On June 12, 1967, immediately following the Six-Day War that resulted in the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories, Edward Said sent a long letter to the editor of The New York Times to condemn their biased coverage of the events. He specifically responded to the newspaper’s editorial statement that, “no matter how the present war turns out, there will be the explosive material of war unless or until the fundamental fact of history is accepted that there is an Israeli nation and that it has a right to exist in peace” (NY Times, June 6, 1967). The claimed neutrality of their statement – speaking of a fundamental historical fact that ought to be accepted by the unmentioned Arab subjects – prompted Said to formulate his first public intervention about unequal representation and power relations in Israel/Palestine. Predictably, The New York Times did not publish his letter.

As Timothy Brennan convincingly argues in Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said (2021), Said was not apolitical before the Six-Day War, as is often assumed, but as early as the 1950s he was “a passionate partisan of the Palestinian cause” (p. 40). His letter to The New York Times testifies that already by that time he was highly articulate about the Palestinian dispossession. Before 1967, however, Said was leading “two quite separate lives,” as he would later recall: on the one hand, he was leading “a pretty uncontroversial life in a big university,” while, on the other hand, there was his political involvement in the Middle East (interview in Diacritics, 1976, p. 35). What changed in June 1967 is that these two lives became inseparable. Indeed, he signed his letter to The New York Times as an Assistant Professor of English. These professional credentials do not attribute any authority to his public interventions – his expertise in English had no direct relation to the recent developments in the Middle East – but mentioning his academic affiliation acknowledges that there is no need or ethical justification to separate his professional life in literary studies from his personal and political believes in justice and equality. As he would later argue in his groundbreaking Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), and Covering Islam (1981), both the media and academia do not neutrally represent world affairs from a higher disinterested standpoint, but they are deeply implicated in – and therefore potentially able to resist – (neo)colonialism. His 1967 letter forms his first written but thus far unpublished statement about unequal representation of Arabs and Israelis and the implied moral responsibility of scholars to speak up against injustice.

Together with Said’s 1967 letter, his archive contains two other letters that he sent in vain to the editor of the same newspaper, both written in the mid-1970s while he was working on Orientalism. In these two letters, Said again observes that, when reporting about events in the Middle East, The New York Times does not seem to measure the history, the suffering, and the humanity of Arabs and especially of Palestinians on the same scale as that of Israelis or Europeans. “Why,” he pointedly asked in May 1974, “are our lives and rights any less valuable than Jewish lives and rights?” Fifty years later, while the devastating war rages in Gaza, his question remains as pressing as when he wrote these letters.

Said’s letters to the editor of The New York Times are preserved in the Edward W. Said Papers at Columbia University.

—Wouter Capitain