Tough Jews (Continued)
NOW A second wave of readers (Book World, Nov. 11) express their anger that Edward W. Said was chosen to review my book, Tough Jews. They even insist on an explanation from the "person responsible" for assigning the book to Said, reiterating the point made by the previous letter writers that his Palestinian biases should have disqualified him from addressing the Jewish, and therefore apparently off-limits-to-Palestinians, issues the book raises.
I find this expremely discouraging. The letters exemplify the spirit of intolerance, censoriousness and cultural cowardice now blowing across the land. Indeed, similarities in language and point suggest to me that the letters are not entirely spontaneous expressions. That Book World editor Nina King was moved to reply in print only indicates the strength of this new mood. For like an Op-Ed page, a book review is by definition a place for controversy, not conformity.
I'm glad King defended that principle and highlighted the fact that Said had emphasized his Palestinian viewpoint and had provided his readers with ample material for making their own judgments. But that she felt she had to do this is itself troubling. So is the fact that no letters have appeared supporting Book World's choice of a reviewer.
Because Edward Said is so creative (and internationally eminent) an analyst of literature and social theory, because his understanding of the many meanings of the Holocaust for Israeli and American Jews is so thoughtful and empathetic, because he is this country's most visible spokesperson for the Palestinian cause and because, as the letters to Book World attest, many Jewish Americans cannot stand his ideas, about which they often know next to nothing, and do not want anyone even to consider them: For these reasons I was greatly honored by his review and, at the risk of immodesty, applaud Book World for its choice.
It could -- and should -- even be said that, given his other qualifications, Said's participation in the Palestinian parliament-in-exile (the National Council) and the fact that he and other Palestinian voices are virtually never called on to express themselves by major media in this country, make him the perfect reviewer of a book by an American Jew on American Jewish political fantasies and how these may affect Palestinians.
Said's ideas, there's the rub. For the angry letter writers, Said doesn't have ideas; he has biases. On the one hand, this is ethnocentric nonsense according to which there simply is no Palestinian viewpoint, only an Israeli and supposedly Jewish viewpoint (an assumption that, in the Middle East, generated the intifada).
In addition to his extensive work on literature, Said, never one to hide his philosophical and political convictions, has written four books everyone concerned with Palestinian-Israeli relations really should read: The Question of Palestine, Covering Islam, After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives and his more broadly important Orientalism. The chapter "Zionism From the Standpoint of Its Enemies" in The Question of Palestine is vital.
On the other hand, what the letter writers say is in part true, although not in the sense they intend: Ideas, all ideas, especially those that claim not to be, are biases. And that is why there needs to be a discussion, the most free and open discussion possible, a critical encounter with the widest possible range of ideas, above all the ideas with which one is uncomfortable. Neither we nor our ideas can develop in the sort of purified, air-tight container the letter-writers seem to want. Outside their own voices, they want silence, not balance. Notably, their letters have already had the chilling and retrograde effect of deflecting discussion away from what is said in the review and the book reviewed. PAUL BREINES History Department Boston College Chestnut Hill, Mass.