THE FALSE PROPHET OF PALESTINE: IN THE WAKE OF THE EDWARD SAID REVELATIONS (JERUSALEM CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS) Justus Weiner No. 422 9 Shevat 5760 / 16 January 2000)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs Articles-Index-Top
A Mythical Childhood in Jerusalem / Unraveling the Mystery / An
Avatar of Palestinian Suffering / Evicting Martin Buber / Said´s
Network of Friends / The Response of Independent Journalists /
Generating a Smokescreen / Should Intellectuals Lie?
A Mythical Childhood in Jerusalem
Professor Edward Said of Columbia University is the Western world´s
foremost spokesman for the Palestinian cause. Said, a world-class
writer, elevated his personal parable of a paradise destroyed and
dispossessed to his trump card in articles, books, lectures,
interviews, and television documentaries. He presented himself as the
genuine article - a dispossessed Palestinian refugee deserving
of "reparations" for what he claimed was his house and his father´s
Said writes, "I was born, in November 1935, in Talbiya, then a mostly
new and prosperous Arab quarter of Jerusalem. By the end of 1947,
just a few months before Talbiya fell to Jewish forces, I´d left with
my family for Cairo."1 He wrote elsewhere, "I was born in Jerusalem
and spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my
entire family became refugees, in Egypt."2
For years, the eminent intellectual and activist has told his life
story as an allegory of the Palestinian people, but it is not his
life story. Jerusalem, about which he claimed "nearly everything in
my early life could be traced," was in fact the home of relatives
whom Said occasionally visited.
Recently, Commentary magazine published "´My Beautiful Old House´ and
Other Fabrications of Edward Said," an expose I had written of the
myths Said had created while reinventing his life story to become
a "Palestinian refugee."3 In addition, the Wall Street Journal
published a condensed version entitled "The False Prophet of
Palestine" (August 26, 1999).
Unraveling the Mystery
The unraveling of this mystery began as I was preparing an article
on "Peace and its Discontents: Israeli and Palestinian Intellectuals
Who Oppose the Current Peace Process," which appeared in the Cornell
International Law Journal (Winter 1996). Part of my research included
reading Said´s book Peace and its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in
the Middle East Peace Process.
Out of natural curiosity, I tried to find out more about this highly
persuasive and influential intellectual-academic and his tragic
childhood/adolescence in Jerusalem, especially since I had lived
around the corner from what he nostalgically referred to as "my
beautiful old house" on Brenner Street, and I had worked for years in
an office behind St. George´s school which Said claimed to have
Yet when I sought out people who might recall Said or at least could
remember the prevailing conditions prior to or during the 1948 Arab-
Israeli War, much of what I discovered was at odds with the "facts"
as presented by Said. As I dug deeper, I found a pervasive pattern of
falsity. When I began discovering discrepancies in Said´s frequent
autobiographic references, I telephoned his office at Columbia
University to request an interview, but Said did not return the call.
The publication of my expose triggered a major
controversy, "detonating one of the nastiest rows of its kind to rend
New York´s intelligentsia in years," according to the British
Observer. Scores of articles appeared in far-flung publications from
Finland to India and from Syria to Canada. The (London) Daily
Telegraph deemed the article "a remarkable piece of investigative
journalism," and it has been nominated for a prestigious award in the
An Avatar of Palestinian Suffering
Where and under what circumstances an intellectual or academic grew
up would ordinarily be of little consequence, but this case is
different. His "entire" family, as Said tells it, was "ethnically
In his narratives, Edward Said paints romantic images of pre-1948
Palestine as a paradise, where his life was simple, harmonious, and
happy. This parable of perfection was rudely destroyed by the
outbreak of inter-communal conflict which preceded the 1948 War,
allegedly forcing young Edward out of his home and school in
Jerusalem and into "the Palestine exile" for "50 years."4
According to Said, "the central metaphor for me is exile,"5 and "1947
was for me and my family the last year of our residence in
Jerusalem."6 He claimed on the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour that "I lost -
and my family lost - its property and rights in 1948."7
Yet after more than three years of research in archives, libraries,
and public record offices on four continents, together with more than
85 interviews, a very different picture of Said´s life has emerged.
Edward Said in fact created a parable out of the first twelve years
of his life and used it to perpetrate a multi-level deception on
Western intellectuals and his Palestinian admirers alike.
Edward Said actually grew up in Cairo, Egypt. His childhood friend
Professor Hoda Gindi of Cairo University, who lived downstairs in the
same apartment house, confirmed that Said was the scion of a wealthy
Cairene family. As was discovered, his father was an American citizen
who moved to Cairo from Jerusalem a decade before Edward was born.
Living in Cairo until his departure to attend prep school in America
in 1951, Edward Said resided with his family in luxurious apartment
buildings in the exclusive Zamalek neighborhood, played with
childhood friends in the manicured private gardens of the Aquarium
Grotto, attended private English and American schools, was driven
around in his father´s large black American cars by his chauffeur,
and enjoyed the facilities at the exclusive Gezira Sporting Club as
the son of one of its only Arab members.
Said´s father was the owner of a thriving office supply business, the
Standard Stationary Company, based in Cairo. In 1952 a revolutionary
mob burned his flagship store (and a branch) to the ground, and
several years later the nationalization program instituted by
Egyptian President Nasser ultimately forced Said´s father out of the
country. Thus, the truly devastating financial losses suffered by
Said´s father were in no way connected to Israel.
Evicting Martin Buber
In a speech at Birzeit University in 1998, Said publicly charged that
the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, known as an apostle of
coexistence between Arabs and Jews, had lived in the Brenner Street
house and "did not mind living in an Arab house whose inhabitants had
Once again, the truth involves a very different story. The house at
10 Brenner Street was built in the early 1930s and its registered
owners were Said´s grandfather and later his aunt and her five
children. There is no record in the Land Registry of Edward Said´s
parents ever owning any interest in the house. The building was
initially divided into two apartments which were rented out from 1936
onwards. After 1938, one apartment (and a downstairs storeroom) was
leased to Martin Buber and his extended family, all of them recent
refugees from Nazi Germany. The Bubers, relying on the long-term
nature of their lease, made major improvements in the apartment and
landscaped the garden.
In early 1942, Edward Said´s aunt broke the lease and reclaimed the
premises for her family´s personal use, winning a judge´s ruling in
favor of eviction, and forcing Buber to vacate together with his
library of some 15,000 books.9 Given the shortage of housing in
Palestine during World War II, their eviction could not have come at
a worse time. Curiously, this event occurred during the very period
when Edward Said was himself allegedly growing up in the same house,
and long before Israel´s War of Independence in 1948, but Said never
mentioned the presence of Martin Buber or his library in "my
beautiful old house" during those years.
Said´s Network of Friends
As responses to my article began to pour in, an obvious dichotomy
emerged. First, there was the network of Said´s friends whose names
had come up frequently in my research into his writings. Their
articles, editorials, and book reviews regularly lauded Said the man
and often even Said the icon. Interestingly, the admiration was
mutual as Said had written favorably about them (or their writings).
For example, in 1986 Salman Rushdie reviewed Said´s book After the
Last Sky in the Guardian; then Said wrote favorably about Rushdie in
the Washington Post and reviewed his book The Jaguar Smile in the
London Review of Books. On at least three other occasions Rushdie and
Said have engaged in mutually flattering conversations which were
later published. Since the current controversy broke, Rushdie has
jumped in on Said´s side with an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail
(Canada) which also appeared in The Age (Melbourne).
Next there is Christopher Hitchens, who in 1988 co-edited Blaming the
Victims with Said and later wrote a laudatory foreword to Said´s book
Peace and Its Discontents. Recently, Hitchens has devoted two of his
columns in The Nation and a review of Said´s Out of Place for the
(Canadian) National Post to vitriolic attacks on me and my critique
of Said´s intellectual dishonesty. In a recent radio interview, Said
referred to Hitchens as "my defender."
Said´s close connection with Alexander Cockburn goes back to at least
the early 1980s, when a scandal broke concerning an undisclosed
$10,000 "grant." In 1982, the now-defunct Institute of Arab Studies
secretly gave Cockburn a $10,000 "grant" to write a book on the
Israeli invasion of Lebanon.10 When the payment was exposed,
Cockburn, who had never disclosed it to his editor or readers, was
sacked from the Village Voice. Meanwhile his friend Edward Said,
Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Arab Studies, under
questioning arising out of the scandal, defended its work in the New
Apparently undeterred by the uproar, Cockburn´s book Corruptions of
the Empire was reviewed by Edward Said in the London Review of Books
under the title of "Alexander the Brilliant." Said wrote, "Why, in
the desert of today´s journalistic mediocrity and cowardly trimming,
anyone with Cockburn´s gifts and courage should be modest, or mock-
modest, I shall leave to others to discuss." Cockburn later provided
a blurb for the inside cover page of Said´s Representations of the
Intellectual. He has on at least two occasions touted Said in his
column in The Nation, and recently devoted his column in that
magazine to a no-holds-barred attack on my research. Cockburn also
published similar attacks in his columns in the Los Angles Times and
in the New York Press.
The Response of Independent Journalists
Fortunately, there exist many dedicated journalists who took the
trouble to investigate and ascertain how the parties´ claims stood up
to analysis. This group, none of whom I have ever had dealings with,
includes Daniel Johnson of the Daily Telegraph, Jeff Jacoby
syndicated in the Boston Globe, Dan Kennedy in the Boston Phoenix,
Premen Addy in The Hindu, Charles Krauthammer in Time, Mark Berley in
the New York Post, Neil Seeman in the (Canadian) National Post,
Hillel Halkin in The Forward, and David Horowitz at salon.com.
Despite their efforts, judging from what appeared in print, not a
single journalist succeeded in pinning down Said on even one of the
direct quotes which I included in my article. I was repeatedly told
that he became angry and simply dismissed any effort to address the
key evidence of his duplicity.
Generating a Smokescreen
In the months since the publication of the article, Said and his
followers have never attempted, in any systematic way, to refute the
evidence. Instead, Said´s network of friends echoed and amplified his
attacks, publishing suspiciously similar criticisms of my work. Not
only are the specific points of attack frequently identical, but
similar phraseology suggests common parentage.
One of the most curious allegations that occurred in the aftermath of
the article was Said´s accusation published in the Chronicle of
Higher Education (August 26, 1999) that I had threatened his cousin
Robert Said, a man whom I have never met or even spoken with.
Actually, it was my Belgian research assistant, Paul Lambert, who is
half my age, who conducted the interview with Robert Said in his
office in Amman on January 23, 1997. According to Lambert, today a
cadet in the Belgian diplomatic corps,
Robert Said met me in his impressive office, on the second floor of a
large office supply company. Although initially gracious - I was
offered a cup of coffee - once I began asking basic questions about
Edward´s childhood and the house [on Brenner St. in Jerusalem],
Robert Said refused to answer. He then turned verbally abusive,
shouting insults and gesticulating with his hands....At no time did
I...threaten him saying anything like "it would be better if you
answered questions." This claim is manifestly factually incorrect, I
would even say grotesque: if one should have felt threatened it was
me. Indeed, Robert Said called in one of his bouncer co-workers and
went on shouting at me unpleasant things like "why did you really
come here?," "you are a tool," "you have been brainwashed," and
eventually he stated that "the Jews are the worst people in the
world." [Lambert is a Flemish Catholic.] Frankly, I was rather
concerned about my own safety than about the interview. Please note
my position: 25y old, alone as a non-Arabic speaker in the middle of
unknown Amman - not exactly a position to threaten anyone.11
Should Intellectuals Lie?
This controversy raises larger questions than simply the myth-making
and selective memory of Edward Said. As a world-class intellectual,
it would be revealing to pose to him the following questions: Should
intellectuals lie? Should they deceive or misrepresent personal or
historical facts? Should they remember and forget selectively? Is
such conduct ever justified? While some radical intellectuals go so
far as to claim that all knowledge is a form of duping and others
deny the very existence of "truth," Professor Edward Said, despite
his radical politics, has taken a traditionalist approach to this
topic. Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Said has noted that "there
is a great difference between political and intellectual behavior.
The intellectual´s role is to speak the truth, as plainly, directly
and as honestly as possible....the intellectual´s constituency is
neither a government nor a corporate or a career interest: only the
Indeed, in his new memoir Out of Place (1999), published after he
became aware of my investigation, Said presents a radically revised
version of his life in which he describes his Cairo childhood in
great detail, and we learn that his schooling from age 6 to 16 took
place in three different Cairo institutions. The publication of
Said´s new memoir a month after my article appeared in Commentary
placed his defenders in an untenable situation, because without
admitting to the inconsistency with his previous autobiographical
writings, Said completely confirmed the core discoveries of my
The cause of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to which so
many of Said´s friends assert their devotion, is not well-served by
historical lies. The fact is that the "best-known Palestinian
intellectual in the world" (as he was recently described on the BBC)
made wholesale political use of the supposed circumstances of his
childhood, weaving an elaborate myth of paradise and expulsion from
paradise out of one or two circumstances and a raft of inventions.
Edward Said was never a refugee from Palestine, but he is certainly a
refugee from the truth.
1. Edward Said, "Palestine, Then and Now: An Exile´s Journey Through
Israel and the Occupied Territories," Harper´s Magazine, December
1992, p. 47.
2. Edward Said, "Between Worlds: Edward Said Makes Sense of His
Life," London Review of Books, May 7, 1998, p. 3.
3. Commentary, September 1999.
4. Edward Said, "Fifty Years in the Wilderness: A State of
Dispossession and Violence," The Guardian, May 2, 1998, p. 21.
5. Bryan Appleyard, "Reflections from the Tightrope," The Independent
(London), June 23, 1993, p. 23.
6. Edward Said, Lecture on "The Tragedy of Palestine" at Rice
University, Houston, March 26, 1998.
7. Interview with Edward Said, Educational Broadcasting and GWETA,
the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, August 1, 1991, Transcript #4129.
8. Edward Said, Lecture at the Fifth International Conference
for "The Scenarios of Palestine," Birzeit University, November 12,
9. Interview with Barbara (Buber) Goldschmidt, November 10, 1996.
10. The incident was reported in the Boston Phoenix (January 10,
1984), New York Times (January 12, 1984), and Washington Post
(January 13, 1984).
11. Letter to the Editor, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 1,
12. Edward Said, "Israel-Palestine: A Third Way," Le Monde
Diplomatique (Aug-Sep 1998).
Justus R. Weiner is an international human rights lawyer and a member
of the Israel and New York Bar Associations. He is currently a
Scholar in Residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and
an adjunct lecturer at Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities. The complete
version of the research on Edward Said (with 141 footnotes, two
charts, and a photograph) is available at
http://www.commentarymagazine.com/9909/weiner.html. See also letters
and responses on the article in Commentary (January 2000). The author
wishes to express his appreciation to Judy Shulewitz and Zev Kanter
for their assistance.
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