Edward Said: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

Partners for Peace was deeply grieved to learn that Edward Said passed away today in New York after a long illness. Professor Said was a brilliant scholar and powerful voice for a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Even as he waged a difficult personal struggle against cancer, he maintained his vigorous efforts to advance Palestinian freedom.

Professor Said led many Americans — and, indeed, people all over the world — to the realization that Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories are both wrong and illegal.

I recall hearing his penetrating analysis on the BBC while listening one day in 1997 to the radio at the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. He expressed with power and passion many of the abuses I was witnessing and struggling with during my second stay in Gaza — from the cruelty of the Israeli occupation to the corruption of leaders in the Palestinian Authority. In fact, I had tuned in to the interview after it started and did not recognize his voice. Nevertheless, I stood there rapt with attention, stunned by the speaker’s ability to bring words to life, to paint verbally an absolutely compelling picture of the Palestinian case for freedom and justice, alongside all that had gone predictably wrong with Oslo in the four years since its signing in 1993.

On another occasion, while staying in the Old City of Jerusalem, I recall reading an op-ed of his — I believe in the International Herald Tribune following initial publication in Le Monde. How could one not be motivated to act between his poignant analysis and the proof of one’s own eyes?

Just a few months ago he was at the ADC’s annual convention and making important contributions to a discussion on how to create a movement to nonviolently advance Palestinian freedom.

He has inspired thousands of people, many of whom had never imagined working toward the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, to become involved in ending Israel’s long occupation of the Palestinian territories. He will be much missed, yet we should all take great heart in the fact that he has left behind people all over the globe dedicated to seeing that Palestinians and Israelis one day live together as equals.

It seems oddly appropriate here to recall the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. As he is wrapping up and just moments before he steps away overcome by emotion, he says, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

Edward Said has looked over into that same land and provided us with a glimpse of what a just future could look like and how best to proceed toward that day. If King is right, as I am sure he is, that “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice,” then we will get there. Professor Said was a great believer in taking up the seeming lost cause. Still, in the end, whether in the American South, Berlin, or South Africa we have seen in our lifetime that lost causes can be seen through to their ultimate achievement. One day, that too will be the case for Palestinians.

But Professor Said’s passing makes me fearful for many of his generation. The endless delay and obstructionism of the current Israeli government will mean that more and more will not get there with us. We must re-double our efforts on behalf of both Professor Said’s generation and those who today are children, in order that they will be free men and women when they reach their adult years.

Partners for Peace extends its condolences to Edward Said’s family members and loved ones. He will be profoundly missed — and most honored if we do not give in to despair, but take up his life’s work and see it through for all the people of the region.

Michael Brown is Executive Director of Partners for Peace.