11 November 2004


Yassir Arafat

Grandfather of the unrealized Arab Palestinian state

Father of modern terrorism

I'll admit it. My first thought was ... good.

But my second thought is more complicated.

I've spent a fair bit of time studying and thinking about the fate of the modern Levant, the question to which Arafat devoted his life, and it's really fucking complicated. When talk turns to Israel, I typically wind up arguing with whoever's in the room. In loopy lefty circles, that typically means defending Israel by patiently explaining the history of the region — trying to stick to those precious few things that are clearly agreed upon as fact — to people who really don't know anything about it. In staunchly Zionist circles, it typically means criticizing Israel by painstakingly distinguishing Arab Palestians from Syria or Egypt or Jordan, pre-’67 from post-’67. In more daring circles, it may mean talking about how Zionism fits into the history of nationalism and European imperialism, asking why Israel was even a good idea in the first place, or reflecting on whether Brooklyn isn't the New Jerusalem.

So my second thought about Arafat is complicated.

On the first day after a person's death, I try to honor the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead. I gritted my teeth and did it for Reagan. But I cannot do it for Arafat. Amygdala reminds us not to cry any tears for him, and is right.

Yes, Arafat has been at war with a real injustice, fighting for a people wronged by history. But he has made his war against the wrong enemy, the Israeli people, by despicable means, awash in the blood of innocents. He has failed as a leader of his own people, robbing them of their honor, their gold, and the truth. He is one of the principal authors of our era of terrorism, leaving a curse for all humanity. We are all well rid of him — even, and perhaps especially, the Arab Palestinians.

It has been said that they are a people who “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” This is, of course, both true and false — and most vividly so of Arafat. Perhaps now, without him, that will change.

So no tears. But today I can hope for the better parts — only the better parts — of his dreams to come true. In that spirit, I offer Miriam bat Asherah's beautiful poetry and irony:

Moses never made it to the promised land.
Let's forget for a moment those who say,
“Of course not; the Exodus never happened,”
Those archaeologists who would argue themselves
Out of existence (for we know if there is no
Moses walking through the desert there is also
No Miriam, no Red Sea, no timbrel).

Let us imagine for now a moment in imaginary
History, Moses standing on the precipice —
God saying, “You can look but not touch,
See but not possess, give but never benefit.”
Let us imagine that old man who has given his
Life to create a space for his people,
His son's foreskin to be a bridegroom of blood.

Let us imagine him looking over, in his final
Moments — will they cross over? Will the wandering end?
Does it matter for now if an historical sojourn
Happened? For we all know exile, as those writers did:
That endless hike through desert, the wondering, the waiting,
The knowledge sinking in: all who knew the old way
Must first die before their tree bears fruit.

Not, of course, that the new way is any better.
Let us forget those who say that Jericho's walls fell
Centuries before the text assures us. Let us imagine
Joshua taking the inheritance: coming in
Horns blasting, helped by a friendly whore,
And bringing the fortress of Jericho's ruins down.
Let us imagine his young blood surging — old wine, new skins.

The newspaper tells me this morning: “Arafat Dies;
His Nation Unrealized,” and somehow I think of Moses,
That ancient dreammaker (and, some say, dream) who
Forged a people that he would lead only in exile,
Who dreamed of land he would never know. And I think
Of what it means to wander: exile itself sometimes the goal:
Realizing the destination is beyond us, and still walking.

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