Double Standards: the Other Side of the Coin

Response to Edward Said's "Double Standards" from an Israeli sociologist.

by Zvi Zohar


The article by Edward Said is an exercise in free speech, untrammeled by any need to relate to facts and values in an unbiased way. In other words, Said plays freely with history, morals and truth, in order to support his personal ideology.

First: some general remarks: moral judgments are relevant to contemporary times, and problematic with regard to the past. Was it moral for Muhammad to treat the Jews of Arabia as he did? Was it moral for the armies of Islam to conquer vast territories across the globe? Was it moral for them to discriminate between peoples on the basis of religion? Was it moral for them to keep slaves? To control their subjects by using Mamluks (pagan and Christian children purchased from slave dealers and brought up to be private armies of princes and rulers? Obviously, to now condemn such practices as immoral is not the same as to say, that AT THE TIME they were so considered, or that those who did so were evil.

Now, what of more modern Empires? Was it immoral for the Ottoman empire to conquer most of south-eastern Europe, and try to conquer Austria? Was that more moral than the British conquering much of Africa and North America? On what grounds does Said regard colonialism as morally worse than other
historical forms of conquest? So, too, his well-known critique of Orientalism; after all is said and done, in what way is that worse than current Islamic attitudes towards non-Islamic cultures and religions? Both
reflect a feeling of  superiority vis-à-vis other cultures and religions.

Let us now consider nationalism. Nationalism is a European way of looking at the construction of human groups and especially of the grounds of sovereignty. In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries it spread to most of the rest of the world. As Benedict Andersen has shown, human groupings as large as nations, are neccessarily "imagined communities." His prime examples are, the notion of an Indonesian nation, and similar notions that abound in other areas: the definitions of borders imposed by European states
became the basis for a consciousness by [some of] the local inhabitants, that they had a common identity, that they were a Nation, and as such had a right to National Self Determination. All these are cultural constructs. The same thing that happened to all these people, happened  to many speakers of
Arabic. During most of the time that the Ottoman Empire ruled the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Middle East, those people did not see themselves as an Arab Nation, or as various Arab Nations, or, for that
matter, as Iraqis, Jordanians or Palestinians. However, under European cultural influence, they came to see themselves as The Arab Nation; or, influenced also by the specific borders carved out by the colonial powers, as The Iraqi Nation, The Syrian Nation, or The Palestinian Nation. Does Said realize that the very concept of such Nations, and of National Self-Deternination, is European? Does that make it just, or moral?

All this is not to say, that Nations are not "REAL," but that they are real in a psychological, sociological and cultural sense. Not a fact of nature.

Which brings us to the Jewish Nation. The Jewish Nation is no less real than any of the above. If anything, the historical record of the existence of a group of people who identify as a Jewish People claiming to have rights to sovereignty in the geographical area they call Eretz Israel, is documented for a much greater length of time than most others holding such claims with regard to geographical areas anywhere on the globe. The arguement, that the claim of the Jewish Nation is morally less valid than that of the Palestinian Nation, is therefore an outstanding example of bias.

As a Jew, I do not pretend to be able to judge the moral validity of the Palestinan claim; since Palestinians sincerely view themselves as a nation claiming self-definition, on what grounds should I deny that? Similarly, I expect Palestinians, including Said, to recognize the moral validity of our (Jewish) claim. Palestinian denial of such claims, including rejection of widely accepted historical facts (e.g., what Muslims call the Haram esh-Sharif was the site of the first and second Jewish Temples; Jews are the
continuation of the Israelite people who are described in the biblical stories; the antiquity and depth of Jewish belief that Eretz Israel is their homeland etc.) -- means that Palestinians are unwilling to accord to others the respect that they expect from others. And which I, as a Jew, do accord their own self-perception.

Now, turning to the content of Said's article, I find it to be totally incredible: does a distinguished professor expect that just because of his being famous, he can claim anything he wants, disregard facts and manipulate others? Has one-sidedness suddenly become an intellectual virtue? In the following, I present Said's text, interspersed with my own comments.

click here to read Said with Zohar's gloss

Zvi Zohar
Bar Ilan University
and Shalom Hartman Institute

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read Edward Said's Double Standards

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