A Legacy of Change: Edward Said's Impacton U.S. Campus, Discourse, and Activism

By Elie Chalala

I met Professor Edward Said twice in the 1980s at UCLA, where I was doing graduate work. A group of graduate students and faculty invited several scholars and intellectuals to speak on the Palestine question; those scholars included Said and Noam Chomsky, among others.

Putting on events featuring intellectuals like Said in the 1980s and before was a more a daunting task than in the 1990s. I am not referring to the logistics, of course. I have in mind the politics at the time and the challenges on campus from pro-Israeli groups. All these factors could complicate the simple task of inviting a professor from a major university like Columbia to speak at UCLA and could even cause a cancellation under the guise of security concerns stemming from real and imagined threats from opposing student and community groups. Obstacles aside, Professor Said visited UCLA many times, twice as our guests in the mid-1980s, and many other times as the guest of several academic and political groups. His last trip was a few months before his death.

Much has been written on the works of Professor Said and there will be much more to come now that he is now no longer with us; this has already begun in magazines and newspaper and online articles. One can just hope that future writings will be comprehensive, not reducing his intellectual legacy to the Arab-Israeli conflict. One area that deserves particular attention is Said's impact on the intellectual environment on U.S. campuses: students, faculty, and curriculum.

His influence in this area is immense, and thanks to him and many others, the image of the Arab and the Arab world ceased to be monolithic, an image that used to be framed by what he called “Orientalists.”  Before 1967, and even after, merely uttering the word “Palestine” was controversial, simply because pro-Israeli propaganda made Palestine a substitute for the state of Israel : calling for a state in Palestine meant wanting to expel the Jews from Israel . Whether in his writings or in his speeches, Professor Said broke this psychological barrier by persistently using the term Palestine and thus encouraging many others to do the same. Unfortunately, his detractors inside and outside U.S. campuses chose not to pay attention to how Said was using the term Palestine, and the solutions he adopted for the 55-year old problem.

Said's position on Palestine evolved from the initial phase of the two-state solution into the one secular democratic state. At first, he supported two states, one Palestinian and the other Israeli, living side by side and enjoying genuine independence; later, he embraced a humanist solution, considered by many utopian, in which Palestinians and Israelis would live in a binational state, secular and democratic, where the two peoples coexist while enjoying the same rights and privileges. He fought hard for this vision during his last years.

Said was hardly a radical if either position is placed within the context of the American liberal political tradition. Nothing in the liberal discourse negates the right to self determination or denies basic political and individual equality. On the contrary, it is American liberals who have been spearheading the campaigns for such rights domestically and internationally. Thus Said's views on the Palestine question do not diverge from this ideological and political tradition.

But tell this to his detractors on U.S. campuses! Their campaigns against Said were inspired mostly by political expediency rather than by intellectual honesty. Whether out of ignorance or some misguided political strategy, even some of Said's zealous supporters sold his views on Palestine as radical.

These same views, however, contributed, among other factors, to the end of the monolithic presentation of the history and politics of the Arab-Israeli conflict. By the late 1980s and certainly afterwards, U.S. campuses, classrooms, and required reading lists ceased to be what they were in the 1950s, 1960s, and even the 1970s. They became more diverse, with ample space for Said's books and views, and, by extension, making it much easier for many student organizations to invite him to speak. Their experiences in more recent years stand in sharp contrast to those of me and my colleagues in the mid-1980s.

This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, No. 44 (Summer 2003)

Copyright © 2003 by Al Jadid


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