It is not often that the capital plays host to a person who lives a cause. It is even rarer that such a person has the intellectual heights to match the passion that all crusaders must have. And it is truly very, very rare that such a zealot has the oratory worthy of the most stirring of demagogues, the word being used in a context shed of its pejorative associations. Such a rare happening was the Monday afternoon lecture at Delhis Rajiv Gandhi Foundation by Edward Said, who should need no introduction.
It was distressing, then, next morning to read the vapid, corporation-debate style reporting in the citys newspapers of Saids cinemascopic, logically constructed, closely argued, 90-minute long speech, which in some 13,000 words could not have but left anybody privileged to hear it, not just convinced about the rightness and the urgency of the Palestinian cause that Said has long been the most influential spokesman of, but with a large share of Saids profound sense of despair at the present plight and the even dimmer future of his people. Rarely have Delhis podium seen such a fusion of passion, intellect, fairness and blinding integrity.
Does Palestine matter in a philosophical sense? Yes, because as Said said, since the beginning of the Christian era it has been a cosmic nodal point for the West, the navel of the world, the site of its most passionate polemics and in this century the place where the most profoundly irreconcilable claims have been perversely and sometimes cruelly adjudicated to no ones great satisfaction.
The Palestinian people are unique, Said established, in that alone among all the oppressed of the world, they have not just been dispossessed, disadvantaged and disabused, but their very existence has always been sought to be denied. Thus, Balfour in a Cabinet memorandum in 1919 said: The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. Zionists, of course, improved upon this imperial perspective. Thus, Golda Meir as Israels prime minister once actually asked rhetorically: What Palestinian people? There are no such people. Or that Israeli censors cut out references in Yitzhak Rabins memoirs to his having been personally responsible for evicting 60,000 Arabs from the towns of Ramleh and Lydda.
Saids family fled Palestine in 1948. He teaches at New Yorks Columbia University and is no doubt acutely conscious of his access as a US citizen, to the best in medicine to combat the cancer that he has been so courageously battling (and to which, of course, he made no mention). But none of this blinds him to the stark reality of the pervading Arab anger with the US. One statistic given by Said explains why: US aid to Israel totals $134 billion cumulatively and even today runs at $5 billion annually, more than $1,250 per year per Israeli citizen, or more than any socially disadvantaged group inside the US. Remember, Indias per capita annual income is still well short of $400.
Relentlessly objective, he spared no one in his tour de force. Through the 70s and the 80s, as Israel strengthened its hold, PLO policies, Said acknowledges, were even foolish, that there were too many Palestinian temptations to play either a grandiose inter-Arab role or to inflate and overdo what was then called armed struggle for the results not to be very costly for destitute refugees and ordinary citizens whose lives in exile seemed always to be getting worse.
For Yasser Arafats Palestine Authority he has even choicer words: The Palestine Authority has set up a corrupt and tyrannical regime, except that now Palestinian security men do the torturing and banning of books instead of Israeli soldiers. In the four years of its existence, the Authority, ruled despotically by Arafat and a handful of his cronies, has refused to institute a basic legal system for the place, commerce is unregulated and in the hands of monopolies controlled by the Authority, unemployment has reached levels of 40 to 60 per cent, and the annual per capita income has been slashed in half.
Add to that his observation that: Our natural allies the Arab states are ruled by an unhealthy, aging and deeply isolated group of oligarchies, minority regimes, and military dictatorships, each of which, without exception is interested in the survival of its rule, and you begin to understand why he concludes that the Palestinians are approaching the darkest period in our history. Is there no hope then? Said makes two points. One, that in Israel itself there are a host of historians who are debunking Zionist self-righteousness. Two, that the passage of time confirms that no national or ethnic group will long accept subordination to or domination by another..., a fact borne out by the failure of the Israelis to snuff out the Palestinian candle.
Does the resolution of the Palestinian issue matter for humankind? Yes, because of its centrality to the post-colonial world, because of its anxious urgency to the monotheistic religions, because it is both literally and figuratively at the conjunction of the West (or North)..., Palestines faith is one of the great issues of our century. What is common to both Palestine and India, which, as he notes, still faces the challenge of centrifugal forces, is that the only lasting and peaceful solution for both the peoples lies not in a religious denouement (Islam over Zionism or Hinduism over Islam) but in the coexistence and toleration that only secular politics can guarantee. The only real security is that of vision and freedom from the killing particularisms that have inflamed and impoverished the post-colonial world. For Palestine, as for India, the challenge is more or less the same.