Ten years since Edward Said’s passing: listen to his last major speech

Edward W. Said, 1935-2003.

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

Edward Said’s speech: “Memory, Inequality and Power, Palestine and the Universality of Human Rights.” We remember Professor Said on the tenth anniversary of his passing as we feature a part of his remarkable speech at UC Berkeley in February 2003, his last major public address in the US.

  • Professor Edward Said at UC Berkeley, 2003

  • Music: Tawazon I: Balance by Khyam Allami, from his recording Resonance/Dissonance, 2011

Edward Said at UC Berkeley, February 2003

Rush transcript (first half):

I’m incredibly moved and flattered to see all of you here tonight.

This is a very fraught moment to be speaking about human rights and the Middle East, and those of the Palestinian people in particular.

The United States of America has already sent a hugely intimidating military forces to various Arab and non-Arab countries in the regions surrounding Iraq. It is the people of Iraq who stand to suffer the most and whose doubly and triply miserable fate is of the deepest interest to people all over the world. I am sorry to say that none of this has had the slightest effect on what is a granitic will on the part of a tiny number of members of George Bush’s administration to go forward with plans for a war among whose stated imperial intentions is the unilateral wish to bring American style democracy to Iraq and the Arab world, redrawing maps, overturning governments and states and modes of life on a fantastically wide scale in the process.

That all of this has very little in the final analysis to do with the enhancements of human rights, in a part of the world especially rife with their abuse, is patently obvious. This is a war planned for many reasons; among them I would say the most important are resources and strategic control. The US has, at the very least, asserted its strategic dominance over the center of the world’s largest known energy reserves from the Gulf to the Caspian Sea. And it plans to reshape the area by pacifying threats to its dominance in countries like Syria, Iran, and some of the Gulf emirates.

To threaten war with such belligerence and such a wasteful deployment of military resources is an abuse of human tolerance and human values. Note also that by the end of the decade, China will be importing as much oil as the US, and by 2025, the United States will need to import a full 75 percent of its oil needs from the Gulf region principally.

As against those mighty facts, when a people are prevented from getting an education, or from being allowed to move, express themselves and organize freely without fear either of intimidation, collective punishment, or straight-out assassination, may seem therefore like relatively humdrum if not trivial issues, but they do pertain with a frightening parallelism to both the people of Palestine and the people of Iraq.

In either and both cases, my point here is to assert the universal applicability of human rights to those unfortunate people — given that since World War II, there has grown up an impressive, even formidable, world-wide consensus that each individual or collectivity, no matter his or her color, ethnicity, religion, or culture, is to be protected from such horrific practices as starvation, torture, forced transfer of population, discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnos, humiliation, extra-judicial political assassinations, land expropriations and all manner of similar cruel and unusual punishment.

I want to affirm also that no power, no matter how special or how developed or how strong or how urgent its claims of past victimization, is exempt from accusation and judgment if that government practices such things.

Once big powers start to dream of regime change, a process already begun by the Perles and Wolfowitzes of this country, there is simply no end in sight. Isn’t it outrageous that people of such a dubious character, actually go on blathering about bringing democracy, modernization, and liberalization to the Middle East? Heaven knows that the area needs it, as so many Arab and Muslim intellectuals and ordinary people have said over and over, but who appointed these characters as agents of progress anyway? And what entitles them to pontificate in so shameless a way when there are already so many injustices and abuses in our own country to be remedied?

It’s particularly galling when Perle, about as unqualified a person as it is imaginable to be on any subject, except, I’m told, souffles, in any subject touching on democracy and justice should have been an election advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government during the 1996-99 period, in which he counseled the right-wing Israeli to scrap any and all peace attempts, to annex the West Bank and Gaza to try and get rid of as many Palestinians as possible.

This man, and his colleagues, now talk about bringing democracy to the Middle East, and does so without provoking the slightest objection from any of the media pundits who politely, if not abjectly, quiz him on national television.

Colin Powell’s speech at the UN, despite its many weaknesses, its plagiarized and manufactured evidence, its audio tapes, which to anyone who knows Arabic are completely senseless, as well as its doctored pictures, was correct in one thing: Saddam Hussein’s regime has violated numerous human rights and UN resolutions. There can be no arguing about that. And no excuses. But what is so tremendously hypocritical about the official US position in the US is that literally everything that Powell has accused Iraqi Ba’athis of, has been the stock and trade of every Israeli government since 1948. And, at no time more flagrantly than the occupation of 1967.

Torture, illegal detention, assassination, assaults against civilians with missiles, helicopters and jet fighters, the annexation of territory, the transportation of civilians from one place to another for the purpose of imprisonment, mass killing as in Qana, Jenin, Sabra and Shatila, to mention only the most obvious, the denial of rights to free passage and unimpeded civilian movement, education, medical aid, the use of civilians as human shields, humiliation, punishment of families, house demolitions on a mass scale, destruction of agricultural land, expropriation of water, illegal settlement, economic pauperization, attacks on hospitals, medical workers and ambulances, the killing of UN personnel, to name only the most outrageous abuses.

All these, it should be noted with emphasis, have been carried on with a total unconditional support of the United States — which has not only supplied Israel with the weapons for such practices, and every kind of military and intelligence aid, but has also given Israel upwards of $135 billion in economic aid on a scale that beggars the relative amount per capita spent by our government on its own citizens. This is an unconscionable record to hold against the US and the secretary of state as its human symbol in particular.

As a person in charge of US foreign policy, it is a specific responsibility to uphold the laws of this country and to make sure that the enforcement of human rights and the promotion of freedom is applied uniformly without exception or condition. How he and his co-workers can stand up before the world, and righteously sermonize against Iraq while at the same time completely ignoring the ongoing American partnership in human rights abuses with Israel defies credibility. And yet no one, in all the justified critiques of the US position that have appeared since Powell made his great UN speech have focused on this point. And that is what I want to do this evening.

History is made by men and women, and the world we live in is a secular and historical world as a result. History is the product of human labor, choice and will. Nothing transcendental or divine can supersede that truth or suspend the consequences that flow from its application.

There simply is no convincing way to assert special claims whose origin is the divine. Claims that supposedly legitimate high-altitude or smart-bombing or the use of 60-ton bulldozers to demolish the houses of poor and defenseless people who don’t happen to belong to the correct religion or race.

Just as I feel as an American that the United States has not been divinely endowed with a special errand into the wilderness and that its practices been endorsed by God, I feel it is my moral and intellectual duty to oppose the unjust use of its immense military, economic and political power abroad for what is, it claims falsely, to be its national security interests. I have no power so I have to resort to the tools of education, to writing and speaking. By the same token, I want to reiterate my conviction here that the specific case of the denial of the human rights of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel cannot at all be justified on any of the grounds routinely accepted by far too many individuals and governments who would be the first to object to similar behavior in other cases.

So, far from Israel and the Palestinians being a special case of unusual circumstances, I think the exact opposite is true — that because Palestine is perhaps of all places on earth the most densely saturated with cultural and religious significance, precisely that reality makes it an instance of universality thwarted and flouted. The universality of human co-existence, human acceptance of the Other, and the human construction of a just and fair society for all — and certainly not only for some of its residents.

The point is that no state, no state at all, is entitled legitimately to object to these formulations and certainly no leader can state unarguably, for example as George Bush has, that the United States is good and its enemies evil. Or as General Sharon has announced and I quote, “we are placing no restriction on our operations in the Palestinian territories. Israel is under no pressure. No one is criticizing us or has the right to do so.”

I would submit that such sweeping statement of higher purpose and extraordinary impunity must be opposed and intellectually dismantled for the thuggish balderdash that such pronouncements really are, especially if they are intended to cover or explain or excuse or somehow justify barbaric devastation and vast ruin.

Yet the contrast between the immensely powerful and the relatively powerless is not so simple, since the great outcry all over the world against unilateral US war, and the felt need by even US government spokespeople to reiterate a general American commitment to democracy and human rights, does in fact reveal a profoundly worldly awareness that, aside from comfort and convenience, human beings today expect — rightly — to be respected, their requirements for a decent life met, their wish recognized not to be tortured or detained unlawfully, their concern for their children and their livelihoods accepted despite the supposedly higher priorities asserted by great power.

All these, in theory at least, are rarely challenged head-on and considered to be human entitlements. Even if such terrible abstractions as national interest and national unity are affirmed as being more important than individual rights. This unattractive and unacceptable argument now prevails in the US, where education in history has become a profoundly ideological battleground between proponents of a kind of primitive heroic white American nationalism and the much more sensible advocates of a multi-cultural, multi-racial reality — stressed, for instance, in his work by the prominent historian Howard Zinn.

This other American history includes a bitter legacy of domestic slavery, imperial conquest, and terrible class inequality. So the universally widespread conviction that everyone on earth deserves a modicum of human rights is only a symbolic moral power perhaps too ill-endowed to take on so redoubtable a force as American global reach and its all too numerous local henchman and the fearsomely neo-conservative spokesmen who want so-called American values to rule the world — resistance and objections notwithstanding.

To speak now about the Palestinian rights in so skewed a context therefore may seem quixotic. And certainly the current impression that Israel and the United States have borne all before them in their stubbornly-ingrained hostility to Palestinian self-determination reinforces the superficial impression, but I want to argue that is not at all there is to the whole truth. There are other accomplishments and realities also to be noted with positive approval and admiration.

During my own lifetime, Palestinians, since the climactic events of 1948, when their society was destroyed, and the establishment of Israel occurred, Palestinians have gone from the status of non-persons to that of a universally-acknowledged national collectivity, i.e., a people, by virtue not a force of arms but of other means — some of which I want to rehearse here. If for now the Palestinians are still stateless, dispossessed, and for the most part exiled, it is because by those very unmilitary means — some of which are the mobilized force of memory, the power of images, and the heroism and ingenuity of sheer persistence — Palestinians embody perhaps the most visible and certainly the most universal case of human rights abuses on earth today.

There is no desire on my part to be fetishistically competitive about such a claim, so I won’t go on about it any further. But I do want also to be able to talk about the visibility not only of their presence as victims of injustice and human rights denial, but of the equal forces they present, they represent on the world stage, of a wrong that must be righted.

Note that in all the many different places, conditions and politics that the approximately 7.5 million Palestinians now live in as citizens of Israel, as people under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, as refugees and stateless persons in several Arab countries, as refugees with various acquired nationalities scattered all over the world, and as members of a dispossessed people — Palestinians have developed a moral and political solidarity with each other, nothing less, in fact, than a national identity that has been the goal of Israel to deny, obliterate and refuse to acknowledge as sovereign.

To argue backwards for a moment, let me cite only one recent example of what I mean by denial and a refusal to acknowledge. It was precisely that refusal that flawed the Oslo process from the moment it was undertaken in 1993, alas, with unqualified and unprepared Palestinian representatives delegated to a task which was designed not to restore but to postpone and deflect the fulfillment of Palestinian aspirations.

In this, neither Israel nor the United States was moved by an acknowledgment of past injustices nor by a spirit of contrition or of reconciliation with their batteries of legal experts backed by disproportional military weight of both countries, and at the same time as more than double the pre-existing number of settlements were being created on Palestinian land and more human rights abused, Israel and the United States divided and subdivided occupied and ever-diminishing bits of Palestinian territory into smaller and less viable units for the unfortunate Palestinian Authority to take over and misrule, all under the misleading — not to say willfully deceptive — rubric of the “peace process.”

The overall plan beginning in 1948 was to start Israel as if afresh, a state arising from nothing, to take its place among the nations. In the affirmation of its renewed millennial identity, Israel managed for quite a while to remove the traces of Palestinian life for the most part, even though, of course, a large number of these traces, who remained as a remnant of the people despite the expulsions of 1948, were there as a humbled and scarcely perceptible presence ruled by military government inside Israel until 1966.

Even so, apparently innocent a discipline such as archeology, thereafter was complicit in the making over of the land and its markers, as if there had never been any Arab Palestinians there. This is chillingly described by Nadia Abu El-Haj in her recent book called Facts on The Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Her argument is that in the process of providing Israel with an ancient objectivized history visible in archeological evidence, the traces of other more just as adjunct histories were ignored or simply moved away. What remained became evidence, she says, for a kind of essential Israel-likeness, which gave the state a pedigree in a long distance past with the intervening cultures and peoples pushed aside.

Moreover, in a trilogy of powerful books entitled A Land without People, The Expulsion of the Palestinians and the third one, Imperial Israel and the Palestinians: The Politics of Expansion 1967-2000, the Palestinian-Israeli scholar Nur Masalha has unearthed both the practice and theory of emptying the land of Israel of its indigenous inhabitants.

Much of the pre-state Zionist ideology that mobilized Eastern European communities for the trek to mandatory Palestine was premised on the virtual absence of inhabitants, on what was often depicted as either a completely empty or a hopelessly arid land awaiting redemption. Later, or in some cases simultaneously, when the discovery of actual Palestinians could no longer be deferred or denied, there was a concerted effort to devise ways of spiriting them away, for which the war of 1948 provided field commanders and David Ben Gurion himself with a rich opportunity.

These are amply attested to in the Israeli military archive as combed assiduously by a number of Jewish as well as numerous Arab researchers including Masalha himself. Since 1967, the desire to efface or repress what has remained of an institutionalized Palestinian life in the cities and villages of the West Bank and Gaza has remained an often explicitly stated Israeli goal, recently hidden inside the polemics of a war for Israel’s survival and a defense against extremist terrorism.

But whether its new Jewish citizens liked it or not, Israel was always been encumbered by Palestinian memory — which is one of my themes here. It is not as if a whole existence of a people can be easily wiped away like a footprint in the sand. The sheer banality of such a possibility is too obvious to require more comment here. What I would like to note, however, is as the resourceful Palestinian-Israeli sociologist Ahmad Sa’di has shown in a brilliant piece of historical and social synthesis, the more Israel has unilaterally exerted its considerable force to bury the Palestinian past as it were, there has been a painstaking collective and yet uncoordinated Palestinian memory that has maintained Palestinian history since the Nakba of 1948, as a tremendously potent site of memory.

Cinema is one result. What has remained of the vastly dispersed and disjunctive fragments of history since 1948 have been painstakingly collected over time by individuals as objects of memory. Such objects as house keys, title deeds, photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, embroideries, and so forth. And through film, fiction, poetry, oral discourse, critical and political analysis, significant or traumatic collective experiences like the Deir Yassin, Kufr Qasem, Sabra and Shatila and Jenin events, the significant episodes of Palestinian suffering have been preserved along with a national life that bore and outlived them.



Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).