The Interview | With Saree Makdisi

Language and conflict

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anna Mundow
May 4, 2008

Saree Makdisi, professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, is the author of "Romantic Imperialism" and "William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s." His latest book, "Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation" (Norton, $24.95), is a lucid, invaluable chronicle of Palestinian daily life in the occupied territories. Makdisi, who alternates firsthand accounts with reports and interviews involving the United Nations, the World Bank, and Israeli and international human rights organizations, observes that "if the Palestinians will never recuperate Palestine as it was before the arrival of Zionism, and Israelis will never realize a purely Jewish state . . . they can at least put their two impossible ideals aside for the sake of a common future."

The son of a Lebanese father and Palestinian mother, Makdisi was born in Washington, D.C., raised in Beirut, and educated in the United States. He spoke from his home in California.

Q. What is the link between your literary and your political writing?

A. I'm primarily interested in the work of Romantic-era writers like Blake and [Percy Bysshe] Shelley who lived in times of tremendous upheaval and spoke out against the prevailing point of view, who questioned the orthodoxy. That's an inspiration for me.

Q. Which orthodoxy are you challenging here?

A. The prevailing orthodoxy that in general Israel is the aggrieved party and the Palestinians are the aggressors, whereas it seems to me that the situation is exactly the opposite. Half of Palestine's people were forced from their homes during the creation of Israel, in 1948; they have never been allowed to return although they have the legal and moral right to do so. Instead we see the continuing existence of a system that keeps people displaced and unable to exercise their full human rights.

Q. And you insist that language is central in this?

A. Think of the way language is used to describe this conflict. For example, technically, legally, and morally, there's a distinction between "colony" and "settlement." You settle your own territory, you colonize somebody else's. What the Israelis are doing in the occupied territories is colonizing. So why is an activity that the dictionary defines as colonization portrayed as settlement? Yet even I use the term "settlement" in this book.

Q. Because you don't want to confuse the reader?

A. And be marked as an extremist. What does it mean when someone who uses language accurately can be dismissed as an extremist?

Q. But this conflict is hardly about language . . . .

A. No, it's about land. From the late 19th and early 20th century on, the project was to establish a Jewish homeland or state - they're not the same thing, by the way - . . . on land that had an overwhelmingly non-Jewish population. If you think about it, such a project will always require violence.

Certainly from the early 1930s on, leading figures like [David] Ben-Gurion were clear that their project entailed the removal of as much of the Palestinian population as possible. That process continues to this day in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with incredible pressure brought to bear on the indigenous Palestinian population.

Q. Why do you concentrate on everyday life?

A. It's the least-known aspect of the occupation. So much of the conflict is portrayed in the mainstream US media in slogans or clichés. But when you hear from the guy who can't get to his cucumber farm or the woman who can't get to the hospital to give birth, it's very hard to argue with those things.

Q. Have the Palestinians brought this on themselves?

A. I don't think it's helpful to blame the victims. A better question is what does Israel get to do in order to assert its own security? According to international law, there are things you can and cannot do as an occupying power. If you don't like those constraints, don't be an occupying power. If the Israelis are unhappy with the results of their occupation, with what it has led people to do, let them end it. They will be much more secure if they do.

Q. You say that "the rights of Palestinians are inseparable from the rights of Israelis"? Explain.

A. For all the talk of a two-state solution, only one state controls the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. In that state, the Jewish half of the population has full rights, the non-Jewish half doesn't. That is unjust. But neither side is going to go away. I favor a situation in which both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians Arabs live in equality in a single, democratic, secular, and multicultural state that does not discriminate on the basis of religion as Israel does. . . .

Q. Is that seen as a possibility?

A. It is among Palestinians. I talked to everybody from politicians to ambulance drivers, and they all said it's one piece of land, the two populations are mixed, the only way is to live together. They want to get on with their lives. Among Israelis, only a small number thinks this way, because there's no pressure to do so. No sanctions, no boycott, no peaceful pressure from the outside, which is what I advocate - I'm against violence directed against civilians in any circumstances. . . . Historically speaking, no privileged group has voluntarily relinquished its privileges. That happens only when pressure is brought to bear. Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert himself has said that as soon as Palestinians adopt the South African paradigm and set of demands - one person, one vote - the world will take the Palestinian side. I wish the Palestinian leadership would get that message.

Anna Mundow can be reached via e-mail at

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