An Ideology of Difference

Critical Inquiry 12 (1):38-58 (1985)
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Abstract

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 seems to have broken, for the first time, the immunity from sustained criticism previously enjoyed by Israel and its American supporters. For a variety of reasons, Israel’s status in European and American public life and discourse has always been special, just as the position of Jews in the West has always been special, sometimes for its tragedy and horrendous suffering, at other times for its uniquely impressive intellectual and aesthetic triumphs. On behalf of Israel, anomalous norms, exceptional arguments, eccentric claims were made, all of them forcibly conveying the notion that Israel does not entirely belong to the world of normal politics. Nevertheless, Israel—and with it, Zionism—had gained this unusual status politically, not miraculously: it merged with a variety of currents in the West whose power and attractiveness for supporters of Israel effaced anything as concrete as, for example, an Israeli policy of rigid separation between Jew and non-Jew, or a military rule over hundreds of thousands of Arabs that was as repressive as any tyranny in Latin America or Eastern Europe. There are any number of credible accounts of this, from daily fare in the Israeli press to studies by Amnesty International, to reports by various U.N. bodies, Western journalists, church groups, and, not least, dissenting supporters of Israel. In other words, even though Israel was a Jewish state established by force on territory already inhabited by a native population largely of Muslim Arabs, in a part of the world overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, it appeared to most of Israel’s supporters in the West that the Palestinian Arabs who paid a large part of the price for Israel’s establishment were neither relevant nor necessarily even real. What changed in 1982 was that the distance between Arab and Jew was for the first time perceived more or less universally as not so great and, indeed, that any consideration of Israel, and any perception of Israel at all, would have to include some consideration of the Palestinian Arabs, their travail, their claims, their humanity.Changes of this sort seem to occur dramatically, although it is more accurate to comprehend them as complex, cumulative, often contradictory processes occurring over a long period of time. Above all else, however, no such process can be viewed neutrally, since for better or for worse there are many interests at work in it and, therefore, many interests also at work whenever it is interpreted or reported. Moreover, while it is worthwhile and even possible to reduce and curtail the gross pressure of those interests for the purpose of analysis or reflection, it is useless to deny that any such analysis is inevitably grounded in, or inevitably affiliated to, a particular historical moment and a specific political situation. Edward Said, Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, is the author of, among other works, The Question of Palestine , The World, the Text, and the Critic , and After the Last Sky . He will give the 1985 T. S. Eliot Lectures, on Culture and Imperialism, at the University of Kent later this year. His previous contributions to Critical Inquiry include “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community” and “On Professionalism: Response to Stanley Fish”

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