On “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims”
Edward Said’s article – and indeed his book The Question of Palestine – on Zionism as seen from the perspective of its Palestinian victims is a brilliant piece that not only recounts the dispossession of the Palestinians by a colonialist movement that had its roots in European colonialist attitudes, but also takes on the responsibility of presenting an alternative discourse that expresses the grievances of Palestinians, whose position has been largely ignored in the West. In fact, as Said points out, the ruling situation is that criticism of Zionism is falsely (and often deliberately so) passed off as “anti-Semitism”. Many scholars – Norman Finkelstein being one of the most outspoken ones among them – have criticized such a distortion, and as a result have had to face the wrath of radicals as well as liberals who, according to Said, have been “unable to overcome the Zionist habit of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism”.
Said uses his unique position as a Palestinian and a victim of Zionist colonialism to criticize Western intellectual tradition. However, his criticism is unique, in that it comes from within, and makes his position even stronger and less prone to falling into the trap of “the Other”. Said acknowledges the power of Zionism as “an idea for Jews”, but unlike other scholars, instead of focusing only on what Zionism means for Jews, he chooses to delve into other aspects. He thus embarks on a careful but exhaustive analysis of the colonial roots of Zionism, focusing in particular on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. He concludes that Western (and in particular European) attitudes towards the Orient have been based on racism and indifference to races that failed to be assimilated to Western ideas, which were of course considered the ultimate “solution”.
Returning to Zionism, Said talks at length about the three main ideas that were shared by almost all Zionist thinkers: that there were no Arab inhabitants; that the territory was empty; and that Zionist settlement was merely a restorative project. The very fact that Zionism has constantly “negated” the native population and worked on the bases of exclusionary policies even after the establishment of the State of Israel means that Israeli society today continues to face the “problem of the Palestinians”. Moreover, while it is unlikely that Herzl was unaware of the presence of Arab inhabitants in Palestine, the European inclination to consider the native inhabitants irrelevant made the legitimization of the Zionist project possible. In this context Said cites a number of quotes that demonstrate the racist attitude towards the native Arab population in Palestine.
Zionism’s zero-sum position on Palestinian presence meant that an active, systematic policy of Palestinian depopulation would be put into practice, coupled by Zionist (Jewish) population of the land. Said argues that the denial of Israel by Arabs pales in comparison to the denial of the native population by Israel. Moreover, the effectiveness of Zionism in imposing itself against Palestinian resistance lay “in its being a policy of detail, not simply a general colonial vision.” The Palestinians were unable and in fact refused to counter the Zionist detailed position, a failure that continues to this day, the result being the continuation and rapid expansion of Zionist enterprise in the West Bank. Said also discusses at length the policies of subjugation used by the Israeli authorities towards Arabs in Israel, such as the social-economic policies adopted in Nazareth and the massacre at Kafr Kassim.
Despite all these Draconian measures adopted in the past and present by Israel against its non-Jewish citizens as well as the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, there has been an outcry in the West at the branding of Zionism as racism. While Said acknowledges that Jewish achievements in Israel have been considerable and not deserving of such a negative sweeping generalization, he argues that Palestinians see in Zionism an ideology that seeks to dispossess them [further].
The biggest problem is, in fact, the legitimation of Israel by the West and the celebration of its human and social “achievements”. Said correctly points out the hypocrisy of the West in criticizing human rights abuses in some parts of the world while remaining silent when the issue of Israeli treatment of Palestinians is raised. Thus when it comes to Israel, the standards for judgment are much lower, so that merely observing democracy in Israel would satisfy the otherwise harsh critics of similar oppressive and racist regimes.
Said’s article offers an impressive array of quotes and sources, touching on a number of elements in Zionist policy and Western support of it (past or present), pinpointing both the grievances of Palestinians and their failure to maturely address them, as well as the positive aspects of Zionism (as perceived by Jews) and the destructive zero-sum approach that has characterized it. Perhaps the only element missing in this seminal piece on Zionism – although briefly referred to – is a discussion of the manner in which Sephardic Jews have been treated by Zionism, an issue tackled by Ella Shohat in her article “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims”. Such a discussion, had it been undertaken, would have transformed the piece from one concerned about the Jewish / nationalist element of Zionism to its capitalist (and therefore inherently oppressive and exclusivist) element.