When Did “Arab” Become a Dirty Word?

by Robert Fisk

Dissident Voice
November 6, 2003

First Published in The Independent


Is "Palestinian" now just a dirty word? Or is "Arab" the dirty word? Let's start with the late Edward Said, the brilliant and passionate Palestinian-American academic who wrote--among many other books--Orientalism, the groundbreaking work which first explored our imperial Western fantasies about the Middle East. After he died of leukemia last month, Zev Chafets sneered at him in the New York Daily News in the following words: "As an Episcopalian, he's ineligible for the customary 72 virgins, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's honored with a couple of female doctoral graduates."


According to Chafets, who (says the Post) spent 33 years "in politics, government and journalism" in Jerusalem, Orientalism "rests on a simple thesis: Westerners are inherently unable to fairly judge, or even grasp, the Arab world." Said "didn't blow up the Marines in Lebanon in 1983 ... he certainly didn't fly a plane into the World Trade Centre. What he did was to jam America's intellectual radar."


When I read this vicious obituary, I recalled hearing Chafets' name before. So I turned to my files and up he popped in 1982, as former director of the Israeli government press office in Jerusalem. He had just published a book falsely claiming that Western journalists in Beirut--myself among them--had been "terrorized" by bands of Palestinians. He even claimed my old friend Sean Toolan, who was murdered by a jealous husband with whose wife he was having an affair, was killed by Palestinians because they disapproved of a US television program about the PLO.


So I got the point. You can kick a scholar when he's dead if he's a Palestinian, and kick a journalist when he's dead if you want to claim he was murdered by Palestinians. But now the same sick fantasies are taking hold in Australia, where a determined effort is being made by Israel's supposed friends there to prevent the Palestinian scholar Hanan Ashrawi--of all people--from receiving the 2003 Sydney Peace Prize this week. A Jewish writer in Sydney has bravely defended her--not least because the local Israeli lobby appears to have deliberately misquoted an interview she gave me two years ago, distorting her words to imply that she is in favor of suicide bombings.


Ashrawi is not in favor of these wicked attacks. She has fearlessly spoken out against them. But Sydney University has already withdrawn the use of its Great Hall for the presentation of the peace prize and the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Lucy Turnbull, has dissociated the City of Sydney, sponsor of the prize, from the presentation. And just to show you what lies behind this--apart from the fact that Turnbull's husband Malcolm is trying to get a nomination for a parliamentary seat--take a look through the following exchange between Kathryn Greiner, former chairwoman of the Sydney peace foundation, and Professor Stuart Rees, the foundation's director:


KG: "I have to speak logically. It is either Hanan Ashrawi or the Peace Foundation. That's our choice, Stuart. My distinct impression is that if you persist in having her here, they'll (sic) destroy you. Rob Thomas of City Group is in trouble for supporting us. And you know Danny Gilbert [an Australian lawyer] has already been warned off."



SR: "You must be joking. We've been over this a hundred times. We consulted widely. We agreed the jury's decision, made over a year ago, was not only unanimous but that we would support it, together."


KG: "But you're not listening to the logic. The Commonwealth Bank ... is highly critical. We could not approach them for financial help for the Schools Peace Prize. We'll get no support from them. The business world will close ranks. They are saying we are one-sided, that we've only supported Palestine."


There is more of the same, but Professor Rees is standing firm--for now. So is Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein in Zmag magazine. Ashrawi, he says, "has endured campaigns of hate based on slander and lies for most of her life, from those who are intent on silencing the Palestinian narrative ..." But how much longer must this go on? Ashrawi, I notice, is now being called an "aging (sic) bespoke terror apologist" by Mark Steyn in, of all places, The Irish Times.


And it's getting worse. Said's work is now being denounced in testimony to the US Congress by Dr Stanley Kurz, who claims that the presence of "post-colonial theory" in academic circles has produced professors who refuse to support or instruct students interested in joining the State Department or American intelligence agencies. So now Congress is proposing to set up an "oversight board"--with appointed members from Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the US National Security Agency--that will link university department funding on Middle East studies to "students training for careers in national security, defense and intelligence agencies ..."


As Professor Michael Bednar of the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin says, "the possibility that someone in Homeland Security will instruct college professors ... on the proper, patriotic, 'American-friendly' textbooks that may be used in class scares and outrages me."


So it's to be goodbye to the life work of Edward Said? And goodbye to peace prizes for Hanan Ashrawi? Goodbye to Palestinians, in fact? Then the radar really will be jammed.


Robert Fisk is an award winning foreign correspondent for The Independent (UK), where this article first appeared. He is the author of Pity Thy Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (The Nation Books, 2002 edition). Posted with author’s permission.


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