Raphael Cohen-Almagor
Author of Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism (2021)

Reminiscing Edward Said

Were Edward Said alive, I trust he would have rejoiced watching the recent scenes from Columbia University, where he was a literature professor for many years. Moreover, he would have led the anti-Israeli-anti-Jewish campaign on campus and would take pride that his ideas remain as popular and relevant as ever. Said opposed the State of Israel, the Oslo Accords and any reconciliation with the “Zionist-Imperialist” Israel. Said openly criticized Yasser Arafat for deserting “resistance” and for choosing to negotiate terms with Israel.

In 1994, I spent a week with Said at a workshop he organized with the 21 Century Trust, a foundation that was founded in 1986 by Sir David “to strengthen, through education, links between free societies throughout the world and promoting the values they represent”. The Trust organized a few workshops every year, inviting people from different walks of life – sociology, history, law, arts, humanities, science, politics, diplomacy, medicine, journalism etc. – to discuss one particular topic. In 1994, the Trust organized at St. John’s College, Cambridge, a workshop celebrating and discussing Said’s then-latest book Culture and Imperialism. For eight extensive days a group of some twenty people from thirteen countries, many of them truly impressive figures, heard lectures delivered by Said and his friends and conducted small study groups dealing with some of the issues that were raised during the lectures and the following discussions.

I was a little anxious before arriving at the workshop, mainly because of Said’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The Trust had sent us beforehand a number of articles and essays which included, inter alia, one chapter of Said’s Culture and Imperialism and a paper Said had written especially for the workshop. Both of them exhibited a wide knowledge of literature, history and some philosophy but lacked analysis. When it came to dealing with the Arab world, mainly with the Gulf War, the contentions tended to be propagandist in nature, and the analysis quite superficial. I was afraid that the same would happen during the workshop. Moreover, the workshop devoted time to two case studies to illustrate some of the problems of imperialism: South Africa and Palestine. Said invited his friend Ibrahim Abu-Lughoud of Bir-Zeit University to present the Palestine case. The word ‘Israel’ was not mentioned in Abu-Lughoud’s presentation. The reference was always to Palestine, before 1948 until 1994, portraying a Zionist-colonialist invasion assisted by the Western powers, mainly Britain and the United States. When Abu-Lughoud completed his long presentation, I asked the Trust organizer, Sir Michael Weir, the right to comment and I refuted his main contentions one by one. I said at the outset that I am not arguing against his version of history. Each person has his/her interpretation of history, his/her own narrative. But I wish to argue about facts, and so I did. Edward Said did not intervene in this exchange. The other fellows approached me by the end of the day and thanked me for balancing Abu-Lughoud’s views.

Edward Said appeared to be a very sincere and candid person, presenting his ideas clearly and eloquently. It was clear that he believed in them and invested a lot of time in crystalizing his thoughts. I have strong reservations regarding the way he organized the seminar, i.e. the fact that he did not take care to invite people who have different views of history. The workshop was very biased and quite unbalanced. Only Marxist and post-colonial arguments were presented. Said invited only people who endorsed views similar to his. There was no attempt to explore contesting views or to discuss alternative ways of thinking, e.g. liberalism. In my concluding remarks at the end of the workshop, I said that there was a place to invite representatives of a major ‘imperialist’ organization; of an Eastern European country, and someone to present the so-called ‘fourth world’ view which concerns the relationships between the advanced, modern world and aboriginal communities living in Canada or Scandinavia. Notwithstanding this criticism, I must say that throughout the seminar, more often than not, I found myself in agreement with Said’s general critique of imperialism. Most of the time his arguments made sense and were deep and thought-provoking, much more than the arguments presented in his book Culture and Imperialism whose quality is a far cry from the book that made Said’s famous, Orientalism.

Said was a true intellectual. His knowledge was immense. He was well-versed in literature, history, the arts, politics and sociology. He constantly wished to impress his listeners with his wide knowledge, endlessly referring to other people and quoting from their writings. At one lunch conversation that the two of us had, I was so tired of his constant references to other people that I eventually told him: OK, this is what Kipling was saying, this is what Shaw was thinking, this is what Adorno was arguing. But what do YOU think? I am interested in your OWN thinking.

I recall what my mentor and friend Isaiah Berlin said about Said: that he was quite honest, sincere sort of a man, hysterical, always one-sided though touching in his own way.

The writer is a professor of politics and founding director of the Middle East Study Centre, University of Hull in the UK; global fellow, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; and President of the Association for Israel Studies (AIS). X:

About the Author
Raphael Cohen-Almagor received his doctorate from Oxford University. He taught and conducted research at the faculties of law of the Hebrew University, the University of Haifa, UCLA, University of Hull, Nirma University (India) and University College London. He is President of The Association for Israel Studies (AIS). Raphael is now writing Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Critical Study of Peace Mediation, Facilitation and Negotiations between Israel and the PLO (Cambridge University Press, 2025). X: @almagor35
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