x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Storm passes for Palestinian professor caught in Obama election spotlight

New York academic Rashid Khalidi, attacked by the McCain camp in the 2008 election campaign, is unrepentant.

Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi speaks during a press conference at the Geneva press club in Geneva, Switzerland.
Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi speaks during a press conference at the Geneva press club in Geneva, Switzerland.

NEW YORK // Rashid Khalidi was ranked by Google as the ninth most searched political buzzword during the 2008 US presidential campaign, indicating a high level of notoriety that the Columbia University professor was quick to shun. A specialist in the history and national identity of the Palestinians, he was long used to making waves with his outspoken views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he was caught unawares when the national media spotlight was thrust onto him in the weeks before Barack Obama was voted in as US president.

After it was revealed that Mr Obama had credited Mr Khalidi with educating him about the Middle East during their many talks, John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, and Sarah Palin, his running mate, were quick to attack the academic. He was called a "terrorist professor" by the right-wing media. More than a year later, the name Rashid Khalidi is still used as shorthand by those conservative commentators who think Mr Obama is a secret, foreign-born Muslim who should be denied the presidency.

"It wasn't a lot of fun. But I kept my head down and kept quiet and that was obviously the right thing to do. I said to The Washington Post at one point, when they tried to get me to comment, 'I'm just going to wait for this idiot wind to blow over' and that's the best thing I could have said. It's the only public comment I made in several weeks," Mr Khalidi said. "What can you say when people are saying things that are manifestly false and act as if they are almost clinically insane? By this I mean the people on Fox, for example."

The controversy had no effect on his professional relations with colleagues and students although he said it "may have increased sales slightly" of his books. Mr Khalidi, 61, has had no contact with the Obama administration since the campaign, when he said he received "a message of sympathy and regret that this had happened". Born in New York to a Palestinian Muslim father and a Lebanese Christian mother, he was educated at Yale and Oxford universities. He taught at the American University of Beirut in the 1970s, when some journalists who sought his analysis called him a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He has denied he had any formal role with the group.

Before joining Columbia, where he holds the Edward Said chair in modern Arab studies, he was a professor at the University of Chicago, where he met Mr Obama. Although the Obama administration has tried to push forward on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr Khalidi does not see a resolution anytime soon. He was heartened that at least Palestinian society had not fractured under the weight of Israeli "onslaughts".

"The peace process is one of the greatest frauds in the history of marketing in terms of its effects on the Palestinians," he said. "It's been a process of immiseration and incarceration of the Palestinians dressed up as a peace process." He sees hope, however, in the US Jewish community getting "increasingly restive with its reactionary, right-wing leadership". Israel, meanwhile, had "harmed itself grievously with its behaviour", including during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the 2006 Hizbollah war and last winter's Gaza war.

Since the US election brouhaha, he has been working on an updated introduction to one of his most well-known books, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, which posits that Palestinian nationalism began at the beginning of the 20th century. He has also published a new book, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East, which includes sharp criticism of US and Soviet policies in the Middle East during the decades-long standoff between the two superpowers.

Several US reviews suggested Mr Khalidi was prone to blaming colonial meddlers rather than Arab leaders for the region's current problems. He said such views showed a profound ignorance of the "intellectual ferment" that was raging in the Arab world even if it did not yet have any formal political expression. "There is a self-satisfied smugness to those who argue the Arabs don't know what's wrong with them," he said. "They absolutely do know what's wrong with them; they talk about it all the time, myself included, but nobody pays attention."

He was just as scathing about the shortcomings of Arab policies as he was about the US or Israel. "Unless and until the Arab states are democratic and progressive, they will have a bad image. Israel for all of its colonial policies, for all the racism that is part of the structure of governance within Israel itself, has a positive image because there are positive aspects to Israel. It is a democracy for at least the Jewish and Arab citizens of the state. It's a discriminatory democracy, but it's a democracy."