On Sunday night Jonathan Rosen, a leading New York writer and editor, likened the late Palestinian author Edward Said to a monster in a horror movie.
Interviewing the former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren about his new book, Ally, at the 92d Street Y, Rosen said that by leaving academia, Oren managed to escape the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the landmark 1978 book on western imperialist representations of the Middle East– but Said’s critique of the west burst out of academia and into political life.
You were an academic, as well, and that was a hard world to be in. You talk about how large Edward Said’s book Orientalism loomed in the academy. And you kind of get out and you write your books outside the academy… And I’ve often thought about Power, Faith and Fantasy, which is a terrific book, as being a sort of answer to Orientalism. And what I was imagining as I was reading this book, it’s almost like in a horror movie where you feel like you escaped and you get into the house and you lock the door and you turn around and the monster is behind you. So here you left academia, you took your case to a large readership, you establish this notion that in a sense to be an ally of Israel is to be a greater American in some sense… And then as ambassador, in fact the spirit of Orientalism, of Edward Said’s book which you mentioned, is there. I guess my question is what’s the connection between the Ivory Tower and the White House and how much of an aberration would you say what Obama articulated in [the Cairo] speech was…
This is a negative characterization of the seminal work of a major Arab-American writer. It’s sort of like saying The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B Dubois is a monster.
Rosen’s question followed a critique by Oren of President Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech as a revolutionary policy pronouncement. So Rosen was suggesting that Obama was influenced by that monster, Orientalism. This is not the kind of criticism, of the president or Said, that is likely to resonate with young progressive Americans. Rosen surely would have been booed by some audiences. But his comment went unremarked on in a Jewish audience last Sunday night, introduced by an official of the organization who said the 92nd Street Y stands with pride with Israel. And it goes along with Oren’s loony statement about Obama trying to get right with two absent Muslim fathers, which even the ADL has slammed as an unjustified attack.
The interchange seems to me to crystallize the risk that Jewish political life faces today: the alliance with Israel has made establishment organizations extremely conservative.
Oren then grabbed Rosen’s ball and ran with it, saying that neo-Marxists took over academic departments when they couldn’t make revolutions in the real world, and that their ideas were picked up by the young strivers in the Obama administration– notably the idea of the Israel lobby, from those notable reds Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer.
Rosen is a big deal in Jewish life. He’s a novelist, a former culture editor at the Forward, and the editorial director of Nextbook/Schocken— an imprint legendary for posthumous publication of Kafka’s writings.