The Jerusalem Problem

Said: Columbia’s new Charles Van Doren?
photo: Dominique Nabokov

Last year, the ultraconservative Jewish magazine Commentary published an attack on Edward Said, the Palestinian advocate and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. In the article, Justus Reid Weiner, a scholar in residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, accused Said of misleading the public about details of his early life in Palestine. Among other things, Weiner alleged that (1) Said did not grow up in Jerusalem; (2) Said's family did not permanently reside in or own a house in Jerusalem, but rather lived in an affluent neighborhood in Cairo; and (3) Said did not attend St. George's, an Anglican preparatory school in Jerusalem.

Now, a year later, Weiner—unsatisfied with Columbia's reaction to Said's purported mendacity—has published another fiery piece about Said, this time in Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars. In the article, Weiner compares Said to Charles Van Doren, a member of the Columbia English department in the 1950s who lost his job after he admitted to lying about his role in the Twenty-One quiz-show scandal. Weiner writes: "Said's fraud clearly embodies far-reaching implications for the integrity of Columbia University."

If Weiner had successfully shown that Said lied, he would have been right to demand that Columbia take disciplinary action. But a close look at the evidence shows that the most Said can be fairly accused of is de-emphasizing or failing to qualify relatively unimportant details about the amount of time he spent in Palestine as a child.

As evidence of Said's lies, Weiner quotes a September 19, 1998, New York Times profile of Said: "Mr. Said was born in Jerusalem and spent the first 12 years of his life there. . . . The family moved to Cairo in late 1947." Weiner then quotes Said himself: "I was born in Jerusalem and spent most of my formative years there . . . my youth, the first twelve or thirteen years of my life before I left Palestine." This gives the impression that Said lived in Jerusalem nonstop from birth to age 12, though in fact he and his immediate family spent time in both Jerusalem and Cairo. Notice, however, that in Said's words the phrase "first twelve or thirteen years" is referred to both as his formative years and the time before he left Palestine, all of which is true whether or not he only lived in Jerusalem for a few months out of every year. Nowhere does Said, or anyone else, say that Said spent every single day of his first 12 years in Jerusalem. What Said said and the impression he gave by what he said are two very different things. Minor imprecisions often crop up in profiles. They are not evidence of fraud on the part of the subject.

As for Said's family's house in Jerusalem and his schooling at St. George's: Weiner points out that Said's immediate family—his father and mother—did not own the house at 10 Brenner Street in Talbieh, Jerusalem. That is true—his aunt owned it. Said has never claimed otherwise. He has only referred to it as his family's house, not his immediate family's house. One's aunt is a member of one's family, after all, is she not? Said's immediate family kept an apartment in an affluent Cairo neighborhood. Again, Said has never denied his haut-bourgeois roots or the time he spent in Cairo. Targeting St. George's, Weiner says Said's name doesn't appear in the registry, but does appear in registries at schools in Cairo. Said says St. George's records end in 1946. He was there in 1947. Said says his math teacher, Michel Marmoura, who now lives in Toronto, can verify this.

Strangely, Weiner admits that Said's current memoir, Out of Place, hides nothing and gets all the missing details right, but he thinks Said may have revised the manuscript when he got wind of his investigations. Last week I spoke to Shelley Wanger, Said's editor at Knopf. She put that myth to rest: "Edward Said's manuscript for Out of Place was completed in 1998—most of it had been turned in at the end of 1997; it was then edited and copyedited for publication in the fall of 1999. No substantive or factual changes were made to the manuscript after 1998."

OK, people? 'Nuff Said?

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