I wrote this and it appeared in published form a number of years back. I am returning now to my digest of this old interview with Edward Said now that people are talking, for the moment, about a Free Palestine from the River to the Sea. What does this slogan mean and not mean, and what it might mean and what it might not mean for the country and for the Jews? I am especially thinking about activists on the anti-Zionist left who are so sure that a “single secular democracy” in all of Historic Palestine is as simple and clear a thing as it sounds. Said’s worry here about a Jewish minority status in a One State Solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict are both rare and bracing in their honesty.
In “My Right of Return,” his interview with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, Edward Said opined in opposition to Zionism. “I don’t find the idea of a Jewish state terribly interesting. The Jews I know – the more interesting Jews I know – are not defined by their Jewishness. I think to confine Jews to their Jewishness is problematic.” (The precise point underlying political Zionism was to turn the Jews into a normal people “defined” but not “confined” by Jewishness.) On the status of the Jews in the bi-national state he tirelessly advocated, Said told Shavit, “But the Jews are a minority everywhere. They are a minority in America. They can certainly be a minority in Israel.” Regarding the fate of that minority in Arab Palestine, Said conceded, “I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.” In addressing this concern, the critic of imperialism looks to “the larger unit” and recalls another empire. “Yes. I believe it is viable. A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities in the Arab world survived. I hate to say it, but in a funny sort of way, it worked rather well under the Ottoman Empire, with its millet system. What they had then seems a lot more humane than what we have now” [the original text being sourced here is Edward Said, “My Right of Return,” in Gauri Viswanathan (ed.), Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward Said, New York: Random House, 2001), pp.453, 455.]
Clearly in the interview, Said does not want to kick the Jews out of Palestine. He wants to integrate them into the region as part of the social fabric. His world-view is liberal and humane. But in that wistful and revealing moment mentioning “empire,” of all things, namely the Ottoman millet system, perhaps Said understood that Jews and Palestinians should not be left alone together at each other’s throats in a one state compact without a powerful overriding external authority.