[Marxism] Rashid Khalidi

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 2 07:04:12 MST 2009


 From the issue dated March 6, 2009
Rashid Khalidi's Balancing Act

The Middle-East scholar courts controversy with his Palestinian advocacy


New York

On a bright, frozen morning in January, Rashid Khalidi is set to talk 
about his new book, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance 
in the Middle East (Beacon Press), a concise glance back at the 
four-and-a-half-decade-long superpower struggle in the Middle East 
between Washington and Moscow. He eases into a blue chair in his 
spacious, book-filled corner office at Columbia University, crosses one 
leg over the other, and begins to vent about Israel's recent military 
campaign in the Gaza Strip: "The discourse in America is dominated by 
one incredibly mendacious and tendentious version of events," Khalidi 
fumes, his voice rising from a near whisper. That narrative, "hammered 
home by Israel and all its supporters," forms the "bedrock of how 
Americans view" the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Holder of the Edward Said Chair in Modern Arab Studies at Columbia — 
named for the prominent Palestinian literary critic and public 
intellectual — Khalidi is a lean, compact man with a narrow face, sharp 
features, and a graying, tightly clipped beard. Clearly indignant about 
the subject, he chops the air with his right hand for emphasis. The 
moment is classic Khalidi: gruff, passionate, a bit sermonic.

His views and style place the respected scholar, and his field of Middle 
Eastern studies, at the center of increasingly acrimonious debates about 
the direction of American foreign policy, the meaning of academic 
freedom, and the future of his discipline. Khalidi has been embroiled in 
nasty disputes about anti-Israel bias on campus and been barred from 
participating in a teacher-education program in New York City's public 
schools. As a commentator for The New York Times, The Nation, and the 
London Review of Books, as well as on PBS's Charlie Rose Show and 
National Public Radio, he has earned both scorn and admiration for his 
harsh indictments of America and Israel. The Republican 
vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin denounced him as a "radical 
professor"; The Washington Post once described his demeanor as that of 
"a good doctor with a lousy bedside manner"; The New York Sun called him 
"the professor of hate."

But academe's assessment is far different; many of his peers insist that 
he is no provocateur or rabble-rouser. As evidence, scholars point to 
Khalidi's longstanding support of a two-state solution to the 
Israeli-Palestinian conflict — unlike the views of Said, who by the end 
of his life was advocating one state for both peoples, which would 
undermine Israel's Jewish identity. "The fact that someone like Rashid 
Khalidi can be characterized as a radical tells you how skewed the 
parameters of the discourse are in this country," says Zachary Lockman, 
a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University.

Khalidi, editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, has been courted by 
Princeton University, and his scholarship is respected even by those who 
disagree with his politics. "He is a serious scholar with a reputation 
for honesty and fair dealing," says Bernard Wasserstein, a professor of 
modern European Jewish history at the University of Chicago and an 
occasional adversary of Khalidi in debates about the Middle East. 
"Khalidi is mainstream," says Michael B. Oren, a visiting professor of 
international affairs at Georgetown University. "But," he adds, "the 
stream itself has changed. The criteria for scholarship have become very 

Middle Eastern studies, in its modern guise, was born in the early years 
of the cold war, part of a newfound interest in regions of strategic 
importance to the United States. Before that, as the renowned French 
Arabist Maxime Rodinson bluntly put it, "the modern development of 
Muslim nations was not considered an important subject of scholarly 
inquiry and was disdainfully relegated to people such as economists, 
journalists, diplomats, military men, and amateurs." After World War II, 
however, the federal government began pouring money into area studies, 
and in 1958, Title VI of the National Defense Education Act began 
support for research centers on the Middle East.

Until the early 1970s, says Lockman, the field was dominated by 
third-world-development theories filtered through what has come to be 
called an Orientalist lens, which tended to exoticize the Muslim Middle 
East. By the early 80s, the discipline had been reshaped by the 
publication of Said's hugely influential 1978 book, Orientalism, which 
argued that Western scholarship on the Middle East was suffused with 
racism and imperialist motives. "There is an unmistakable coincidence 
between the experiences of Arab Palestinians at the hands of Zionism and 
the experiences of those black, yellow, and brown people who were 
described as inferior and subhuman by 19th-century imperialists," Said 
wrote in an essay from the same period. In a critique of Orientalism 
that ran in The New York Review of Books, Bernard Lewis, a professor of 
Near Eastern studies at Princeton University — whose work Said derided 
as "political propaganda" — accused Said of grinding political and 
ideological axes and betraying "a disquieting lack of knowledge of what 
scholars do and what scholarship is about."

The Lewis-Said schism continues to frame debate about Middle Eastern 
studies 30 years later. To his supporters, Khalidi is celebrated for 
bringing to light a history that, some say, has been long obscured by 
the immense tragedy of Jewish suffering in the 20th century. His first 
book, British Policy Towards Syria and Palestine, 1906-1914 (Ithaca 
Press for St. Antony's College, 1980), explored how the people of those 
areas responded to early indications of the Ottoman Empire's collapse. 
His seminal work, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern 
National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997), which was 
awarded the Middle East Studies Association's top book prize, argues 
that Arabs living in Palestine began to regard themselves as a distinct 
people decades before the establishment of Israel, in 1948, and that the 
struggle against Zionism does not by itself sufficiently explain 
Palestinian nationalism.

Palestinian Identity solidified Khalidi's reputation as — in the words 
of John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at 
Georgetown — "one of the pre-eminent historians of Palestinian 
nationalism." The book can be read as a delayed retort to Israeli Prime 
Minister Golda Meir's famous 1969 statement, "There was no such thing as 
Palestinians. ... They did not exist."

But Martin Kramer, a senior fellow at the Olin Institute for Strategic 
Studies at Harvard University and one of Khalidi's most dogged critics, 
believes that Palestinian Identity "is a deliberate attempt to be 
another brick in the wall of the Palestinian national narrative," 
another instance of Khalidi placing his scholarship in service to his 
politics. "At no point in his career has Khalidi ever knocked a brick 
out of that wall," Kramer says. "The circles of Palestinian 
intellectuals are so disappointing when it comes to people who are 
prepared to speak truth to their own that there is a general tendency to 
see Rashid Khalidi as some kind of moderate, or as good as it gets. I 
think it could get better."

Efraim Karsh, a professor of Mediterranean studies at King's College 
London, places Khalidi among those in Middle Eastern studies waging an 
"academic intifada against the Jewish state" — a war of ideas, 
bankrolled in part by oil-rich Arab states, to stigmatize Israel. Karsh 
is hard-pressed to find books in the field that don't portray Israel as 
inexplicably oppressive toward the Palestinians. Scholars of a different 
view, he argues, are attacked and marginalized.

Nor is the academic left always sympathetic toward Khalidi's work. Benny 
Morris is a professor of history at Ben Gurion University of the Negev 
and a prominent member of the Israeli New Historians, a small group of 
scholars who have challenged national myths about the founding of the 
Jewish state. He has done groundbreaking work assigning some blame to 
Israel for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948. 
While he calls Palestinian Identity a "reasonable book" that unearths 
some new information, in the final analysis he thinks that it tries in 
vain to establish that Palestinian nationalism emerged earlier than it 
actually did. It was written, he says, "in accordance with politically 
correct opinion among Palestinians."

Khalidi seemed to answer detractors who questioned whether he could turn 
a critical gaze toward the Palestinians with The Iron Cage: The Story of 
the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Beacon Press, 2006). Seeking an 
explanation for why Palestinians have failed in their quest for 
statehood, he emphasized the role of outside forces — Israeli, British, 
American — but also excoriated the ineptitude of Palestinian leadership. 
In the years before the establishment of Israel, he argued, Palestinian 
political elites failed to build a coherent governing structure that 
might have allowed them to more effectively resist the Zionists. 
Instead, Palestinian society crumbled. He described the Palestine 
Liberation Organization, which reconstituted the Palestinian national 
movement in the early 1960s and morphed into the Palestinian Authority 
after the 1993 Oslo Accords, as patronage-laden, corrupt, and 
ineffective. Khalidi's despair about the direction of Palestinian 
politics is even more acute today: "The state of the Palestinian 
national movement is worse than it has ever been since 1948," he says in 
his office. "I can't find words strong enough to criticize either Hamas 
or the Palestinian Authority."

That assessment has earned him a comparison to the New Historians. He 
rejects the parallel. "Revisionist history has to kick against an 
established, hegemonic, historical narrative," he says. "Such a version 
of Palestinian history arguably exists in Arabic, but it isn't yet well 
established internationally." More accurate, he says, is to view his 
work as an attempt to shape a still-unsettled story.

Khalidi, who is 60, is a scion of one of Jerusalem's oldest and most 
prominent families, members of which have long been fixtures among the 
city's political, religious, and intellectual elite. (His father is 
Palestinian, his mother Lebanese.) To this day, the Khalidi family 
library, known as Al-Khalidiya, stands near the center of the Old City 
and is a major repository of Islamic and Palestinian manuscripts.

Born in New York, where his father was a senior official at the United 
Nations Security Council, Khalidi recalls a steady stream of 
intellectuals from the Arab world passing through the family home. 
Dinner-table talk revolved around politics, and by the time he graduated 
from Yale University, in 1970, he was passionate about Palestinian 
statehood. "The challenge Rashid has always set for himself is being a 
scholar and an activist at the same time, and I think he handles that 
tension about as well as anybody," says Bruce Cumings, a professor of 
history at Chicago. "He continues to have access to The New York Times, 
to the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, and other mainstream media outlets, 
which is a mark of Rashid's success, because it is easy to get 
buttonholed, sidetracked, and marginalized when you make your views so 

When Khalidi entered the field, in the mid-70s, the Middle East Studies 
Association was an intentionally nonpolitical organization. Its leaders 
— primarily patrician WASP's ("In the mid-60s, what else was there in 
academe?" jokes Juan Cole, a historian at the University of Michigan at 
Ann Arbor) — were keenly aware of how polarized opinion was on the 
modern Middle East. They made what Cole calls a "gentleman's bargain" to 
avoid discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many professors feared 
weighing in publicly on current events, says Georgetown's Esposito, 
because "it might compromise them as scholars."

In his presidential address to the association, in 1994, Khalidi decried 
what he saw as the discipline's turn to provinciality and 
overspecialization and its willingness to allow the national discourse 
about the region it studied to be shaped by nonscholars, "ill-informed 
sensationalists" who "hog the headlines and grace the podiums of think 
tanks and lecture halls." If he were addressing the group today, Khalidi 
says, he would deliver the same tough message: "We have some of the 
cushiest jobs around, and we have a responsibility to use that comfort 
to educate."

His early work was pitched to a scholarly audience. But even by the time 
British Policy Towards Israel and Palestine came out, in 1980, he was 
already being drawn into a wider dialogue. He had received his Ph.D. in 
modern history from the University of Oxford in 1974 and was teaching at 
the American University of Beirut, in a city engulfed by civil war. Home 
to Yasir Arafat's PLO, parts of Beirut were something like a Palestinian 
ministate. Foreign journalists soon made Khalidi's office a regular stop 
on their daily reporting rounds, sometimes identifying him as a 
spokesman for the PLO. His wife, Mona, worked at Wafa, the official news 
agency of the organization. "I was someone journalists talked to as both 
a scholar and an analyst," Khalidi firmly explains, "but never as a 
spokesman. Journalists came to me when they knew the spokesman was lying 
and they wanted to find out what was really going on." When Israel 
invaded Lebanon in 1982, pushing into parts of Beirut, "those of us who 
were politically involved felt in some sense threatened," he recalls.

Khalidi's close ties to the PLO and Arafat earned him unique access to 
the organization's archives. Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 
1982 War (Columbia, 1986) is an inside account of the political and 
military calculations that led to the organization's ouster from Beirut. 
Thomas L. Friedman, then a Jerusalem-based reporter for The New York 
Times, called Under Siege "generally objective, lucid, and incisive"; 
Daniel Pipes, a conservative author and commentator, writing in The Wall 
Street Journal, decried it as a piece of "propaganda parading as 
scholarship," an attempt to "improve the image of a terrorist 
organization." It was an early skirmish in the larger war over the 
direction of Middle Eastern studies that would intensify considerably in 
the years ahead.

In 1991, Khalidi signed on as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation 
to the Madrid Peace Conference, an attempt to negotiate an end to the 
conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. That effort, which was 
supplanted by the Oslo Accords in 1993, deepened Khalidi's understanding 
of how Palestinians perceive themselves; it was like "watching 
Palestinian national identity slowly but inexorably become embodied in 
concrete form," he wrote in Palestinian Identity.

Upon the death of his close friend Edward Said, in 2003, Khalidi left 
the University of Chicago and took the chair named for Said at Columbia, 
assuming an even higher public profile. (When Arafat died, in 2004, 
Khalidi spoke to 34 news-media outlets in a 24-hour period, New York 
magazine reported.) "With the passing of Edward, Rashid became one of, 
if not the, most significant voice on Palestinian issues," says Ussama 
Makdisi, a professor of history at Rice University, who is Said's 
nephew. Khalidi jokes: "It means that I inherited the target that was on 
his back."

Khalidi was torn about leaving Chicago, where he had been a professor of 
history and Near Eastern languages and civilizations for 16 years. The 
mortally ill Said "put lots of pressure on Rashid," says W.J.T. 
Mitchell, who was close to Said and remains close to Khalidi. After 
three months, "Edward persuaded Rashid that he was not going to be 
around much longer, and that the Palestinians need a spokesman who is 
knowledgeable," says Mitchell, a professor of English and art history at 
Chicago. As Khalidi told The Chronicle at the time, "the U.S. is about 
to go to war with an Arab country, and there is a gross misunderstanding 
of the Middle East in the public here. There's an obligation to do 
everything we can to help people understand the region, and I think I 
can do that better at Columbia."

His latest book, Sowing Crisis, was born out of Khalidi's commitment to 
place America's current approach to the Middle East in historical 
context. A sharp criticism of U.S. policies during the cold war, the 
book's principal thesis is that those policies, formulated to oppose the 
Soviets, consistently undermined democracy and exacerbated tensions in 
the Middle East. For instance, "outright disdain" for democracy and 
human rights led policy makers to exploit militant political Islam as an 
"ideological tool" against Communism, Khalidi writes. "It may seem hard 
to believe today, but for decades the United States was in fact a major 
patron, indeed in some respects the major patron, of earlier 
incarnations" of Islamic fundamentalism. The maladies that plague the 
Middle East today, he argues, are in large part the "toxic debris" of 
American interventions during the cold war.

The new book reads like a companion volume to Resurrecting Empire: 
Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East, 
Khalidi's 2004 indictment of the Bush administration's decision to 
invade Iraq. In both works, the historian listens to contemporary echoes 
of the past with an unflagging outrage at the inaccuracies and 
distortions that he thinks dominate public perceptions of the Middle 
East. "Rashid has all along spoken out, but now he is writing out," says 
Juan Cole.

In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Middle East moved 
to the center of the foreign-policy agenda in Washington. Ever since, 
Middle Eastern studies has attracted considerable attention — and 
outside scrutiny. One blow landed just six weeks after September 11, in 
the form of a slim book by Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The 
Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington Institute for 
Near East Policy). "America's academics have failed to predict or 
explain the major evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over 
the past two decades," Kramer charged. Due in large part to a sharp 
leftward turn in the discipline, he argued, the credibility of 
campus-based expertise among foreign-policy professionals has been 
devastated. A few months later, Daniel Pipes unveiled Campus Watch, a 
Web site that says it "reviews and critiques Middle East studies in 
North America, with an aim to improving them," and monitors the work of 
professors it considers biased against Israel and America. Khalidi, who 
is a primary target of the site, has described the people behind it as 
"intellectual thugs" conducting "a well-financed campaign of black 

Arriving at Columbia in 2003, "I came under fire right away," Khalidi 
says. External groups had pressured the university administration to 
deny his appointment, according to an essay in Daedalus by Jonathan R. 
Cole, who was provost at Columbia at the time Khalidi was hired. Some 
New York newspapers accused Khalidi of supporting acts of violence 
against Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories; The Washington 
Times declared that he had spent decades "shilling for terrorists," and 
that "neither his vocabulary nor his agenda has changed, except that he 
now oversees a major university's interpretation of the Arab-Israeli 
conflict." The New York Post pointed out that Khalidi, as director of 
Columbia's Middle East Institute, would oversee the expenditure of close 
to $1-million in federal funds over the next three years. A " biased 
professor is taking over a biased department ... and administering a 
taxpayer-subsidized program," a Campus Watch staff member wrote in an 
op-ed in the Post.

At issue was Title VI, the federal law. In September 2003, in response 
to claims that Middle Eastern studies had developed an anti-American and 
anti-Israeli agenda, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill 
that would create an advisory board to ensure that federally supported 
programs "reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on 
world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs." (The 
legislation died in the Senate.) Michigan's Juan Cole, among many other 
scholars, argues that Middle Eastern studies is not ideologically 
homogenous. But Georgetown's Michael Oren responds that by the 1980s, 
almost all departments were toeing the Said line and have continued to 
do so.

For Khalidi, there was worse to come. That winter an activist group 
called the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership produced a 
half-hour video documentary, Columbia Unbecoming, in which several 
Jewish students accused professors in the university's department of 
Middle East and Asian languages and culture, known as Mealac, of 
displaying a pro-Palestinian bias and of intimidation of dissenting 
students in the classroom. The video caused a sensation. Columbia 
convened a faculty investigatory committee, which concluded in a lengthy 
report that little evidence of systematic classroom bullying and 
discrimination existed. But a short time later, the chancellor of the 
New York public-school system, citing Khalidi's views on the 
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, barred him from lecturing about the Middle 
East in a university-sponsored professional-development course for 
high-school teachers.

Khalidi was not part of the Mealac faculty, and no wrongdoing on his 
part was alleged. He was, however, outspoken in defense of his 
colleagues, delivering speeches, organizing events, and making himself 
available to journalists. "Rashid took a major portion of the heat, and 
he did so with considerable grace and incredible aplomb," says John H. 
Coatsworth, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at 

But even the relatively unflappable Khalidi was shaken by the political 
storm that engulfed him during the 2008 presidential campaign. In April 
the Los Angeles Times published a story about a 2003 party at which 
Barack Obama, then a state senator from Illinois, reportedly described 
his many talks with Khalidi as "consistent reminders to me of my own 
blind spots and my own biases." Another person at the party allegedly 
compared "Zionist settlers on the West Bank" to Osama bin Laden, and a 
poem was read that accused Israel of terrorism. The conservative 
talk-radio host Laura Ingraham branded Khalidi a "racist terrorist," and 
John McCain likened him to a neo-Nazi. (Google ranked "Rashid Khalidi" 
the ninth-most-popular political buzzword of 2008.)

Khalidi is not interested in revisiting that unpleasantness; he 
describes the episode, quoting Bob Dylan, as an "idiot wind." Friends 
and colleagues remain outraged — Ussama Makdisi, at Rice University, 
calls the attacks "vicious" and "obviously racist" — but Khalidi 
displays less anger. "Nobody likes to have tendentious half-truths and 
falsehoods shown 24/7 on the news cycle," he says in measured tones. He 
is heartened that Obama won despite having been called a closet Muslim. 
As Khalidi said in an address in Cairo in December, "it spoke well of 
the American people that enough of them were able to ignore these 
ridiculous, scandalous, scurrilous, defamatory statements."

Sitting in his office last month, the professor looks back on his 
career. "I have tried to argue and show that you can work on these 
subjects and not be partisan," he says, sounding almost wistful. "It has 
long been considered an offense against good manners to say the word 
'Palestine' in certain quarters. Israel was established in 1948, a 
source of great joy for some people. Fine, that is well and good. But 
for Palestinians, that was a disaster in terms of their own history."

The Palestinians' national trauma, Khalidi says, has been subordinated 
to another people's joy: "I wouldn't ask an Israeli to feel misery at 
the establishment of his state, so I don't see why a Palestinian should 
be asked to feel joy about the destruction of his society."

He falls silent for a moment and looks around the room. "One day we will 
have a textbook like the Franco-German textbook created [in 2006] for 
students of both countries for a common understanding of their history," 
he says. "How long did it take them to get there? How many European wars 
and devastating world conflicts were unleashed before those people 
stopped butchering one another and wrote a joint textbook? One day that 
will be possible for Israelis and Palestinians."

There is a knock at the door, Khalidi pops up and commiserates in hushed 
tones with an assistant. That morning the death toll in Gaza had climbed 
above 1,000 Palestinians. There is a crew from CBS News waiting to 
interview him. "I've got to go," he says.

Evan R. Goldstein is a staff editor at The Chronicle Review.

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