MIDDLE EAST REALITY CHECK: On Philip Adams interviewing Saree Makdisi 19Sep09 September 19, 2009

Philip Adams interview with Prof Saree Makdisi can be heard here.

During that time [in the Communist Party], I fell hopelessly in love with Jews. No, not with Judaism. With Jews. It was a consequence of realising that a remarkable number of people I most liked and admired were secular Jews. And I met a great many in the Communist Party… By now I was writing for The Bulletin… And I began to realise that without the Jews the Victorian Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Theatre Company would have found it hard to survive. For the Jews were central to Melbourne’s culture – to its music, its literature, its theatre. The tiny community of Jews made a disproportionate contribution to the arts, literature, science, philanthropy and the nascent civil rights movement everywhere I looked. At the age of 16 I found myself wishing I’d been born Jewish.” (‘I am proud that’, Phillip Adams, October 1998, jmm.aaa.net.au)

What follows is an extract from Phillip Adams’ 25 minute interview with Saree Makdisi, nephew of the late Edward Said, professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, and author of Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation (2008), on Adam’s “little wireless program” Late Night Live on 16/9/09. Adams just doesn’t seem to get it:

Makdisi: My understanding is that, for there to be genuine reconciliation between the 2 peoples, there be one state where all its citizens are treated as equals. What that means for Palestinians is that they would not have an independent Palestinian state, which is what they’ve been struggling for for the past 60 years. What it means for Jewish Israelis is that there would be no more Jewish state as such…

Adams (alarmed, interrupting): But they would see this as demographic suicide, would they not, given the population patterns?

Makdisi: But the point is that one people achieving what it wants at the expense of another is unworkable. Reconciliation has to happen when both peoples realise that they’re both there to stay and that they have to find a way to live and find self-expression, and even self-determination, with an understanding that they have to do so equally and with each other rather than against each other.

Adams (surprised, as though hearing the one state idea for the first time – despite Ali Abu Nimah’s conversation with him last year): A singular… single secular state with Israelis and Palestinians living side-by-side with what? equal rights?

Makdisi (incredulous): Yes, which is not that (laughing) difficult to imagine. Most countries in the world do work like that. That’s what the basis of the modern liberal state is…

Adams (interrupting): Saree, let me ask you a question. Could it be called Israel?

Makdisi: Israel has constituted itself legally and officially as a Jewish state. That’s why, legally speaking, there’s no such thing as an Israeli nationality, it’s only Jewish nationality [indistinct] So can that state become truly democratic? I don’t think so. It understands itself, defines itself, not just juridically and institutionally as a Jewish state – even at the expense of its own Palestinian citizens. I think the path to peace and reconciliation is one where such exclusivist claims have to be abandoned and equality has to be embraced.

Adams: How long would it take before the Jewish Israelis were a minority in Israel?

Makdisi: I don’t know. I don’t even know that that question really matters. The whole question of minorities…

Adams (interrupting, testy – for the avuncular Adams): It sure as hell matters to them.

Makdisi: It may, but does it really matter in terms of the way a state is constituted? Should a state be constituted to guarantee minority rights at the expense of the majority? I don’t think so. I believe in a state where everybody’s equal. That’s certainly the state I grew up in in the US. It’s the model that the American constitution enshrines. That’s the kind of polity I personally believe in.

Adams (divert! divert!): Can we look at another state in the time we have together, which needs a solution, and that’s California?

Unbelievably, the remaining 5 minutes of the interview was devoted to the troubles of California and Obama. Saree Makdisi deserves a medal for his patience and forbearance.

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