Rabbi Charles Sheer doesn’t recall many details about a program sponsored by a Jewish organization that he attended at Columbia University about 20 years ago: its date or location or theme. But he remembers that Edward Said was one of the panelists.
"He said that after the Holocaust, Jews didn’t have a place to go to other than their [spiritual] homeland," Rabbi Sheer recalled. "He said he understood the need for a homeland."
The remarks by Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia who for a generation served as the Palestinian people’s most prominent intellectual spokesman in the United States, were memorable for Rabbi Sheer, Jewish chaplain at Columbia and Barnard, because they were a rare instance when Said appeared sympathetic to the Jewish cause.
"It meant to me that he understood what it meant for a Jew to be homeless," said the rabbi.
Said, who died last week at 67 from leukemia, was an uncompromising advocate of the Palestinian cause and a critic of Israel. A one-time member of the Palestinian parliament-in-exile who broke with Yasir Arafat and the mainstream Palestinian leadership after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, he was feted upon his death by Arafat and other leading Palestinians.
Said, a virtuoso pianist, in August he joined Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim in Spain for a program that brought Israeli and Arab youth together to play in an orchestra.
To Jews across the political spectrum, Said was a gifted writer and speaker who used his gifts in a one-sided attack on Israel, best represented by his noted throwing of a stone toward Israeli soldiers at the South Lebanon border in 2000.
To many in the Jewish community, Said was a polished apologist for murderers. While condemning Arab acts of terrorism in general terms, in the context of what he called Israeli terrorism against Palestinians, Said was not known to have spoken in specific terms against the ongoing terrorist attacks aimed at civilians.
"Anyone of Said’s literacy who does not condemn suicide bombings is not worth listening to," said Nat Hentoff, a columnist for The Village Voice.
Menachem Rosensaft, a Manhattan attorney who was one of five American Jews who met Arafat in Stockholm in 1988, called Said "one of the old, recalcitrant anti-Zionist Palestinians who never wavered in his opposition to the existence of the State of Israel. He was polished, cultured … and beneath that veneer lay an absolute hatred for Israel and for anything associated with Zionism."
Said, who was born in Jerusalem and raised in Cairo, was an agnostic Christian. Though he lived near the campus of Columbia University, his paid obituary notice in The New York Times said he resided in "Jerusalem, Palestine."
He "stood in marked contrast to people like Abu Mazen or Abu Ala," the Palestinian Authority’s former and current prime ministers, who have engaged in a dialogue with the Israeli and American governments.
Although a well-known member of the Columbia faculty, he did not bring his views on Middle East politics into the classroom and rarely participated in the universities’ pro-Palestinian rallies, Rabbi Sheer said.
Said, a prolific author, is best known for "Orientalism," which described Western universities’ Middle East studies departments as bastions of pro-Zionist colonialism, and for "Reporting Islam," which emphasized the heterogeneous aspects of Muslim culture.
"Orientalism" is credited with changing academia’s perspective on the Middle East.
"He was one of the guys who helped turned the academic world into a boutique of anti-Zionism," said David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University and contributing editor to the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.
" ‘Orientalism’ fed into the growing Western belief that objective scholarship about the Middle Eastern world should be replaced by a certain type of propaganda: guilt-driven propaganda," he said. "[Said] believed it was the role of the university to serve as apologizer of the Western world, to confess its sins."
Gelernter, whose recent series of "Judaism Beyond Words" essays for Commentary are to appear as a forthcoming book, said Said, "the perfect embodiment of the Western, intellectual gentleman … did good in the sense of making clear that the idea of Palestinian moderation is a tragic delusion, a tragic myth. He made it clear that no matter how scholarly you were, the moderate Palestinian was a desert mirage."
In an open 2001 letter, Rabbi Michael Lerner, founding editor of Tikkun magazine, wrote that Said, "unfortunately … never has understood the validity of the Israeli side of the story, so he often talks as if this is a case of right against wrong, whereas in my view it is the clash of two rights."
In a 1999 interview in Tikkun, Said discussed a speech he had delivered at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, in which he urged his Palestinian audience to understand how the Holocaust experience had affected the Jewish psyche.
"The Jews" who founded Israel "were trying to revive a history as well as bringing their history of persecution and genocide in Europe with them," he said in the interview. "I know it’s asking a lot to ask Palestinians, who have suffered dispossession and not a whit of understanding or compassion from most Jewish immigrants, to understand this point of view, but I think it’s absolutely necessary if both of us are to admit the facts of each other’s history."