No. 422 9 Shevat 5760 / 16 January 2000
Recently, Commentary magazine published “‘My Beautiful Old House’ and Other Fabrications of Edward Said,” an expose I had written of the myths Said had created while reinventing his life story to become a “Palestinian refugee.”3 In addition, the Wall Street Journal published a condensed version entitled “The False Prophet of Palestine” (August 26, 1999).
Unraveling the Mystery
The unraveling of this mystery began as I was preparing an article on “Peace and its Discontents: Israeli and Palestinian Intellectuals Who Oppose the Current Peace Process,” which appeared in the Cornell International Law Journal (Winter 1996). Part of my research included reading Said’s book Peace and its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process.
Out of natural curiosity, I tried to find out more about this highly persuasive and influential intellectual-academic and his tragic childhood/adolescence in Jerusalem, especially since I had lived around the corner from what he nostalgically referred to as “my beautiful old house” on Brenner Street, and I had worked for years in an office behind St. George’s school which Said claimed to have attended.
Yet when I sought out people who might recall Said or at least could remember the prevailing conditions prior to or during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, much of what I discovered was at odds with the “facts” as presented by Said. As I dug deeper, I found a pervasive pattern of falsity. When I began discovering discrepancies in Said’s frequent autobiographic references, I telephoned his office at Columbia University to request an interview, but Said did not return the call.
The publication of my expose triggered a major controversy, “detonating one of the nastiest rows of its kind to rend New York’s intelligentsia in years,” according to the British Observer. Scores of articles appeared in far-flung publications from Finland to India and from Syria to Canada. The (London) Daily Telegraph deemed the article “a remarkable piece of investigative journalism,” and it has been nominated for a prestigious award in the United States.
An Avatar of Palestinian Suffering
Where and under what circumstances an intellectual or academic grew up would ordinarily be of little consequence, but this case is different. His “entire” family, as Said tells it, was “ethnically cleansed.”
In his narratives, Edward Said paints romantic images of pre-1948 Palestine as a paradise, where his life was simple, harmonious, and happy. This parable of perfection was rudely destroyed by the outbreak of inter-communal conflict which preceded the 1948 War, allegedly forcing young Edward out of his home and school in Jerusalem and into “the Palestine exile” for “50 years.”4
According to Said, “the central metaphor for me is exile,”5 and “1947 was for me and my family the last year of our residence in Jerusalem.”6 He claimed on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour that “I lost – and my family lost – its property and rights in 1948.”7
Yet after more than three years of research in archives, libraries, and public record offices on four continents, together with more than 85 interviews, a very different picture of Said’s life has emerged. Edward Said in fact created a parable out of the first twelve years of his life and used it to perpetrate a multi-level deception on Western intellectuals and his Palestinian admirers alike.
Edward Said actually grew up in Cairo, Egypt. His childhood friend Professor Hoda Gindi of Cairo University, who lived downstairs in the same apartment house, confirmed that Said was the scion of a wealthy Cairene family. As was discovered, his father was an American citizen who moved to Cairo from Jerusalem a decade before Edward was born. Living in Cairo until his departure to attend prep school in America in 1951, Edward Said resided with his family in luxurious apartment buildings in the exclusive Zamalek neighborhood, played with childhood friends in the manicured private gardens of the Aquarium Grotto, attended private English and American schools, was driven around in his father’s large black American cars by his chauffeur, and enjoyed the facilities at the exclusive Gezira Sporting Club as the son of one of its only Arab members.
Said’s father was the owner of a thriving office supply business, the Standard Stationary Company, based in Cairo. In 1952 a revolutionary mob burned his flagship store (and a branch) to the ground, and several years later the nationalization program instituted by Egyptian President Nasser ultimately forced Said’s father out of the country. Thus, the truly devastating financial losses suffered by Said’s father were in no way connected to Israel.
Evicting Martin Buber
In a speech at Birzeit University in 1998, Said publicly charged that the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, known as an apostle of coexistence between Arabs and Jews, had lived in the Brenner Street house and “did not mind living in an Arab house whose inhabitants had been displaced.”8
Once again, the truth involves a very different story. The house at 10 Brenner Street was built in the early 1930s and its registered owners were Said’s grandfather and later his aunt and her five children. There is no record in the Land Registry of Edward Said’s parents ever owning any interest in the house. The building was initially divided into two apartments which were rented out from 1936 onwards. After 1938, one apartment (and a downstairs storeroom) was leased to Martin Buber and his extended family, all of them recent refugees from Nazi Germany. The Bubers, relying on the long-term nature of their lease, made major improvements in the apartment and landscaped the garden.
In early 1942, Edward Said’s aunt broke the lease and reclaimed the premises for her family’s personal use, winning a judge’s ruling in favor of eviction, and forcing Buber to vacate together with his library of some 15,000 books.9 Given the shortage of housing in Palestine during World War II, their eviction could not have come at a worse time. Curiously, this event occurred during the very period when Edward Said was himself allegedly growing up in the same house, and long before Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, but Said never mentioned the presence of Martin Buber or his library in “my beautiful old house” during those years.
Said’s Network of Friends
As responses to my article began to pour in, an obvious dichotomy emerged. First, there was the network of Said’s friends whose names had come up frequently in my research into his writings. Their articles, editorials, and book reviews regularly lauded Said the man and often even Said the icon. Interestingly, the admiration was mutual as Said had written favorably about them (or their writings). For example, in 1986 Salman Rushdie reviewed Said’s book After the Last Sky in the Guardian; then Said wrote favorably about Rushdie in the Washington Post and reviewed his book The Jaguar Smile in the London Review of Books. On at least three other occasions Rushdie and Said have engaged in mutually flattering conversations which were later published. Since the current controversy broke, Rushdie has jumped in on Said’s side with an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail (Canada) which also appeared in The Age (Melbourne).
Next there is Christopher Hitchens, who in 1988 co-edited Blaming the Victims with Said and later wrote a laudatory foreword to Said’s book Peace and Its Discontents. Recently, Hitchens has devoted two of his columns in The Nation and a review of Said’s Out of Place for the (Canadian) National Post to vitriolic attacks on me and my critique of Said’s intellectual dishonesty. In a recent radio interview, Said referred to Hitchens as “my defender.”
Said’s close connection with Alexander Cockburn goes back to at least the early 1980s, when a scandal broke concerning an undisclosed $10,000 “grant.” In 1982, the now-defunct Institute of Arab Studies secretly gave Cockburn a $10,000 “grant” to write a book on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.10 When the payment was exposed, Cockburn, who had never disclosed it to his editor or readers, was sacked from the Village Voice. Meanwhile his friend Edward Said, Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Arab Studies, under questioning arising out of the scandal, defended its work in the New York Times.
Apparently undeterred by the uproar, Cockburn’s book Corruptions of the Empire was reviewed by Edward Said in the London Review of Books under the title of “Alexander the Brilliant.” Said wrote, “Why, in the desert of today’s journalistic mediocrity and cowardly trimming, anyone with Cockburn’s gifts and courage should be modest, or mock-modest, I shall leave to others to discuss.” Cockburn later provided a blurb for the inside cover page of Said’s Representations of the Intellectual. He has on at least two occasions touted Said in his column in The Nation, and recently devoted his column in that magazine to a no-holds-barred attack on my research. Cockburn also published similar attacks in his columns in the Los Angles Times and in the New York Press.
The Response of Independent Journalists
Fortunately, there exist many dedicated journalists who took the trouble to investigate and ascertain how the parties’ claims stood up to analysis. This group, none of whom I have ever had dealings with, includes Daniel Johnson of the Daily Telegraph, Jeff Jacoby syndicated in the Boston Globe, Dan Kennedy in the Boston Phoenix, Premen Addy in The Hindu, Charles Krauthammer in Time, Mark Berley in the New York Post, Neil Seeman in the (Canadian) National Post, Hillel Halkin in The Forward, and David Horowitz at salon.com. Despite their efforts, judging from what appeared in print, not a single journalist succeeded in pinning down Said on even one of the direct quotes which I included in my article. I was repeatedly told that he became angry and simply dismissed any effort to address the key evidence of his duplicity.
Generating a Smokescreen
In the months since the publication of the article, Said and his followers have never attempted, in any systematic way, to refute the evidence. Instead, Said’s network of friends echoed and amplified his attacks, publishing suspiciously similar criticisms of my work. Not only are the specific points of attack frequently identical, but similar phraseology suggests common parentage.
One of the most curious allegations that occurred in the aftermath of the article was Said’s accusation published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (August 26, 1999) that I had threatened his cousin Robert Said, a man whom I have never met or even spoken with. Actually, it was my Belgian research assistant, Paul Lambert, who is half my age, who conducted the interview with Robert Said in his office in Amman on January 23, 1997. According to Lambert, today a cadet in the Belgian diplomatic corps,
Robert Said met me in his impressive office, on the second floor of a large office supply company. Although initially gracious – I was offered a cup of coffee – once I began asking basic questions about Edward’s childhood and the house [on Brenner St. in Jerusalem], Robert Said refused to answer. He then turned verbally abusive, shouting insults and gesticulating with his hands….At no time did I…threaten him saying anything like “it would be better if you answered questions.” This claim is manifestly factually incorrect, I would even say grotesque: if one should have felt threatened it was me. Indeed, Robert Said called in one of his bouncer co-workers and went on shouting at me unpleasant things like “why did you really come here?,” “you are a tool,” “you have been brainwashed,” and eventually he stated that “the Jews are the worst people in the world.” [Lambert is a Flemish Catholic.] Frankly, I was rather concerned about my own safety than about the interview. Please note my position: 25y old, alone as a non-Arabic speaker in the middle of unknown Amman – not exactly a position to threaten anyone.11
Should Intellectuals Lie?
This controversy raises larger questions than simply the myth-making and selective memory of Edward Said. As a world-class intellectual, it would be revealing to pose to him the following questions: Should intellectuals lie? Should they deceive or misrepresent personal or historical facts? Should they remember and forget selectively? Is such conduct ever justified? While some radical intellectuals go so far as to claim that all knowledge is a form of duping and others deny the very existence of “truth,” Professor Edward Said, despite his radical politics, has taken a traditionalist approach to this topic. Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Said has noted that “there is a great difference between political and intellectual behavior. The intellectual’s role is to speak the truth, as plainly, directly and as honestly as possible….the intellectual’s constituency is neither a government nor a corporate or a career interest: only the truth unadorned.”12
Indeed, in his new memoir Out of Place (1999), published after he became aware of my investigation, Said presents a radically revised version of his life in which he describes his Cairo childhood in great detail, and we learn that his schooling from age 6 to 16 took place in three different Cairo institutions. The publication of Said’s new memoir a month after my article appeared in Commentary placed his defenders in an untenable situation, because without admitting to the inconsistency with his previous autobiographical writings, Said completely confirmed the core discoveries of my research.
The cause of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to which so many of Said’s friends assert their devotion, is not well-served by historical lies. The fact is that the “best-known Palestinian intellectual in the world” (as he was recently described on the BBC) made wholesale political use of the supposed circumstances of his childhood, weaving an elaborate myth of paradise and expulsion from paradise out of one or two circumstances and a raft of inventions. Edward Said was never a refugee from Palestine, but he is certainly a refugee from the truth.
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- Edward Said, “Palestine, Then and Now: An Exile’s Journey Through Israel and the Occupied Territories,” Harper’s Magazine, December 1992, p. 47.
- Edward Said, “Between Worlds: Edward Said Makes Sense of His Life,” London Review of Books, May 7, 1998, p. 3.
- Commentary, September 1999.
- Edward Said, “Fifty Years in the Wilderness: A State of Dispossession and Violence,” The Guardian, May 2, 1998, p. 21.
- Bryan Appleyard, “Reflections from the Tightrope,” The Independent (London), June 23, 1993, p. 23.
- Edward Said, Lecture on “The Tragedy of Palestine” at Rice University, Houston, March 26, 1998.
- Interview with Edward Said, Educational Broadcasting and GWETA, the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, August 1, 1991, Transcript #4129.
- Edward Said, Lecture at the Fifth International Conference for “The Scenarios of Palestine,” Birzeit University, November 12, 1998.
- Interview with Barbara (Buber) Goldschmidt, November 10, 1996.
- The incident was reported in the Boston Phoenix (January 10, 1984), New York Times (January 12, 1984), and Washington Post (January 13, 1984).
- Letter to the Editor, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 1, 1999.
- Edward Said, “Israel-Palestine: A Third Way,” Le Monde Diplomatique (Aug-Sep 1998).
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Justus R. Weiner is an international human rights lawyer and a member of the Israel and New York Bar Associations. He is currently a Scholar in Residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and an adjunct lecturer at Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities. The complete version of the research on Edward Said (with 141 footnotes, two charts, and a photograph) is available at http://www.commentarymagazine.com/9909/weiner.html. See also letters and responses on the article in Commentary (January 2000). The author wishes to express his appreciation to Judy Shulewitz and Zev Kanter for their assistance.