Palestinian in exile. This does not, however, mean that every issue is dealt with by the assertion of a prejudice – on the contrary, Said is interested in deconstructing prejudices and un-thoughtfulness on every side.  For instance, Said establishes himself not only as a critic of Zionism, but also a critic of a simplistic rejection of Zionism. And, while Said is clearly in favour of the liberation of Palestine and Arab liberation more generally, he expresses a corresponding concern that little concrete thought had been devoted to how Arab societies would be transformed such that they could be free from oppressive patriarchy. “The Question of Palestine” has much to teach any reader, not only about the history of Jewish settler-colonialism in the middle east and its effects on those unlucky enough to live in “the land without a people”, but perhaps more so about how it is possible (and necessary) to remain sharp and self-critical in a situation where the sheer strength of hypocricy on the other side makes it all too easy to believe that one stands invariably on the moral high ground.

The first question this book deals with is, I think, by far the hardest: what is “Palestine” and who are “the Palestinians”? A central part of the answer is simply that the Palestinians are a people on a land, and a people displaced from a land, who are not recognized as legitimately tied to that land. In that sense, they are part of the history of displacement of indigenous peoples by settlers. In a memorandum written by a member of the British Cabinet shortly after the Balfour Declaration we find this sentiment of utter lack of concern for the Arab inhabitants of British Mandate Palestine:

For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission has been going through the forms of asking what they are. The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right.(cited from Said’s “The question of Palestine” p 16-17).

Said remarks out that this document is not the “mere expressing of an opinion” but a “statement of policy that radically altered the course of history”(17).

Exclusion, then, makes up the negative aspect of Palestinian identity: Palestinians are those who are excluded from a land, excluded from rights, excluded from anti-racist considerations, and excluded from media coverage. All these exclusions were perhaps more radical when Said wrote this in 1979, but it is remarkable to me how excluded the Palestinian perspective is from discussions on the middle east in normal middle class discourse, even today (just look at, for instance, the attempts to marginalize “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid”, and “Israeli Apartheid Week” undertaken by the capitalist and political establishments).

But Palestine and the Palestinians are not only to be understood negatively – out of that negativity, argues Said, a positive political consciousness has developed:

…there is ample evidence to show that taken altogether as members of a community whose common experience is dispossession, exile, and the absence of any territorial homeland, the Palestinian people has not acquiesced in its present  lot. Rather the Palestinians have repeatedly insisted on their right of return, their desire for the exercise of self-determination, and their stubborn opposition to Zionism as it has effected them. (47)

Dispossession, exclusion, it is an experience – and as such can be a common experience and the basis for a self-conscious community. Said recognizes the limits of such a consciousness, however – specifically how it can be “stubborn” with respect to the force it finds itself excluded and oppressed by. It is imperative that neither Palestinian nor Zionist consciousness fall to the trap of treating the other as a temporary nuisance:

Much of the despair and pessimism that one feels at the whole Palestinian-Zionist conflit is each side’s failure in a sense to reckon with the existential power and presence of another people with its land….The actuality is that Palestinian and Israeli Jews are now fully implicated in each others’ lives and political destinies….Yet even so one must be able to discriminate between an invading, dispossessing and displacing political presence and the presence it invades, displaces, and dispossesses. The two are not equal, nor in the end is one eer going to prevail over and definitively dominate the other.(49)

This is, I think, a deeply serious way to conceptualize the situation of the “Palestinian question”. Palestinians do exist, they are oppressed. Neither group is going to disappear, but – and this is key – the need for a resolution and mutual recognition is not the same as the need to become an apologist and defender of crimes and atrocities. One can call for peace and mutual recognition without concealing the fact that Zionism is a settler colonial project, and a project imposed by imperialist powers. This is the stage of understanding that Said reached in ’79 – and I’m sad to say that very few in the mainstream each this level of comprehension today; thus the book remains relevant on this point.

In some ways, the second question is a repetition of the first – because it concerns the experience of Zionism from the perspective of its victims, in other words, from the perspective of those it excludes. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like reading this critique of Zionism in 1980 in the United States – I can imagine it would have upset many people, and tested the emotional capacity of academics to deal with disagreements that run right down to non-relativistic statements about moral rightness in the world. That said, today what’s interesting about Said’s critique of Zionism is perhaps not the arguments or the description of the victimizing experience of colonization, but the fact that he is at the same time able to recognize that from the Zionist standpoint, Zionism represents many things that are positive. Said makes the point numerous times that no simple equivocation between Jewish settlers in Palestine and white Afrikaner settlers in South Africa can be made – the complexity of the Jewish experience is not as simple as “black and white”. Said also rejects the UN resolution which condemns Zionism by stating “Zionism is Racism”, suggesting instead that “Zionism is Zionism”. However, what makes Said not merely a subaltern apologist for his own oppression is the fact that instead of turning reactionary against statements like “Zionism is racism” or “Israel is an Apartheid state”, he instead takes the allegations seriously and evaluates them without being exclusive or dismissive. That’s what a philosopher does – and incidentally it is something which is near totally absent from popular discourse on Palestine today. The current landscape is highly conducive to Palestinian perspectives that “recognize both sides”, which apparently means become an apologist for power and support Chapters, a corporation that supports the Israeli military, or stand-off events like Israeli Apartheid week which are responded to by hatred and spiteful rejection from Zionist communities. It’s hard to be thoughtful in a political situation which is axiomatized into the unthoughtful adherence to prejudice – and certainly more figures of Said’s caliber could do much to bring some common sense to questions which our societies demonstrate themselves incapable of coping with reasonably. I can hope that Judith Butler’s appearance at this year’s IAW might do something like this in Toronto.


Concerning the third question, Said even admits in the preface to the ’92 edition that the book is hampered by the fact it was written in the late 70s – which is now more than 30 years ago. However, the conceptual approach results in surprisingly relevant contemporary questions appearing in an out of date text. For instance, even in 1978 Said is able to see two possible “roads” by which peace in the middle east will be achieved:

One begins at Camp David and ends with an “autonomy” over which Israel, Egypt and the United States will rule indefinitly. The result is certainly continued conflict, greater and greater arms supplies (and use), mor eand more popular forces standing against the United States and its clients. That road is premised on the hope that power is persuasive enough to break the Palestinian will to self-determination…(195)

…the second road….[is based on] the fact that every Arab state has accepted United Nations Resolution 242 as a basis for peace in the region; the PLO has indicated that in return for a U.S. declaration of support for Palestinian self-determination culminating in an independent state it will formulate very concrete proposals on peace.”(196-7)

The alternatives were clear enough to Said in the 1970s, and they remain clear enough today: what future do we want to support in the Israeli-occupied territories? Indefinite occupation with the gradual neo-colonization of oppression (see the Palestinian Papers for examples of IDF-PA collusion in extra-legal execution of suspects), or the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state? While it is certainly possible to hold numerous views and positions on many aspects of the Palestinian question – I don’t think it is possible to hold the middle ground on what remains a fundamental interchange on the roadmap: Do you support the indefinite occupation and settlement of the ’67 territories until every valuable piece of land is owned by Israel and a neo-colonial “Palestinian Authority” takes over security duties from the IDF? Or, do you oppose on principle the denial of the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people, and insist that their democratic will must be recognized, and their national liberation struggle treated as a legitimate political goal which can be achieved in ways other than by violence?

If Said had been a musicien, perhaps he would have sung the following words to the tune of Florence Reece’s “Which side are you on“:

Which road are you on, boys? Which road are you on.


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