Middle East studies in the News
Arafat Supporter in American Academia [about Rashid Khalidi]
by Jacob Laksin
When observers advert to the problems of Middle East Studies programs at American universities—notorious for their rabidly polemical pedagogy and the pronouncedly anti-American and anti-Israeli dispensation of the professors tasked with their instruction—Rashid Khalidi's is a name that rarely escapes mention. Holding the lushly-subsidized Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia University, and serving as the director of that university's government-funded Middle East Institute, Khalidi ranks among the most prominent members of the Middle Eastern studies community in the United States. Less well known is that he is also among its most radical.
It is a revealing commentary on Khalidi's approach to Middle Eastern studies that he has long cited Edward Said, the late radical professor of literature at Columbia and an untiring propagandist for the Palestinian cause, as his main influence. Following Said's death in 2003, Khalidi penned a revealing obituary that valorized Said's "eloquent espousal of the cause of Palestine." Khalidi acknowledged neither Said's long history of anti-Israel provocation—a tendency that found its most militant expression in Said's willingness to hurl rocks at Israeli defense forces—nor his unscrupulous anathematization of the Jewish state. Instead, he portrayed Said's career as one of "giving a voice to the voiceless." In this context, Khalidi likened Said to another of his idols: Noam Chomsky. Wrote Khalidi:
"Like Noam Chomsky and very few others, he [Said] managed not only to reshape his own field of scholarly endeavor, but to transcend it, influencing other fields and disciplines, and going well beyond the narrow boundaries of the American academy to become a true public intellectual, and a passionate voice for humanistic values and justice in an imperfect world."
As with Said before him, Khalidi's involvement with the Palestinian cause goes beyond mere support. Though Khalidi has consistently denied the charge, news reports, including a 1982 dispatch from Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, suggest that he once served as the director of the Palestinian press agency, Wikalat al-Anba al-Filastinija. Khalidi's wife, Mona, was reportedly the agency's main English-language editor between 1976 and 1982. Commentators have also noted that Khalidi so strongly identified with the aims of the PLO, designated a terrorist organization by the State Department during Khalidi's affiliation with the Yasser Arafat-run political entity in the 1980s, that he repeatedly referred to himself as "we" when expounding on the PLO's agenda.
Additional evidence of Khalidi's intimacy with the PLO can be seen in his involvement with a so-called PLO "guidance committee" in the early 1990s. Describing his appearance in the company of several PLO operatives at a 1991 conference, Khalidi related that "We had political decisions to make and diplomatic strategy to decide."
Khalidi's often aggressive cheerleading for the PLO has not escaped the notice of his employers in the academy. Upon luring Khalidi away from the University of Chicago in 2003, Columbia president Lee Bollinger conceded that has his hire "has a particular point of view, pro-Palestinian nationalism." It is also a prominent selling point for the financial backers of Khalidi's endowed chair, the total funds for which are estimated at between $3 and $4 million: Among the donors to the chair are the United Arab Emirates and the Hauser Foundation, a New York charity headed by Rita Hauser, a controversial philanthropist whose onetime law firm, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, was registered with the Department of Justice as an agent for the Palestinian Authority until 2001. Yet another donor was the Olayan Charitable Trust, a New York-based charity with ties to the Olayan America Corporation, an arm of the Saudi organization the Olayan Group.
Seen against this background, it should come as no surprise that Khalidi's 1986 book about the PLO, Under Siege: P.L.O. Decision-making During the 1982 War, was little more than an extended advertisement for the organization. Dedicated to PLO terror chieftain Arafat and opening with a glowing tribute to anti-Israel fighters ("to those who gave their lives during the summer of 1982 . . . in defense of the cause of Palestine and the independence of Lebanon"), the book offered a remarkably airbrushed account of PLO-instigated violence against Israelis and Lebanese. In the interest of celebrating the PLO, the book also retailed a number of falsehoods, including Khalidi's trumped-up charge that, in 1982, the organization was under siege by "the full might of the U.S. and Israel." In actuality, the U.S. fielded not a single soldier against the PLO; Israel, for its part, deployed only a minor percentage of its military forces. Far more forgiving was Khalidi's treatment of dictatorial Syria, whose brutal occupation of Lebanon elicited no criticism from Khalidi. Despite the stridently polemical character of Under Siege, the book was brought by an academic publisher, Columbia University Press, and billed as a work of dispassionate scholarship. It would not be the last time that Khalidi would enlist his status as a supposedly serious academic into a propaganda war against Israel and its supporters.
Khalidi's rhetorical assaults on the Jewish State are frequently indistinguishable from the conspiracy mongering practiced with such vitriol by the Arab press. Among the more disturbed of Khalidi's charges against Israel is his inflammatory claim that the Israeli army is in possession of "awful weapons of mass destruction (many supplied by the U.S.) that it has used in cities, villages and refugee camps." Khalidi also denounces Israel as an "apartheid" state. Khalidi made this very point in a now infamous 2000 interview in which he averred that Israel is "basically an apartheid system in creation." In a related vein, Khalidi has asserted that Israel is a "racist" state.
Still another index of Khalidi's political radicalism is his rejection of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Formerly, Khalidi had paid lip service to the notion of an Israeli state alongside a Palestinian one. In recent years, however, Khalidi has taken to dismissing such a solution—the only one that ensures the survival of Israel—as hopelessly unrealizable. At a February 2005 conference at Columbia called "One State or Two? Alternative Proposals for the Middle East," Khalidi agreed with his Columbia colleague, the outspokenly anti-Israel Joseph Massad, in declaring that the two-state solution was an impractical "utopian vision."
A clue about Khalidi's skepticism was provided when he further assailed Israel's very legitimacy, proclaiming that Israel is "a state that exists today at the expense of the Palestinians." Israel's existence, according to Khalidi, generated an "inherently unstable" status-quo and "fails to meet the most important requirement: justice." The February conference was not the first time that Khalidi had dismissed the possibility of a two-state solution. In March 2004, when Israel assassinated Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Khalidi told Newsweek that "I really think that the killing of this individual may well be the last nail in the coffin of the two-state solution." Khalidi, in keeping with his standard practice, did not balk at blaming Israel for the supposed demise of the two-state solution, going so far as to suggest, against all evidence, that Israel had targeted those Hamas leaders most likely to accept a two-state compromise. "
I don't think it's a coincidence," Khalidi told NPR, that "the two most accommodating or accommodationist political leaders of Hamas were the ones to be assassinated by Israel." Notwithstanding this hagiographic account of the late terrorist figureheads, Khalidi deceptively styles himself a "severe critic of Hamas." And yet it was Khalidi himself who, mere days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, rebuked the news media for what he termed their exaggerated "hysteria about suicide bombers." Khalidi expressed a still more charitable view of anti-Israel terrorism during a June 2002 speech before the conference of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, in which he offered a justification for the murder of armed Israelis. Said Khalidi:
"Killing civilians is a war crime. It's a violation of international law. They are not soldiers. They're civilians, they're unarmed. The ones who are armed, the ones who are soldiers, the ones who are in occupation, that's different. That's resistance. (emphasis added)"
Pressed about his remarks by the New York Sun one year later, Khalidi again maintained that "[r]esistance to occupation is legitimate." He nevertheless sought to downplay his 2002 statement, suggesting that he did not recall making it, before finally insisting that they ought not to be considered a "blanket statement." As Khalidi now explained it, "Things change and there are differences. . . . There's no such thing as a blanket statement. I was describing a specific occupation at a specific time. At the time I said it, I think that, saying resistance to occupation, is legitimate."
Khalidi's animus against Israel is equaled only by his disdain for the Jewish state's supporters. In one 2000 interview, for instance, he scoffed at American supporters of Israel as "brainwashed" backers of the Israeli Army and its "utter and absolute control over 90 percent of the West Bank." But while Khalidi does not hesitate to level the most malignant of calumnies toward Israel and its supporters, he is notoriously sensitive to any criticism. He has excoriated his detractors as "intellectual thugs" who "are not very reputable" and whose "charges themselves are scurrilous."
Khalidi reserves his most pointed disdain for Jewish members of the Bush administration, most notably the former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. In 2001, Khalidi smeared Wolfowitz as "a fanatical, extreme right-wing Zionist." (Khalidi did not quite have the courage of his convictions: Challenged about his more radical remarks by television host Joe Scarborough during a 2003 interview, Khalidi retreated from his record, explaining, "I have to tell you, Joe, I don't recognize any one of those quotes.") Scholarly institutions that do not deal in anti-Israel propaganda have also incurred Khalidi's wrath. Appearing on Al-Jazeera in 2004, for instance, Khalidi took aim at the prominent Middle Eastern studies think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. That the non-partisan center is headed by Dennis Ross, a respected diplomat and a former Middle East envoy in the Clinton and George H.W Bush administrations, and that it regularly hosts speakers from the Middle East critical of Israel, did not prevent Khalidi from baselessly execrating the center as "the most important Zionist propaganda tool in the United States."
As the above comments suggest, Khalidi is an eager merchant of conspiracy theories. Nowhere was this more evident than in Khalidi's opposition to the U.S.-led war against Iraq. In an unwittingly illuminating polemic for the January 2003 issue of the far-left journal In These Times, Khalidi, even as he conceded that "international terrorism has been sponsored by Iraq," dismissed the notion that the case for war against Iraq could have any legitimate justification. Instead, he put forward a farrago of conspiracy theories that he described as the "real reasons" for the impending war:
First, it will be fought because of an aggressive, ideological vision of America's place in the world, propagated by the neo-conservatives who dominate the commanding heights of the American bureaucracy. Their vision proposes unfettered world hegemony for the United States, to be consecrated by the demonstration of U.S. power crushing a weak Iraq.
Second, this war will be fought because of an obsession with control of the strategic resources (read: oil) and geography offered by the Middle East, with the view of neutralizing potential challengers to American hegemony in the 21st century (meaning primarily China).
As Khalidi saw it, the war against Iraq was fought by "racist" neo-conservatives doing the bidding of the Israeli Likud party to which they paid an undeclared allegiance—a contention that bore a disquieting resemblance to the charge of dual loyalties at the heart of classic anti-Semitism. The Iraq war, Khalidi wrote,
".. . will be fought because these neo-conservatives desire to make the Middle East safe not for democracy, but for Israeli hegemony. They are convinced that the Middle East is irremediably hostile to both the United States and Israel; and they firmly hold the racist view that Middle Easterners understand only force. For these American Likudniks and their Israeli counterparts, sad to say, the tragedy of September 11 was a godsend: It enabled them to draft the United States to help fight Israel's enemies."
Dispensing with any pretence of scholarly detachment, Khalidi concluded by urging mass opposition to the military campaign against Iraq: "I propose that we withhold our consent and stop this unjustified and unjustifiable war before it begins," he wrote, adding for good measure that "no one with any sense could believe a one-person-one-vote democracy in a country with a 60 percent Shiite majority is the Bush administration's objective." (Mindful of his reputation, however ill-deserved, as a respected scholar, Khalidi is careful to keep his more extreme opinions from being aired in the mainstream press. Typical was a May 2004 interview Khalidi gave to the Washington Post. Excising any reference to the influence of treasonous "American Likudniks," Khalidi offered a comparatively mild critique of the Bush administration's foreign policy, explaining that, "This administration is particularly knowledge-averse, not only to the academic world outside but to their academic experts inside."
Khalidi had made similarly intemperate remarks in declaring his opposition to the first Gulf War in 1991. Following Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Khalidi called the widespread opposition to Saddam Hussein's act of aggression an "idiots' consensus" and urged his fellow academicians to resist it. At the time, Khalidi had also weighed in with several predictions about the war, none of which recommended him as an insightful analyst of modern-day Iraq. Among other erroneous claims, Khalidi wildly over-estimated the tenacity of the Iraqi army. Whereas the Iraqi troops quickly took flight before the superior onslaught of the U.S.-led forces, Khalidi had envisioned an altogether different scenario. "They're [the Iraqis] in concrete bunkers. And it won't be easy to force them out without resorting to bloody hand-to-hand combat. It's my guess they'll fight and fight hard, even if you bomb them with B-52s."
The question of whether Khalidi is a serious scholar, or merely a radical polemicist masquerading as a scholar, remains vigorously debated—not least at Columbia, where Khalidi is embroiled in an ongoing scandal surrounding the faculty members of the university's Middle East Studies program. Still, there is no doubting that, despite the charges of extremism frequently attached to his name, Khalidi continues to wield considerable influence in the field of Middle East Studies. At present, Khalidi, in his role as the director of Columbia's Middle East Studies Institute, presides over a $300,000 annual grant from the federal government. Khalidi's books, meanwhile, are among the most frequently assigned works on the Middle East in American college syllabi. Additionally, both Arab and American media outlets continue to seek out Khalidi as a leading American authority on the Middle East.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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