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It wasn’t Edward Said that upset the students; it was the very word ‘Palestinian’

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I remember AP week at Hunter High School in New York all too well. The SATs were pro forma. The Advanced Placements were this realer chance to prove—to yourself, to the kids surrounding you, to the college that had already accepted you—what you were definitely going to become in your near adult future. The tests were given in school, and the jokes about the Chinese kids suddenly showing themselves to be even more numerous than we’d imagined were funny. You bet, extrapolate a census from one of those testing rooms and you’d likely have concluded that Chinese- and Korean-Americans ruled New York City—them, but also, of course, us. And yet when it came to tests and grades the Jew jokes were fewer—we were the jokers, that was part of it—we were more visible on stage and at parties, having more mixed sex, from Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights.

Being set apart in a castle on the Upper East Side of course had most of us conceiving of ourselves as an elect minority. Jewish or not, being elite was always tied up with being Jewish. (How many “honorary Jews” have I known?) I thought about the APs last week after a friend sent me a link to a an article in The Forward about a Facebook group recently created by two identifying Jewish high school students, one hailing from the city, the other, Long Island. The group—directly named: “Protest the 2010 AP English Literature and Composition Free Response Question”—was an immediate response to a quote on the test attributed to the late Edward Said, who’d been identified as a “Palestinian American literary theorist and cultural critic.” In turn, the Forward writes that Ayelet Pearl—the 17 year-old Bronx Science student who initiated the protest by affixing a castigating note to the top of her completed response—“froze when she encountered the Said text.”

And I believe this. Were this just another American Zionist plea to keep Said—poor Said, posthumously murdered, buried, raised, and over again—out of it, I’d have forwarded the link to two likeminded friends, bookmarked it, repulsed, and moved on. But this protest doesn’t come from a professional Zionist’s core—5 on her AP or not, Pearl’s vocabulary’s limited, and forming. She hasn’t yet been assigned Said in an Intro course taught by an English professor she’ll learn to see as Satan (and then, as the Golem); she hasn’t yet been taught by attractive upperclassmen Hillellers to hate the very name. Said’s finally incidental. Instead, as Alyssa Blumenthal, Pearl’s almost identically-profiled protest partner insisted on for the Forward, and then in an email to me: their problem wasn’t with the quote itself but with the accompanying identification of its author. Which means that “the political situation” isn’t, like she says, the focus of the issue at hand; she’s not even in the orthodox tradition of eliminating anything resembling a Palestinian perspective from the public sphere. No, what she’s rejecting is that one unchangeably and automatically offensive word.

I don’t want to, but I believe this, too. Being elite like this necessitates feeling embattled. But more, and it’s true: at 17, the very mention of a word formed from “Palestine” registered as just flat wrong, like using “Indian” for “Native American” or claiming Columbus was first. You almost a priori knew that Palestinians didn’t exist, then. Your Zionism, default. Now add to this the word appearing on the AP. The Ivy League, magnet schools, standardized testing (especially this last, which came of age with, has no history without, American Jews): birthright is a beautiful, virtual given, but at 17, these were my actual territories, what I was to live on. A sort of parallel promised land (I don’t know which is the bizarro), made in but also making the other’s image, less filled with physical enemies, but still similarly surrounded on all sides. Growing up in this the word “Palestinian” literally makes no sense.

So I do, I get this almost understandable reflex to expel an invading alien word—entering “subconsciously,” says Pearl—from a memory that knows nothing but Jews as jokers and victors. Half-apologizing, half-remembering, I say I had “no politics” in high school. Nearly riffing on the same, both students justify their protest to the Forward by alluding to the inappropriate “political implications” of identifying Said the way the AP did (The College Board stated, in defense and in cahoots, that there was no “political subject matter” in its test). This, I think, makes them fit for a school of American Zionism which deems any pro-Palestinian perspective “political,” only to almost miraculously expel the thing deemed “political”—here, not a view, nor even a voice, but a word—on the grounds of its being unfit for children and conversation, systems of evaluation. (Is it too obvious to point out that identifying Elie Wiesel as a “Jewish American holocaust survivor” on the AP could never be “political”?) There is in this something like Blumenthal and Pearl’s right, as American Jews, as New York American Jews, as smart New York American Jews, not to be faced with anything—their words—politicizing. In the spirit of keeping it so—and I’m going to have to show her this, I’m realizing—Blumenthal told me point blank that she’d have preferred the quote to “remain completely out of context”: a wish for purity, I couldn’t express it better.

Which does remind me of that parallel world, waiting for us when we’re ready, over there. Of the billboards, for example, enclosing Silwan’s “City of David” dig, which give a sort of panorama of an imminent totally-different-looking future exclusively populated by fit, golfing Ashkenazim, the rest, the Palestinians, written out—or rather, if you were born Jewish in the late 80s and early 90s in America, i.e., into a ready-made world, kept in but blessedly unidentified.

Josh Cohen

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