Edward Said on Sartre

I came across this article in the London Review of Books by Edward Said on his one and only meeting with Sartre. Writing in 2000, Said recalls how in 1979 he was invited by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (“quite vain” and a “serious disappointment” in person) to participate in an intellectuals’ seminar on peace in the Middle East sponsored by Les Temps modernes. Held at Michel Foucault’s apartment, the two day gathering coincided with two monumental changes in the Middle East. One was the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution; the other was the negotiation of the Camp David accords and the Egyptian peace deal with Israel. What followed is described by Said as a disappointing and unsatisfactory event, not least of all because of Sartre’s own passive and self-effacing behavior.

Said’s article resonates with the sense that the Sartre he met, by then 73 years old and nearing death, was a shell of his former self. This was not the same man who bravely spoke out against French public opinion in his condemnation of the war in Algeria, and who supposedly harangued Frantz Fanon on his deathbed for 16 hours about the Algerian cause. Instead, Sartre was strangely detached and unwilling to make any statement about the Palestinian question. When Said finally pressed Sartre to give his own thoughts on the topic, the following day he read a short statement which “praised the courage of Anwar Sadat in the most banal platitudes imaginable.” Said continues: “I cannot recall that many words were said about the Palestinians, or about territory, or about the tragic past. Certainly no reference was made to Israeli settler-colonialism, similar in many ways to French practice in Algeria.”

One explanation he gives for this strange reluctance on Sartre’s part to comment on the Palestinians was the influence of his disciple Benny Levy (pen name Pierre Victor), a marginal figure on the French left who eventually dropped the Maoist ideology he subscribed to in the late-1960s in favor of a Jewish Orthodoxy influenced by Emmanuel Levinas. Said suggests that it was him who wrote the bland statement made by Sartre. While we may never know this with any certainty, it is possible, as Said believes, that the deep impression the Holocaust made on Sartre forever attuned him to a “fundamental pro-Zionism.”

Having never read any commentary on Sartre’s views about Palestine and knowing about his other commitments to national liberation movements, I was surprised to read about his stance on this issue. It would be interesting to explore the nature of the connection between Sartre’s writings on anti-Semitism from the 1940s, such as “The Childhood of a Leader” and “Anti-Semite and Jew,” and his later political stance on Zionism.

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