Sunday, August 9, 2009

Where's Arafat's Birth Certificate?

By Barry Rubin

I don’t know anything about the controversy regarding where Barack Obama was born, but I’m surprised this issue hasn’t brought up the memory of two cases in the Middle East where birthplaces or childhood homes were misstated for political purposes.

The first of these was Yasir Arafat, founder of Fatah and leader of the Palestinian movement for many decades. Arafat always said he was born in Jerusalem, a claim reinforced universally by all Palestinian sources. Indeed, when anyone questioned this story, they were insulted in the nastiest terms.

In the end, a British journalist found Arafat’s birth certificate in Cairo, Egypt. He had been lying for years to enhance his Palestinian nationalist credentials. (Of course, that’s not the only thing Arafat lied about.) I’m not sure whether anyone learned lessons from this regarding how one shouldn’t be gullible in accepting Palestinian claims.

My research has convinced me--as documented in this biography of Arafat--that he also lied about his involvement in the 1948 war and the heroic deeds he claimed to have committed during the fighting. If he did participate at all, it was as a private in a Muslim Brotherhood unit. And there is considerable doubt that he even entered the country until the fighting was over, and certainly never saw any action.

Today, however, we see that Islamist and Palestinian statements—over the fighting in the Gaza Strip, for example—are taken as, to mix a metaphor, Gospel.

Arafat’s was not the only case of misrepresenting one’s natal and thereafter experiences. Edward Said, who turned Middle East studies from scholarship to propaganda and is something of a—another mixed reference—patron saint of Palestinian nationalism made totally false claims in his writings about his time spent in Jerusalem.

Now I'm going to make a confession. I had been told the story of Said's background by a mutual friend in the 1970s and heard it again a few years later from a relative of his. I never thought of saying or writing anything because I simply took it for granted that he was lying. From this, I've learned a lesson, to speak out loud and clear because there are many who are taken in by such myths and misrepresentations.
When Justus Weiner carried out the research to expose Said, he was subjected to considerable abuse. Rather than accept that Weiner was right and that Said had blatantly lied—and thus reexamine his work and claims more broadly—Weiner was treated as something of a thought criminal.

Said had told beautiful and politically useful lies and thus should be protected, many seemed to think. The there’s-no-objectivity, no-reality, and no-truth gang said in effect: Who cares what really happened if it helps the cause?

What a fitting symbol the Weiner-Said affair is for modern intellectual life!

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