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How Israel & the West Manufacture Consent: Edward Said Had Warned Us in 1979

Edward Said's seminal essay gives insights on why Israeli violence in Palestine gets widespread support in the West.

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For the first time in modern history, we are looking at an ethnic cleansing being televised and playing on our mobile phone screens in real time as the West condones the war crimes being committed by Israel in Gaza. Entire families have been wiped out – over 40 according to data released three days ago.

Truth has become a casualty and disinformation is being used as a weapon in war. In the West, the disinformation is in turn preventing a sincere discussion on the conflict.

A few questions that many are now asking, especially in the context of the West's approach, are:

  • How much of the support for Israel comes from racism in the West?

  • Are Palestinians facing the brunt of European guilt for having persecuted Jews for decades at end in the past?

There are no easy answers to this.

A scholar who tried to engage with some of these questions was Palestinian-American academic, literary theorist, critic and political activist Edward Said in his seminal work 'The Question of Palestine' (1979).

Edward Said's seminal essay gives insights on why Israeli violence in Palestine gets widespread support in the West.

A poster of Edward Said on the West Bank separation wall.

(Photo Courtesy: Justin McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons)

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"The extent to which support for Zionism, in all its positive and affirmative aspects, entailed not just a grudging acceptance of some Arab reality in Palestine but an affirmative and positive feeling that Zionism had done well in destroying Arab-Palestine," Said writes.

The Indispensable Role of the West

Said tells us that long before Zionism was officially given some level of recognition, British and French authorities who often visited Palestine had a very classist view of Palestinians, much like how the British saw Indians – 'unruly, barbaric, need to be controlled, governed.'

It started with the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917 when the British expressed sympathies with some Jewish Zionist voices and saw an opportunity.

Said wrote, "This was a declaration made by a European power … about a non-European territory … in a flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory."

He continued, "It took the form of a promise about this same territory to another foreign group, so that this foreign group might, quite literally, make this territory a national home for the Jewish people."

Edward Said's seminal essay gives insights on why Israeli violence in Palestine gets widespread support in the West.

Cover of Edward Said's book.

(Photo Courtesy: Amazon)

Writers like George Eliot, thinkers like Moses Hess and Theodore Herzl all contributed to the idea of this 'lost fatherland' belonging to the Jews.

For some context, by the end of World War II, the non-Jewish proportion of the population in Palestine was 70%, and "of the remaining 30% which made up the Jewish population, 70% were concentrated not on the land, where the desert was supposedly being made to bloom, but in cities and villages. Moreover, British policy made Zionism its beneficiary, demographically speaking," noted Said.

Moreover, even though Holocaust is invoked by Israelis and Palestinians, the difference is that while latter does it to make a case for history to not repeat itself, to find solidarity in suffering, the former does it defensively to somehow justify its actions.
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How Dehumanising Palestinians Helps Israel

A key element to Israel's argument against the Palestinian's case has been a certain moral high ground that it claims to occupy.

Said pointed out that the narrative created was that Palestinians were backward, there was a largely 'empty' territory and that these "Orientals" did not have the same regard for human life as the West did.

"Israel literally produced, manufactured a new class of person, not so much "the Arab" (who had been caught in a legal net created by Israel for its "non-Jewish" citizens after 1948, but who was never considered apart from a legality reserved exclusively for Arabs) as the "terrorist," wrote Said.

This exact kind of language we are witnessing today all over social media where Palestinians are not only being called 'terrorists,' but also 'human animals' by Israel's Defence Minister.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said, "There are no innocents in the Gaza strip." Following is a cartoon that was shared by an International Human Rights lawyer Arsen Ostrovosky on X (formerly Twitter).

Comparing perceived enemies as pests/insects is a common historical trope and the last time this happened was in Nazi Germany where the "Jewish parasite" propaganda was popularised.

Edward Said's seminal essay gives insights on why Israeli violence in Palestine gets widespread support in the West.

The post by International Human Rights lawyer Arsen Ostrovosky on X.

(Photo: X)

Edward Said wrote, "For this 'terrorist,' Israel seemed to have only a very narrow, and singularly unimaginative definition-he was supposed to be an enemy of the state's security-but the important thing about him was that he kept turning into a nationalist patriot."

In both cases, Said observed that, the Arab was eliminated either as 'trouble' or someone who has 'bad values.' This racism is like an inseparable arm of Zionism.

A superior idea that a sheer number and presence ought to rule in Palestine and that it legitimized up until 1948 and after. "For their part, the Zionists clearly saw themselves as the beneficiaries of this view," he wrote.

"Both the British imperialist and the Zionist vision are united in playing down and even canceling out the Arabs in Palestine as somehow secondary and negligible. Both raise the moral importance of the visions very far above the mere presence of natives on a piece of immensely significant territory."

Said pointed out that the essence of the Zionist campaign on behalf of the conquest of Palestine was, and remains to this day, an appeal so specific, yet so full of general justification, as to make all opposition to it both impossibly general and generally inadmissible. This had the effect of bringing most of the liberal and enlightened West to its side.

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He noted that the idea of a Jewish state which acquired some moral prestige, the more so since the advent of fascism in Europe and Palestine seemed the most liberal of all the answers to their needs.

Hence, Jewish suffering was weaponised and exploited to call for creation of Israel by the Europe and once again, it is being repeated to perpetuate the killings of Palestinians.

"Anyone who watched the spring 1978 NBC presentation of Holocaust was aware that at least part of the program was intended as a justification for Zionism--even while at about the same time Israeli troops in Lebanon produced devastation, thousands of civilian casualties," wrote Said.

Why Are Israeli Policies Still Supported?

During the so-called 'War on Terror' the then US President, George W Bush pushed the 'you're with us or them' narrative, something that he did during the Iraq invasion as well.

In the context of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, he said, "My view is that one side is guilty and it's not Israel."

This invariably adds to the notion that if you oppose Israel, you're not only antisemite but also siding with the 'terrorists.'

Said wrote that when it came to Israel's illegal occupation, a belief was established that "to support it was to do a number of far more interesting and acceptable things than merely displace or ignore a basically uninteresting bunch of resident natives."

"For indeed it was the world that made the success of Zionism possible, and it was Zionism's sense of the world as supporter and audience that played a considerable practical role in the struggle for Palestine," he wrote.

If "they" didn't understand the glorious enterprise that was Zionism, it was because "they" were hopelessly out of touch with "our" values, Edward Said pointing out how this belief was established.

All that really mattered were ethnocentric ideals, appropriated by Zionism, valorising the white man's superiority and his right over territory believed to be consonant with those ideals and this continues to play out today.

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"What the Westerner generally sees-in the Middle East is seen from the Zionist perspective. Israel is the norm, Israelis are the presence, their ideas and institutions the authentically native ones; Arabs are a nuisance, Palestinians a quasi-mythical reality, and so on."

Said noted that in Zionism, the liberal West saw the triumph of reason and idealism.

"In no other country, except Israel, is Zionism enshrined as an unquestioned good, and in no other country is there so strong a conjuncture of powerful institutions and interests-the press, the liberal intelligentsia, the military-industrial complex, the academic community, labor unions-for whom, uncritical support of Israel and Zionism enhances their domestic as well as international standing."

As Edward Said says, "Any well-meaning person can thus oppose South African or American racism and at the same time tacitly support Zionist racial discrimination against non-Jews in Palestine."

(This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Gaza   Palestine   Racism 

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