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Stones And Glass Houses

by Alexander Cockburn

Contrasts between Edward Said and Susan Sontag
Here's a parable about what is intellectually respectable and politically safe in this country, and what is not. It concerns two of this country's best known public intellectuals, Edward Said and Susan Sontag.

It's a backhanded tribute to his effectiveness as spokesman for the Palestinian cause that the attacks on the Palestinian Said have, across the last couple of years, reached new levels of envenomed absurdity.

The latest storm over Said concerns a trip to Lebanon he took last summer, in the course of which he and his family took the opportunity to visit the recently evacuated "security zone" formerly occupied by Israeli forces, first the terrible Khiam prison, then a deserted border post, abandoned by Israeli troops, and now crowded with festive Lebanese throwing exuberant stones at the heavily fortified border.

In competitive emulation of his son, Said pitched a stone and was photographed in the act of so doing. You can scarcely blame the man for being stunned at the consequences. Throw a rock at a border fence, and if you are a Palestinian called Edward Said you'll be the object of sharply hostile articles about the infamous stone toss in the New York Times, and face a campaign to be fired from your tenured job at Columbia. To its credit, Columbia University stands by him and says the calls for his removal are preposterous and offensive.

What, aside from being an articulate Palestinian, is Said's crime? As he himself has written: while "I have always advocated resistance to Zionist occupation, I have never argued for anything but peaceful coexistence between us and the Jews of Israel once Israel's military repression and dispossession of Palestinians has stopped." Perhaps that's the problem. The problem is that Said makes a reasoned and persuasive case for justice for Palestinians. He doesn't say that the Jews should be driven into the sea. These, not the fanatics, are the dangerous folks.

Let us now contemplate the role of Susan Sontag, another public intellectual of great reputation, most recently winning the 1999 National Book Award for her latest novel, "In America." Now Sontag has been named the Jerusalem Prize laureate for 2001, twentieth recipient of the award since its inauguration in 1963, The award, worth $5,000, along with a scroll issued by the mayor of Jerusalem, is proclaimedly given to writers whose works reflect the freedom of the individual in society.

Sontag is now scheduled to go to Jerusalem for the May 9 awards ceremony, which will be held within the framework of the 20th Jerusalem International Book Fair.

Why dwell on the familiar currency of international literary backslapping? I do so to make a couple of points concerning double standards. American intellectuals can be as brave as lions concerning the travails of East Timoreans, Rwandans, Central American peasants, Chechens and other beleagured groups. But for almost all of them the Palestinians and their troubles have always been invisible.

It can scarcely be said that Sontag is a notably political writer. But there was an issue of the late 1990s on which she did raise her voice. Along with her son David Rieff, Sontag became a passionate advocate for NATO intervention against Yugoslavia or, if you prefer, Serbia.

On May 2, 1999, Sontag wrote an essay in the New York Times, "Why Are We In Kosovo?" urgently justifying NATO's intervention. " What if the French Government began slaughtering large numbers of Corsicans and driving the rest out of Corsica ... or the Italian Government began emptying out Sicily or Sardinia, creating a million refugees ... "

Sontag cannot be entirely unaware of a country at the eastern end of the Mediterranean from which hundreds of thousands of residents have been expelled. Does she see no contradictions in the fact that she, assiduous critic of Slobodan Milosevic, is now planning to travel to get a prize in Israel, currently led by a man, Ariel Sharon, whose credentials as a war criminal are robust, given his conduct in atrocities ranging from Qibya in the 1950s to the refugee camp massacres at Sabra and Shatila in 1982.

Similarly, does she sense no irony in getting a prize premised on the recipient's sensitivity to issues of human freedom, in a society where the freedom of Palestinians is unrelentingly repressed? Imagine what bitter words she would have been ready to hurl at a writer voyaging to the Serb portion of Sarajevo to receive money and a fulsome scroll from Radovan Karadzic or Milosevic, praising her commitment to freedom of the individual.

Yet here she is, packing her bags to travel to a city over which Sharon declares Israel's absolute and eternal control, and whose latest turmoils he personally provoked by insisting on traveling under the protection of 1,000 soldiers to provoke Palestinians in their holy places.

When the South African writer Nadine Gordimer was offered the Jerusalem Prize a number of years ago, she declined, saying she did not care to travel from one apartheid society to another. But to take that kind of position in the United States would be a risky course for a prudent intellectual. Of course, Said knows he lives in a glasshouse, yet he had the admirable effrontery to throw his stone.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor April 9, 2001 (

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