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US campus protests: Edward Said would have treasured this moment

From Columbia University to all around the globe, the rhetoric of genocidal Zionism is finally being dismantled 
Pro-Palestinian student protesters demonstrate at the entrance gates of Columbia University in New York City on 30 April 2024 (Leonardo Munoz/AFP)
Pro-Palestinian student protesters demonstrate at the entrance gates of Columbia University in New York City on 30 April 2024 (Leonardo Munoz/AFP)

A spectre is haunting Columbia University and other American campuses from coast to coast: that of Edward Said.  

The powers of old and new genocidal Zionism have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump, European governments, New York Times columnists and Fox News presenters.

They are all barking up the wrong tree.  

Which party in this global anti-Zionist uprising has not been decried as “antisemitic” by its opponents in power?  

For more than half a century, US political and public discourse has been violently dominated by pro-Israel rhetoric. It is not accidental that a university affiliated with the name of Said, who taught at Columbia for the entirety of his academic life, is now changing that hegemony and putting Zionism, the Jewish supremacist ideology of a garrison state, on the defensive.  

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Chants of “free, free, Palestine!” have echoed for months now, from the Columbia campus to all around the globe. Said is not here to hear it now, but in the soul of his conviction, he knew it was coming.

The year 2023 will be remembered as the point in our history when genocidal Zionism was finally put on trial at American university campuses. Said’s legacy, and his lifetime commitment to the Palestinian cause, are written all over this student uprising.  

Crucial history

Historians of ideas and social movements will soon have to begin the necessary task of putting the pieces of this history together - and the life’s work of a leading Palestinian thinker, who remains an iconic figure at Columbia, will be an important component of that history.  

These historians will have many significant dates to consider. One was in the summer of 2002, when about half a dozen Columbia faculty gathered in one of our apartments to initiate an appeal to the university to divest from companies selling military equipment to Israel.  

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We could scarcely collect 100 signatures among our colleagues for the appeal, and we were resoundingly defeated at the university senate as hundreds more signatures were collected against our appeal. 

Most of our opponents were faculty from the medical, business, law and other professional schools, while our supporters were almost exclusively from the social sciences and humanities.  

Said died not seeing how the truth he had enabled and empowered would change the face of our history

The following year, we launched a major Palestinian film festival; thousands of enthusiasts came to watch five days of the best of a powerful national cinema. Said gave the opening remarks, and we later published a book of essays based on the festival. 

Soon afterwards, we created a website for Palestinian cinema, and based on that, we established the Center for Palestine Studies - the first of its kind on any university campus in the US or Europe.  

Soon after 9/11, a McCarthyite website called Campus Watch was created to dox, abuse and malign our names, in an apparent effort to frighten and silence us. A few years later, author David Horowitz published his infamous book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Six of our colleagues from Columbia were featured prominently. Said was not one of them, as by then, he had passed away.  

Tide turning

Just before Horowitz’s book came out, pro-Israel groups worried about the tide turning against their chicaneries made a so-called documentary on us, which they called Columbia Unbecoming (2004).    

False charges of “antisemitism” were levelled against us, and good old liberal outfits, ranging from the New York Times to the Nation, mobilised to denounce us. There were private screenings of the film to our upper administration in another effort to frighten and silence us. We were cornered, maligned and subjected to a powerful regime of Zionist inquisition in New York.  

It was, and it remains, a nasty war.  

The Zionist inquisition regime has ruled Columbia as it has ruled New York, and the US Congress, with an iron fist. How dare a gang of Arab and Muslim misfits question the power of the Israel lobby in the country; Zionist billionaires would not hear of it! 

Prominent Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said died in September 2003, ‘unable to see the fruits of his unwavering work’ (MENA/AFP)
Prominent Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said died in September 2003, ‘unable to see the fruits of his unwavering work’ (MENA/AFP)

The Washington Post recently published a report documenting how a group of rich “business titans” encouraged New York City Mayor Eric Adams to send police to the Columbia campus to disperse protesters.  

We all had reason to believe that the power of militant, rich and powerful Zionists was indestructible. The peaceful, purposeful and determined uprising on our campus, and then around the world, showed we were wrong.  

We can push back the history of these developments to the 1970s and 1980s, with Said emerging as the most eloquent voice in English articulating the terror that Zionists were perpetrating against Palestinians. The publication of his seminal book, The Question of Palestine (1979), might be considered the key event marking the rise of a powerful voice against the Zionist inquisition regime.  

Lifetime of struggle

Throughout the 1990s, Said was adamantly opposed to the sham of the Oslo Accords. In September 1993, he refused to be a part of the spectacle of the White House lawn handshake, which forfeited Palestinian rights to Israel. 

What emerges from scrutiny of the Oslo Accords, Said wrote in October 1993, “is a deal that is more flawed and, for most of the Palestinian people, more unfavourably weighted than many had first supposed. The fashion-show vulgarities of the White House ceremony, the degrading spectacle of Yasser Arafat thanking everyone for the suspension of most of his people’s rights, and the fatuous solemnity of Bill Clinton’s performance, like a 20th-century Roman emperor shepherding two vassal kings through rituals of reconciliation and obeisance: all these only temporarily obscure the truly astonishing proportions of the Palestinian capitulation.”  

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After a lifetime of struggle, Said died in September 2003, unable to see the fruits of his unwavering work. Two decades later, his prophetic soul is surely looking down with a smile on his progenies crying on his campus: “Free, free Palestine!”  

The global student uprising that began at Columbia, and like a brushfire spread around the globe, has a long and arduous road ahead. Pernicious attempts to falsely malign this uprising as “antisemitic” aim to hide the fact that at its very heart, there is a Jewish prophetic tradition of liberation, boldly represented by our Jewish students and faculty.  

US college campuses are today the site of the end of Zionist hegemony - and this infuriates some mighty and self-indulgent elements richly embedded in the boards of trustees, alumni, faculty, students and parents. But the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, and there is no pushing it back in.  

Columbia and other college campuses are the bellwether of a change that will never be reversed. For more than half a century, Zionist fiction dominated our campus, as Palestinian reality was denied, denigrated and demonised. Said died not seeing how the truth he had enabled and empowered would change the face of our history, as a resounding beat of voices and drums echoes under the windows of his former campus apartment: “Free, free Palestine!”  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in the City of New York, where he teaches Comparative Literature, World Cinema, and Postcolonial Theory. His latest books include The Future of Two Illusions: Islam after the West (2022); The Last Muslim Intellectual: The Life and Legacy of Jalal Al-e Ahmad (2021); Reversing the Colonial Gaze: Persian Travelers Abroad (2020), and The Emperor is Naked: On the Inevitable Demise of the Nation-State (2020). His books and essays have been translated into many languages.
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