Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Saree Makdisi on Language vs. Reality

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Saree Makdisi on Language vs. Reality

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH THE title of his Jan. 27, 2007 talk at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC was "Entering the Final Phase of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," Dr. Saree Makdisi's real topic was the role of language in framing the debate over Israel's 40-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The UCLA professor of English and comparative literature began by quoting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's remarks the previous week that Israel had made "very fundamental" changes since 2000. Characterizing her statement as "utterly divorced" from reality, Makdisi proceeded to quote then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's 2004 speech at the Herziliya conference, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech the following year, in which both leaders reiterated Israel's unyielding demands.

According to Makdisi, however, Rice was "not exactly lying." Citing (and abbreviating the title of) the book On B.S., by retired Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt, Makdisi defined a liar as someone who knows the truth and deliberately tries to lead the listener away from it. By contrast, a b.s. artist has absolutely no interest in the truth, considering it irrelevant.

Makdisi argued that the Palestinians find themselves in their current dire straits not only because of Israel's superior military power, but also because of the power of language. Israel, he said, has succeeded in promoting its narrative-of which a two-state solution is an integral component-over that of the Palestinians. Indeed, the success of the Israeli narrative, Makdisi maintained, "depends absolutely" on its acceptance by Palestinians.

However, because its relationship to the truth is so much more tenuous, he went on to explain, Israel's "scenario" is "highly vulnerable to the Palestinian counternarrative." Nor are Israel's defenders unaware of this, especially in the U.S., he said. Describing them as being in a "constant state of panic," Makdisi cited their "hysteria" over former President Jimmy Carter's latest book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (available from the AET Book Club). …

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