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    ZNet | Mideast
    The Meaning of Rachel Corrie
    Of Dignity and Solidarity
    by Edward Said ; Al Ahram ; June 26, 2003

    In early May, I was in Seattle lecturing for a few days. While there, I had
    dinner one night with Rachel Corrie's parents and sister, who were still
    reeling from the shock of their daughter's murder on March 16 in Gaza by an
    Israeli bulldozer. Mr. Corrie told me that he had himself driven bulldozers,
    although the one that killed his daughter deliberately because she was
    trying valiantly to protect a Palestinian home in Rafah from demolition was
    a 60 ton behemoth especially designed by Caterpillar for house demolitions,
    a far bigger machine than anything he had ever seen or driven. Two things
    struck me about my brief visit with the Corries. One was the story they told
    about their return to the US with their daughter's body. They had
    immediately sought out their US Senators, Patty Murray and Mary Cantwell,
    both Democrats, told them their story and received the expected expressions
    of shock, outrage, anger and promises of investigations. After both women
    returned to Washington, the Corries never heard from them again, and the
    promised investigation simply didn't materialize. As expected, the Israeli
    lobby had explained the realities to them, and both women simply begged off.
    An American citizen willfully murdered by the soldiers of a client state of
    the US without so much as an official peep or even the de rigeur
    investigation that had been promised her family.



    But the second and far more important aspect of the Rachel Corrie story for
    me was the young woman's action itself, heroic and dignified at the same
    time. Born and brought up in Olympia, a small city 60 miles south of
    Seattle, she had joined the International Solidarity Movement and gone to
    Gaza to stand with suffering human beings with whom she had never had any
    contact before. Her letters back to her family are truly remarkable
    documents of her ordinary humanity that make for very difficult and moving
    reading, especially when she describes the kindness and concern showed her
    by all the Palestinians she encounters who clearly welcome her as one of
    their own, because she lives with them exactly as they do, sharing their
    lives and worries, as well as the horrors of the Israeli occupation and its
    terrible effects on even the smallest child. She understands the fate of
    refugees, and what she calls the Israeli government's insidious attempt at a
    kind of genocide by making it almost impossible for this particular group of
    people to survive. So moving is her solidarity that it inspires an Israeli
    reservist named Danny who has refused service to write her and tell her,
    "You are doing a good thing. I thank you for it."



    What shines through all the letters she wrote home and which were
    subsequently published in the London Guardian, is the amazing resistance put
    up by the Palestinian people themselves, average human beings stuck in the
    most terrible position of suffering and despair but continuing to survive
    just the same. We have heard so much recently about the roadmap and the
    prospects for peace that we have overlooked the most basic fact of all,
    which is that Palestinians have refused to capitulate or surrender even
    under the collective punishment meted out to them by the combined might of
    the US and Israel. It is that extraordinary fact which is the reason for the
    existence of a roadmap and all the numerous so-called peace plans before
    them, not at all because the US and Israel and the international community
    have been convinced for humanitarian reasons that the killing and the
    violence must stop. If we miss that truth about the power of Palestinian
    resistance (by which I do not at all mean suicide bombing, which does much
    more harm than good), despite all its failings and all its mistakes, we miss
    everything. Palestinians have always been a problem for the Zionist project,
    and so-called solutions have perennially been proposed that minimize, rather
    than solve, the problem. The official Israeli policy, no matter whether
    Ariel Sharon uses the word "occupation" or not or whether or not he
    dismantles a rusty, unused tower or two, has always been not to accept the
    reality of the Palestinian people as equals nor ever to admit that their
    rights were scandalously violated all along by Israel. Whereas a few
    courageous Israelis over the years have tried to deal with this other
    concealed history, most Israelis and what seems like the majority of
    American Jews have made every effort to deny, avoid, or negate the
    Palestinian reality. This is why there is no peace.



    Moreover, the roadmap says nothing about justice or about the historical
    punishment meted out to the Palestinian people for too many decades to
    count. What Rachel Corrie's work in Gaza recognized, however, was precisely
    the gravity and the density of the living history of the Palestinian people
    as a national community, and not merely as a collection of deprived
    refugees. That is what she was in solidarity with. And we need to remember
    that that kind of solidarity is no longer confined to a small number of
    intrepid souls here and there, but is recognized the world over. In the past
    six months I have lectured in four continents to many thousands of people.
    What brings them together is Palestine and the struggle of the Palestinian
    people which is now a byword for emancipation and enlightenment, regardless
    of all the vilification heaped on them by their enemies.



    Whenever the facts are made known, there is immediate recognition and an
    expression of the most profound solidarity with the justice of the
    Palestinian cause and the valiant struggle by the Palestinian people on its
    behalf. It is an extraordinary thing that Palestine was a central issue this
    year both during the Porto Alegre anti-globalization meetings as well as
    during the Davos and Amman meetings, both poles of the world-wide political
    spectrum. Just because our fellow citizens in this country are fed an
    atrociously biased diet of ignorance and misrepresentation by the media,
    when the occupation is never referred to in lurid descriptions of suicide
    attacks, the apartheid wall 25 feet high, five feet thick, and 350
    kilometers long that Israel is building is never even shown on CNN and the
    networks (or so much as referred to in passing throughout the lifeless prose
    of the roadmap), and the crimes of war, the gratuitous destruction and
    humiliation, maiming, house demolitions, agricultural destruction, and death
    imposed on Palestinian civilians are never shown for the daily, completely
    routine ordeal that they are, one shouldn't be surprised that Americans in
    the main have a very low opinion of Arabs and Palestinians. After all,
    please remember that all the main organs of the establishment media, from
    left liberal all the way over to fringe right, are unanimously anti-Arab,
    anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian. Look at the pusillanimity of the media
    during the buildup to an illegal and unjust war against Iraq, and look at
    how little coverage there was of the immense damage against Iraqi society
    done by the sanctions, and how relatively few accounts there were of the
    immense world-wide outpouring of opinion against the war. Hardly a single
    journalist except Helen Thomas has taken the administration to task for the
    outrageous lies and confected "facts" that were spun out about Iraq as an
    imminent military threat to the US before the war, just as now the same
    government propagandists, whose cynically invented and manipulated "facts"
    about WMD are now more or less forgotten or shrugged off as irrelevant, are
    let off the hook by media heavies in discussing the awful, the literally
    inexcusable situation for the people of Iraq that the US has now
    single-handedly and irresponsibly created there. However else one blames
    Saddam Hussein as a vicious tyrant, which he was, he had provided the people
    of Iraq with the best infrastructure of services like water, electricity,
    health, and education of any Arab country. None of this is any longer in
    place.



    It is no wonder, then, with the extraordinary fear of seeming anti-Semitic
    by criticizing Israel for its daily crimes of war against innocent unarmed
    Palestinian civilians or criticizing the US government and being called
    "anti-American" for its illegal war and its dreadfully run military
    occupation, that the vicious media and government campaign against Arab
    society, culture, history and mentality that has been led by Neanderthal
    publicists and Orientalists like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes, has cowed
    far too many of us into believing that Arabs really are an underdeveloped,
    incompetent and doomed people, and that with all the failures in democracy
    and development, Arabs are alone in this world for being retarded, behind
    the times, unmodernized, and deeply reactionary. Here is where dignity and
    critical historical thinking must be mobilized to see what is what and to
    disentangle truth from propaganda.



    No one would deny that most Arab countries today are ruled by unpopular
    regimes and that vast numbers of poor, disadvantaged young Arabs are exposed
    to the ruthless forms of fundamentalist religion. Yet it is simply a lie to
    say, as the New York Times regularly does, that Arab societies are totally
    controlled, and that there is no freedom of opinion, no civil institutions,
    no functioning social movements for and by the people. Press laws
    notwithstanding, you can go to downtown Amman today and buy a communist
    party newspaper as well as an Islamist one; Egypt and Lebanon are full of
    papers and journals that suggest much more debate and discussion than these
    societies are given credit for; the satellite channels are bursting with
    diverse opinions in a dizzying variety; civil institutions are, on many
    levels having to do with social services, human rights, syndicates, and
    research institutes, very lively all over the Arab world. A great deal more
    must be done before we have the appropriate level of democracy, but we are
    on the way.



    In Palestine alone there are over a 1000 NGO's and it is this vitality and
    this kind of activity that has kept society going, despite every American
    and Israeli effort made to vilify, stop or mutilate it on a daily basis.
    Under the worst possible circumstances, Palestinian society has neither been
    defeated nor has it crumbled completely. Kids still go to school, doctors
    and nurses still take care of their patients, men and women go to work,
    organizations have their meetings, and people continue to live, which seems
    to be an offense to Sharon and the other extremists who simply want
    Palestinians either imprisoned or driven away altogether. The military
    solution hasn't worked at all, and never will work. Why is that so hard for
    Israelis to see? We must help them to understand this, not by suicide bombs,
    but by rational argument, mass civil disobedience, organized protest, here
    and everywhere.



    The point I am trying to make is that we have to see the Arab world
    generally and Palestine in particular in more comparative and critical ways
    than superficial and dismissive books like Lewis's What Went Wrong and Paul
    Wolfowitz's ignorant statements about bringing democracy to the Arab and
    Islamic world even begin to suggest. Whatever else is true about the Arabs,
    there is an active dynamic at work because as real people they live in a
    real society with all sorts of currents and crosscurrents in it that can't
    be easily caricatured as just one seething mass of violent fanaticism. The
    Palestinian struggle for justice is especially something with which one
    expresses solidarity, rather than endless criticism and exasperated,
    frustrating discouragement, and crippling divisiveness. Remember the
    solidarity here and everywhere in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia and
    Australia, and remember also that there is a cause to which many people have
    committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding.
    Why? Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for equality
    and human rights.



    I want now to speak about dignity, which of course has a special place in
    every culture known to historians, anthropologists, sociologists and
    humanists. I shall begin by saying immediately that it is a radically wrong
    Orientalist, and indeed racist proposition to accept that, unlike Europeans
    and Americans, Arabs have no sense of individuality, no regard for
    individual life, no values that express love, intimacy and understanding
    that are supposed to be the property exclusively of cultures like those of
    Europe and America that had an Renaissance, a Reformation and an
    Enlightenment. Among many others, it is the vulgar and jejune Thomas
    Friedman who has been peddling this rubbish, which has alas been picked up
    by equally ignorant and self-deceiving Arab intellectuals I don't need to
    mention any names here who have seen in the atrocities of 9/11 a sign that
    the Arab and Islamic worlds are somehow more diseased and more dysfunctional
    than any other, and that terrorism is a sign of a wider distortion that has
    occurred in any other culture.



    We can leave to one side that, between them, Europe and the US account for
    by far the largest number of violent deaths during the 20th century, the
    Islamic world hardly a fraction of it. And behind all of that specious
    unscientific nonsense about wrong and right civilizations, there is the
    grotesque shadow of the great false prophet Samuel Huntington who has led a
    lot of people to believe that the world can be divided into distinct
    civilizations battling against each other forever. On the contrary,
    Huntington is dead wrong on every point he makes. No culture or civilization
    exists by itself; none is made up of things like individuality and
    enlightenment that are completely exclusive to it; and none exists without
    the basic human attributes of community, love, value for life and all the
    others. To suggest otherwise as he does is the purest invidious racism of
    the same stripe as people who argue that Africans have naturally inferior
    brains, or that Asians are really born for servitude, or that Europeans are
    a naturally superior race. This is a sort of parody of Hitlerian science
    directed uniquely today against Arab and Muslims, and we must be very firm
    as to not even go through the motions of arguing against it. It is the
    purest drivel. On the other hand, there is the much more credible and
    serious stipulation that, like every other instance of humanity, Arab and
    Muslim life has an inherent value and dignity which are expressed by Arabs
    and Muslims in their unique cultural style, and those expressions needn't
    resemble or be a copy of one approved model suitable for everyone to follow.



    The whole point about human diversity is that it is in the end a form of
    deep co-existence between very different styles of individuality and
    experience that can't all be reduced to one superior form: this is the
    spurious argument foisted on us by pundits who bewail the lack of
    development and knowledge in the Arab world. All one has to do is to look at
    the huge variety of literature, cinema, theater, painting, music and popular
    culture produced by and for Arabs from Morocco to the Gulf. Surely that
    needs to be assessed as an indication of whether or not Arabs are developed,
    and not just how on any given day statistical tables of industrial
    production either indicate an appropriate level of development or they show
    failure.



    The more important point I want to make, though, is that there is a very
    wide discrepancy today between our cultures and societies and the small
    group of people who now rule these societies. Rarely in history has such
    power been so concentrated in so tiny a group as the various kings,
    generals, sultans, and presidents who preside today over the Arabs. The
    worst thing about them as a group, almost without exception, is that they do
    not represent the best of their people. This is not just a matter of no
    democracy. It is that they seem to radically underestimate themselves and
    their people in ways that close them off, that make them intolerant and
    fearful of change, frightened of opening up their societies to their people,
    terrified most of all that they might anger big brother, that is, the United
    States. Instead of seeing their citizens as the potential wealth of the
    nation, they regard them all as guilty conspirators vying for the ruler's
    power.



    This is the real failure, how during the terrible war against the Iraqi
    people, no Arab leader had the self-dignity and confidence to say something
    about the pillaging and military occupation of one of the most important
    Arab countries. Fine, it was an excellent thing that Saddam Hussein's
    appalling regime is no more, but who appointed the US to be the Arab mentor?
    Who asked the US to take over the Arab world allegedly on behalf of it
    citizens and bring it something called "democracy," especially at a time
    when the school system, the health system, and the whole economy in America
    are degenerating into the worst levels since the 1929 Depression. Why was
    the collective Arab voice NOT raised against the US's flagrantly illegal
    intervention, which did so much harm and inflicted so much humiliation upon
    the entire Arab nation? This is truly a colossal failure in nerve, in
    dignity, in self-solidarity.



    With all the Bush administration's talk about guidance from the Almighty,
    doesn't one Arab leader have the courage just to say that, as a great
    people, we are guided by our own lights and traditions and religion? But
    nothing, not a word, as the poor citizens of Iraq live through the most
    > terrible ordeals and the rest of the region quakes in its collective boots,
    each one petrified that his country may be next. How unfortunate the embrace
    of George Bush, the man whose war destroyed an Arab country gratuitously, by
    the combined leadership of the major Arab countries last week. Was there no
    one there who had the guts to remind George W. what he has done to humiliate
    and bring more suffering to the Arab people than anyone before him, and must
    he always be greeted with hugs, smiles, kisses and low bows? Where is the
    diplomatic and political and economic support necessary to sustain an
    anti-occupation movement on the West Bank and Gaza? Instead all one hears is
    that foreign ministers preach to the Palestinians to mind their ways, avoid
    violence, and keep at the peace negotiations, even though it has been so
    obvious that Sharon's interest in peace is just about zero. There has been
    no concerted Arab response to the separation wall, or to the assassinations,
    or to collective punishment, only a bunch of tired clich├ęs repeating the
    well-worn formulas authorized by the State Department.



    Perhaps the one thing that strikes me as the low point in Arab inability to
    grasp the dignity of the Palestinian cause is expressed by the current state
    of the Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen, a subordinate figure with little
    political support among his own people, was picked for the job by Arafat,
    Israel, and the US precisely because he has no constituency, is not an
    orator or a great organizer, or anything really except a dutiful aide to
    Yasir Arafat, and because I am afraid they see in him a man who will do
    Israel's bidding, how could even Abu Mazen stand there in Aqaba to pronounce
    words written for him, like a ventriloquist's puppet, by some State
    Department functionary, in which he commendably speaks about Jewish
    suffering but then amazingly says next to nothing about his own people's
    suffering at the hands of Israel? How could he accept so undignified and
    manipulated a role for himself, and how could he forget his self-dignity as
    the representative of a people that has been fighting heroically for its
    rights for over a century just because the US and Israel have told him he
    must? And when Israel simply says that there will be a "provisional"
    Palestinian state, without any contrition for the horrendous amount of
    damage it has done, the uncountable war crimes, the sheer sadistic
    systematic humiliation of every single Palestinian, man, woman, child, I
    must confess to a complete lack of understanding. As to why a leader or
    representative of that long-suffering people doesn't so much as take note of
    it. Has he entirely lost his sense of dignity?



    Has he forgotten that since he is not just an individual but also the bearer
    of his people's fate at an especially crucial moment? Is there anyone who
    was not bitterly disappointed at this total failure to rise to the occasion
    and stand with dignity the dignity of his people's experience and cause and
    testify to it with pride, and without compromise, without ambiguity, without
    the half embarrassed, half apologetic tone that Palestinian leaders take
    when they are begging for a little kindness from some totally unworthy white
    father?



    But that has been the behavior of Palestinian rulers since Oslo and indeed
    since Haj Amin, a combination of misplaced juvenile defiance and plaintive
    supplication. Why on earth do they always think it absolutely necessary to
    read scripts written for them by their enemies? The basic dignity of our
    life as Arabs in Palestine, throughout the Arab world, and here in America,
    is that we are our own people, with a heritage, a history, a tradition and
    above all a language that is more than adequate to the task of representing
    our real aspirations, since those aspirations derive from the experience of
    dispossession and suffering that has been imposed on each Palestinian since
    1948. Not one of our political spokespeople the same is true of the Arabs
    since Abdel Nasser's time ever speaks with self-respect and dignity of what
    we are, what we want, what we have done, and where we want to go.



    Slowly, however, the situation is changing, and the old regime made up of
    the Abu Mazens and Abu Ammars of this world, is passing and will gradually
    be replaced by a new set of emerging leaders all over the Arab world. The
    most promising is made up of the members of the National Palestinian
    Initiative; they are grass roots activists whose main activity is not
    pushing papers on a desk, nor juggling bank accounts, nor looking for
    journalists to pay attention to them, but who come from the ranks of the
    professionals, the working classes, and young intellectuals and activists,
    the teachers, doctors, lawyers, working people who have kept society going
    while also fending off daily Israeli attacks. Second, these are people
    committed to the kind of democracy and popular participation undreamt of by
    the Authority, whose idea of democracy is stability and security for itself.
    Lastly, they offer social services to the unemployed, health to the
    uninsured and the poor, proper secular education to a new generation of
    Palestinians who must be taught the realities of the modern world, not just
    the extraordinary worth of the old one. For such programs, the NPI
    stipulates that getting rid of the occupation is the only way forward, and
    that in order to do that, a representative national unified leadership be
    elected freely to replace the cronies, the outdated, and the ineffectiveness
    that have plagued Palestinian leaders for the past century.



    Only if we respect ourselves as Arabs and Americans, and understand the true
    dignity and justice of our struggle, only then can we appreciate why, almost
    despite ourselves, so many people all over the world, including Rachel
    Corrie and the two young people wounded with her from ISM, Tom Hurndall and
    Brian Avery, have felt it possible to express their solidarity with us.



    I conclude with one last irony. Isn't it astonishing that all the signs of
    popular solidarity that Palestine and the Arabs receive occur with no
    comparable sign of solidarity and dignity for ourselves, that others admire
    and respect us more than we do ourselves? Isn't it time we caught up with
    our own status and made certain that our representatives here and elsewhere
    realize, as a first step, that they are fighting for a just and noble cause,
    and that they have nothing to apologize for or anything to be embarrassed
    about? On the contrary, they should be proud of what their people have done
    and proud also to represent them.

    
    Edward Said is a professor of literature at Columbia university. His book
    Orientalism (1979) revolutionized the literary field. He has written
    extensively on the Middle East, and his writings can be found in a number of
    publications such as Z Magazine, the Nation, the Progressive, In These
    Times, Counterpunch, Al Ahram and more

    More articles by Edward Said
    http://www.zmag.org/meastwatch/edward_said.htm
    http://www.zmag.org/meastwatch/edward_said.htm

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