March 3, 2009


Rashid Khalidi's Balancing Act: The Middle-East scholar courts controversy with his Palestinian advocacy (EVAN R. GOLDSTEIN, 3/06/09, The Chronicle Review)

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 political."

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."

Boy, there's a kerfuffle that nicely captures how pointless Academics is. It doesn't matter when Palestinians started thinking of themselves as a nation, just that they do now and so are one. Sure, it'd comfort some to think that Israel was created out of nothing, but it doesn't ultimately matter what preceded it. Israel simply is a geo-political reality that the Palestinians have to adjust to, just as Israel has to adjust to the Palestinians in its midst.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 3, 2009 8:38 AM
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