In the ‘Introduction’ to Orientalism (1978), his fierce attack on Western perceptions of the East, Edward Said sets out a tripartite definition of Orientalism. The second definition is as follows,
Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.”
Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic division between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “minds,” destiny and so on. This Orientalism can accommodate Aeschylus, say, and Victor Hugo, Dante and Karl Marx.
For Said, this Manichaean dichotomy forms the basis of his third definition of Orientalism “as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Orientalism is, in other words, the cultural side of Western hegemony. It manufactures “the Orient” so as to allow the Western powers to dominate the East.
Orientalism is a classic text in the canon of anti-colonialism (as well as the seminal text of post-colonialism). It does well to demolish many of the crass stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims that have abounded in the West.
It is, however, a deeply problematic book; with tensions and contradictions undermining what is most original about its thesis. This is not a book review of Orientalism, but one of its central problems illustrates much that is wrong with a lot of left-wing thinking on the Israel/Palestine issue, and will help us to further our understanding about why the Left singles Israel out for criticism.
One of the most problematic parts of Orientalism is its tendency to recreate the essentialised East/West dichotomy that Said seeks to undermine. His theory tends to be predicated on the exact “ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’” that he criticises.
While he situates the beginning of Orientalism during the late eighteenth century it soon becomes clear that he sees it as a ‘discourse’ that spans Western history, including “Aeschylus…and Victor Hugo, Dante and Karl Marx.” This proposal contradicts the very basis of his critique, i.e. that notions of an ahistorical East or West are deeply flawed.
As Aijaz Ahmad puts it in his In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (2008),
“Said’s idea that the ideology of modern imperialist Eurocentrism is already inscribed in the ritual theatre of Greek tragedy – or that Marx’s passage on the role of British colonialism in India can be lifted out of the presuppositions of political economy and seamlessly integrated into a transhistorical Orientalist Discourse – is not only ahistorical in the ordinary sense but also specifically anti-Foucauldian in a methodological sense.”
Another way of putting this is: while Said’s Orientalists essentialise the East, Said’s Orientalism tends to essentialise the West (and, concurrently, the East) by positing a single, stable discourse that stretches from the ancient past all the way to the present. A discourse that appears immune to the vagaries of history.
Consequently, he offers an uncomplicated explanation and description of the relationship between East and West. A relationship characterised by the domination of the one over the other. The particularities of each instance of colonialism are lost; subsumed within a metanarrative that is unaffected by circumstance.
This mindset permeates the approach taken by many on today’s Left towards Israel and the Palestinians. Israel is just an extension of the West – a view many Zionists also hold – and is essentially a “White”, foreign implant in a “Brown” land.
There is of course a certain amount of truth here. Israel’s origins lie in the colonisation of land that was predominantly populated by Arabs. It was formed largely at the expense of the indigenous population. It is also a very close ally of the West, with whom it shares many, but by no means all, of the same geopolitical interests.
But, true as this may be, it paints far too simple a picture.
While Zionism is an example of a religiously-inspired colonial movement, it was also a movement of national self-determination for an oppressed people. Israel was founded as what Isaac Deutsche called a “raft-State”, where many Jews fled to escape the flood of European anti-Semitism. Many of them did not want to go to Palestine but were left with little choice when the democratic countries, including the US, closed their borders to Jewish immigration.
It was not just European Jews either who sought refuge in the Levant. 700,000 Jews of Middle Eastern origin moved to Israel shortly after it was founded – some out of religious commitment but many from fear of Arab nationalism.
Too often this complex picture is glossed over by Israel’s more strident left-wing critics, whose anti-colonialism can often (but not always) be somewhat black and white. Despite the problems with Orientalism, Said recognised this fact when he wrote, “Israeli Jews are not the white settlers of the stripe that colonised Algeria and South Africa.” (It should be said that many of the West Bank settlers today ARE of the same stripe. They are stealing Palestinian lands out of nationalist or religious commitment, not because they are escaping persecution.)
In Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun (2006), Jamal Saleem, a Palestinian militant from Gaza, discovers that his mother is in fact Jewish and that he has relations in Tel Aviv. Such a discovery, shortly afterIsrael occupied the Gaza Strip, caused him much anguish and confusion, particularly as he tried to get to know his mother’s family, who were reluctant to reciprocate.
Only once he was in an Israeli prison did he feel better: “Prison let me have a rest. Things are clear there – there’s them and there’s us. We’re behind bars and they guard the prison. That way there’s no confusion.”
For those of us on the Left there should always be ‘confusion’, especially when we have the luxury of not being directly involved in the conflict.