Nephew of Edward Said, Saree Makdisi, to speak at Sydney Uni – how selective will be the facts?

Professor Saree Makdisi, nephew of Edward Said, is speaking at Sydney Uni on Tuesday Sydney 22nd as part of a speaking tour following the annual Said memorial lecture in Adelaide.  The Sydney press release article is listed here under the title “Everyday Occupation: US Middle East expert at Sydney Ideas. 

The media release states that Makdisi will “discuss the ongoing clashes between Israelis and Palestinians over land in light of the construction in Jerusalem of a local branch of the Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance. In his Sydney Ideas talk titled Excavating Memory in Jerusalem, Makdisi will discuss how this museum is now being built over the remains of what was once the largest – and most significant – Muslim cemetery in Palestine. The result is two clashing claims for the site.”

“All the elements of the larger conflict are in play in the struggle over this specific site,” says Professor Makdisi, an advocate of the one-state solution for Israel and the occupied territories.

According to the promotion, Professor Makdisi will be introduced to the Sydney Ideas stage by Antony Lowenstein. Also, Professor Saree Makdisi is a professor of English literature at the University of California in Los Angeles, and the author of several books on British Romanticism. He also comments on Arab politics and Palestine, and has written for publications such as the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, London Review of Books and the San Francisco Chronicle.

So what can we learn about the story of the Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance being built “over the remains of what was once the largest – and most significant – Muslim cemetery in Palestine.”



First here is an accusation against the Museum of Tolerance in Haaretz by Bradley Burston.  It doesn’t look good, and probably Makdisi will quote Burston in support of his arguments. 

But we would like to think that a university audience would want to be knowledgable about both sides of an argument.  After all, universities are suppose to help us search for the truth. 

So, let’s read what the Museum of Tolerance itself has to say; in this article from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.  

In the article, Rabbi Marvin Hier, Founder and Dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center, states that The land was given to the Simon Wiesenthal Center by the government of Israel and the City of Jerusalem, who presented petitions to the Supreme Court in support of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem.

(So this is not a fly by night takeover,  we are talking about the Israeli Supreme Court being involved)

Hier adds that “The Simon Wiesenthal Center is not building on the nearby Mamilla cemetery, but on the adjacent site which, for nearly a half-century, served as Jerusalem’s municipal car park where every day hundreds of Jews, Christians and Muslims parked their cars. Electric cable and sewer lines were laid below the ground. During all this time, not a single Muslim group or individual, including today’s most vociferous critics said a word in protest although as they argued before the Court they knew all along it was a cemetery, yet kept silent for a half-century.

“As the Supreme Court concluded in its ruling, “Israel is a small strip of land, of great antiquity, with a history that extends over thousands of years… In our case, the area of the museum compound was separated from the Muslim Mamilla cemetery as long ago as the 1960s, and it was classified as an open public area… and it was made available for various kinds of planning activity. A multi-storey car park was built on it, a road was paved on it, and plans were made to construct multi-storey buildings on it.”

“For decades this area was not regarded as a cemetery by the general public or by the Muslim community… no one denied this position. Not only was the compound not identified as an area with religious sanctity… but it was the subject of planning for various purposes throughout decades, without any objection for reasons of the sanctity of the site.”

When the design was completed, the model was on display at Jerusalem City Hall and newspaper ads were taken out and posted in the Hebrew and Arab press – again, no protest from any Muslim group whatsoever. They were silent because, as the High Court said, “…the area has not been classified as a cemetery for decades.” The bones found during construction were between 300 and 400 years old. They were unaccompanied by a single marker, monument, or tombstone, family name or religion.

Imagine the chaos to society if, after fifty years of designation for public use, land would be changed and reverted to what it may have been four or five centuries ago.

Muslim scholars and religious leaders have dealt with such issues for centuries and, in seeking to resolve such difficulties, ruled that a cemetery not in use for 37 years is considered mundras – an abandoned cemetery that has lost its sanctity.

(so mundras is an important concept in Islam – and applicable to this area)

“In fact, because the whole area was regarded as mundras, in 1946, the mufti of Jerusalem planned to build a Muslim university on the entire Mamilla cemetery (now Independence Park). We submitted the architectural plans and drawings of that proposed university to the Supreme Court. Today, the concept of mundras is widely sanctioned and practiced throughout the Arab world, in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian territories.”

(so clearly, the Mufti in 1948 had no problem with building a university on the land)

Hier adds that While Judaism does not have a mundras concept, the Supreme Court, in its decision notes, “That despite the Jewish religious law prohibitions … to prevent the removal of graves or building on top of them, in practice, in cases where public needs required this, an agreed Jewish law solution has usually been found, and this allowed the building to be carried out in a way that minimized…the violation of the graves… Jewish religious law also allows, as we have said, the removal of graves in a dignified manner. Balanced solutions of this kind were also proposed by the respondents (Simon Wiesenthal Center), and they even agreed to pay all the expenses involved in them.”

And now Hier comes to the conflict, and it involves Sheikh Salah, a leading Islamist in Israel who denies the Jewish connection to the Western Wall.

“It is important to note that the Sheikh initiated the proceedings before the High Court because he saw this as a land grab in the center of Jerusalem. The Court immediately ordered mediation between the parties to be conducted by former court president Meir Shamgar. Our Center was very sensitive to the issue and offered numerous compromises, but they were all rejected out-of-hand by Sheikh Salah, who refused to even meet to discuss them. He insisted that the Court rule on the matter.

Now, after over two years in the Courts, the Supreme Court has handed down a 119-page unanimous verdict in favor of the Museum of Tolerance Jerusalem. Sheikh Salah and his defenders, who eagerly sought the Court’s relief, are now agitating against its decision because they lost.” 

(So again, we are not talking about a fly-by-night operation.  There is a 119-page document summarizing the Israel supreme court decision.  It would seem reasonable to expect that Saree Makdisi, in his upcoming presentation at Sydney University on the topic, would have read this document, and be able to argue the merits of the case.  Or perhaps, Antony Lowenstein, in introducing the speaker, would note the Supreme Court Ruling. Hier ends by emphasising the purpose of this centre of tolerance.

 “It is not those who lie beneath the ground who threaten the stability of the Middle East. It is the intolerance of extremists above the ground and those with an agenda who impede any prospects for civility and respect.”

(Now that sounds like an important purpose – to have in Jerusalem a museum that emphasises tolerance among all people)  

For more background to the argument, here are articles from:

J Post Wikipedia 1 and Wikipedia background to Mamilla  bbc haaretz americans for peace now

museum website  J Post 2  So the Museum has been a start-stop project mired by controversy, with much of the anti-museum sentiment being led by Jewish groups, including Americans for Peace Now, and the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information headed by Gershon Baskin.  Different Jewish groups have also expressed the opinion that while the Museum has the legal right to proceed, it is uncertain that it is the right thing to do.

One wonders whether Saree Makdisi will do more than just present a one-sided anti-Israel slant, ignoring the legal and historic issues, and Jewish/Israeli ambivalence about the project. Of note, even the current Jerusalem mayor has previously expressed reservations. 

After no doubt generalising from the museum specifics to a broad anti-Israel brush, Makdisi is likely to proceed to promote the idea of a single democratic secular state which is intellectual codespeak for the destruction of Israel. 

A CAMERA article noted that this has been a ploy of Makdisi’s for some time.  To give Phillip Adams credit, in Makdesi’s recent radio interview with Phillip Adams the single state idea gets pretty short shrift.  Even in the Guardian, by no means a friend of Israel,  a recent article by Makdesi about the single state was greeted by letters that expose the hollowness of the idea, and the Israel-bashers seemed to not bother trying to defend it.

Benny Morris, a “new historian” that the Israel-bashers like to selectively quote, recently debunked the single democratic secular state idea.  Perhaps Professor Makdisi might like to first convince one or two of the 22 Arab countries to adopt the democratic secular state approach, and of course persuade the leaders of Hamas and Fatah to withdrew their insistance on a Muslim state take-over.  In addition, he might like to point out an example where combining 2 antagonist people into one country has been successful.

As Benny Morris states, “The Palestinian vision was never — as described by various Palestinian spokesmen in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to Western journalists — of a “secular, democratic Palestine” (though it certainly sounded more palatable than, say, the “destruction of Israel,” which was the goal it was meant to paper over or camouflage). Indeed, “a secular democratic Palestine” had never been the goal of Fatah or the so-called moderate groups that dominated the PLO between the 1960s and the 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power.
Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi has written that “in 1969 [the PLO] amended [its previous goal and henceforward advocated] the establishment of a secular democratic state in Palestine for Muslims, Christians and Jews, replacing Israel.” And Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah has written, in his recent book, One Country: “The PLO did ultimately adopt [in the late 1960s or 1970s] the goal of a secular, democratic state in all Palestine as its official stance.”
This is hogwash. The Palestine National Council (PNC) never amended the Palestine National Charter to the effect that the goal of the PLO was “a secular democratic state in Palestine.” The words and notion never figured in the charter or in any PNC or PLO Central Committee or Fatah Executive Committee resolutions, at any time. It is a spin invented for gullible Westerners and was never part of Palestinian mainstream ideology. The Palestinian leadership has never, at any time, endorsed a “secular, democratic Palestine.”
The PNC did amend the charter, in 1968 (not 1969). But the thrust of the emendation was to limit non-Arab citizenship in a future Arab-liberated Palestine to “Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the Zionist invasion” — that is, 1917.
True, the amended charter also guaranteed, in the future State of Palestine, “freedom of worship and of visit” to holy sites to all, “without discrimination of race, colour, language or religion.” And, no doubt, this was music to liberal Western ears. But it had no connection to the reality or history of contemporary Muslim Arab societies. What Muslim Arab society in the modern age has treated Christians, Jews, pagans, Buddhists and Hindus with tolerance and as equals? Why should anyone believe that Palestinian Muslim Arabs would behave any differently?
Western liberals like, or pretend, to view Palestinian Arabs, indeed all Arabs, as Scandinavians, and refuse to recognize that peoples, for good historical, cultural and social reasons, are different and behave differently in similar or identical sets of circumstances.

So where did the slogan of “a secular, democratic Palestine” originate? That goal was first explicitly proposed in 1969 by the small Marxist splinter group the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). According to Khalidi, “It was [then] discreetly but effectively backed by the leaders of the mainstream, dominant Fatah movement … The democratic secular state model eventually became the official position of the PLO.” As I have said, this is pure invention. The PNC, PLO and Fatah turned down the DFLP proposal, and it was never adopted or enunciated by any important Palestinian leader or body — though the Western media during the 1970s were forever attributing it to the Palestinians. As a result, however, the myth has taken hold that this was the PLO’s official goal through the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.”

“And today, again, and for the same reasons — the phrase retains its good, multicultural, liberal ring — “a secular, democratic Palestine” is bandied about by Palestinian one-state supporters. And a few one-statists, indeed, may sincerely believe in and desire such a denouement. But given the realities of Palestinian politics and behaviour, the phrase objectively serves merely as camouflage for the goal of a Muslim Arab–dominated polity to replace Israel. And, as in the past, the goal of “a secular democratic Palestine” is not the platform or policy of any major Palestinian political institution or party.

Indeed, the idea of a “secular democratic Palestine” is as much a nonstarter today as it was three decades ago. It is a nonstarter primarily because the Palestinian Arabs, like the world’s other Muslim Arab communities, are deeply religious and have no respect for democratic values and no tradition of democratic governance.”

Also, see this article.

In a presentation like this, it will be of interest to assess the level of denial of fact by omission.

And the possible options are by no means only a 2-state or a 1-state solution; here are some other options.




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One thought on “Nephew of Edward Said, Saree Makdisi, to speak at Sydney Uni – how selective will be the facts?

  1. Funny about that, just about the time, Makdisi was supposed to speak, it started pouring rain. Someone wasn’t too impressed.