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March 21, 2021 3:19 pm

Mourning Justus Weiner

avatar by Jerold Auerbach


A Yahrzeit candle. Photo: Wikipedia.

I was deeply saddened to learn of the recent death of Justus Weiner, a human rights lawyer who made aliya to Israel in 1981 and enjoyed a distinguished legal career in his adopted country. Our paths crossed in the mid-1980s when Justus was a visiting professor at Boston University Law School and I was a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School. We enjoyed many conversations together.

Justus was an astute writer. In his 1999 Commentary article that deservedly gained widespread attention, he eviscerated the spurious claim by Columbia professor and Palestinian advocate Edward Said that his family (himself included) had become refugees in 1948 when Zionists forced them to abandon their elegant home in the Talbieh neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Said would assert: “I am a Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem and was forced as a result of the 1948 Catastrophe to live in exile, in the same way as many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were.” For Said, Zionism was “a colonial and racist movement.” Israel, he wrote preposterously, became “the first theocratic state in the Middle East,” whose laws exemplify “monotheistic xenophobia, exclusivism and intolerance.” In his memoir, Said lamented the “wrenching, tearing, sorrowful loss [of Palestine] as exemplified in so many lives, including mine.”

Justus, by then a scholar in residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs after serving as a lawyer in the Israel Justice Ministry, tore Said’s “tissue of falsehoods” to shreds in his Commentary article.

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On Said’s birth certificate (1934) his parents had identified Cairo as their permanent address. Throughout his boyhood, Said’s immediate family — parents, sister, retinue of servants, and Said himself — resided in Cairo, where his father, who had lived in Egypt since 1926, owned a lucrative office supply business. Family photographs showed young Edward in the Mena House gardens in Cairo; on the Alexandria beach and visiting the Giza pyramids with his father; and wearing his double-breasted Gezira Preparatory School blazer, neatly pressed shorts, and knee socks.

As Justus discovered during his meticulous research, the Said family “home” (“my beautiful old house”) in the elegant Talbieh neighborhood of Jerusalem never was “his” house nor was it owned by his parents. Title, Justus found, had passed from Edward’s grandfather to his aunt and her children. (Ironically, the philosopher Martin Buber, who rented an apartment in the Said house, had been evicted by Said’s aunt.) Said’s lament, Justus wrote, was belied by the reality that his affluent family enjoyed annual three-month summer respites in the hills of Lebanon, where his mother was born and grew up.

Although Said would claim that “I lost — and my family lost its property and rights in 1948” in Jerusalem, his lament more accurately described the family plight in Cairo, where revolutionary supporters of Gamal Abdel Nasser destroyed the family business in 1952 and nationalized Said family property. In sum, Justus concluded, Edward Said’s “parable of Palestinian identity,” forged in the suffering inflicted by Israelis on his family, was “an artful lie; a skillful lie; above all a very useful and by now widely accepted lie — but a lie.” It was nothing more than myth shading into mendacity.

Justus Weiner’s Commentary article, a skillful lawyer’s brief and devastating critique of Edward Said’s fabricated narrative, spoke volumes about his careful research, gathering of evidence, and precision of language.

I wish we could have spent more time together, but I treasure what we had. Zikhrono livrakha:  May his memory be a blessing.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.

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