Rashid Khalidi, a controversial Columbia University professor who is said to be under consideration for a key position on Princeton University's history faculty, was on the New Jersey campus last week, once again raising his voice on the issue of Palestinian statehood.
But Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute and Edward Said Professor of Middle East Studies at Columbia, did so in a way that assuaged some of the Jewish attendees who were expecting an "inflammatory" talk by the pro-Palestinian scholar.
More than 60 people crowded into a seminar room in Princeton's Dickinson Hall to hear Khalidi's Nov. 30 lecture, "The Iron Cage: The Palestinian Failure to Achieve Statehood Before and After 1948." In his 90-minute presentation, Khalidi pushed forward his thesis that the Palestinians have been impounded in "an iron cage" — victims of the forces of history and of their own failure to create structures of state. He said he has been consumed by this topic for the past eight years, ever since he completed his most recent book, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness.
"Why didn't the Palestinians develop structures of state? The Palestinians have failed to do this," said Khalidi, a specialist in Palestinian history and in the growth of nation-states in the Arab world.
Khalidi — who spoke as part of a week-long appointment as a visiting professor in the history department — is said to be the leading contender to fill the Rosengarten Chair in Modern and Contemporary History, an endowed chair being vacated by retiring North Africa and Middle East expert Robert Tignor. In the spring, Princeton University's Jewish community appeared publicly divided over Khalidi's candidacy for the Robert Niehaus '78 Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies. That chair remains unfilled.
Khalidi has been a frequent target of pro-Israel critics who complain of a strong pro-Palestinian bias in Columbia's Middle East studies and history curricula. Earlier this year the New York City Department of Education dismissed Khalidi from a teacher-training program in which he had been scheduled to give a lecture on Middle East politics.
Although pro-Israel groups have accused Khalidi of an anti-Israel bias in his public comments, his Nov. 30 talk was contained to historical analysis of the political, economic, and social forces that have played a role in the evolution of Palestinian identity over the past 75 years. These include the failure of the British to recognize the national character of the Palestinians in the 1930s, the failure of the Palestinian elite to resist being co-opted by the British, and the failure of Palestinian leaders more recently to establish a unified military command, legislative body, or diplomatic corps.
"I would argue that the absence of state structure resulted from these failures," Khalidi said. "The Zionist movement, to its credit, took advantage of the opportunities given and was enormously successful in creating structures of state."
The defeat of the Palestinians that history records as taking place during Israel's War of Independence in 1947-48 actually took place much earlier, according to Khalidi. "The Palestinians were, in effect, defeated in the 1930s — defeated in terms of a demographic battle," he said.
At several points in his discussion, Khalidi stopped to note that colleagues have berated him for his "much too harsh" assessment of the Palestinians' failure to develop structures of state. At one point, he referred to "the amazingly farsighted character" of Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
‘I was impressed'
During the question-and-answer period that followed his formal remarks, Khalidi responded to a question from NJ Jewish News about whether he believes the Palestinians are still in an iron cage. "I think they in large measure are," he said, "and in some degree, it's an iron cage of their own making."
Although Khalidi willingly engaged in dialogue with NJJN after the program, he steadfastly refused to permit any of his remarks to be placed on the record — neither on his views about possible outcomes in the Middle East, nor on his prospects of being offered the endowed chair in Princeton's history department.
The university also remained silent on the question of Khalidi's possible appointment. Dr. Jeffrey Adelman, chair of Princeton's department of history, failed to return e-mail and telephone messages requesting a comment.
Among those who turned out to monitor Khalidi's Nov. 30 presentation was Princeton sophomore Jordan Reimer of Queens, NY, religious life chair for Yavneh, the Orthodox community at the Center for Jewish Life. He noted that Khalidi was much more nuanced than he had expected.
"Everybody talks about how inflammatory he is, and I wanted to listen to see how inflammatory he is," Reimer said, "but I came away with the impression that he is not inflammatory at all.
"Clearly, he and I share different viewpoints, but he's an intellectual," the student said. "He's not out to state political bias; he's out to state his own intellectual, historical perspective on issues he deems important. While I wasn't very impressed with his scholarship, I was impressed with the fact that he seemed to be more rational and not as inflammatory as people make him out to be."
Jeremy Friedman, a graduate student in Princeton's history department, said he attended the lecture because he expects Khalidi to get the Princeton appointment and he wanted to hear what he had to say. "My impression is that he's not the one who's usually inflammatory. It's the students around him who interpret him to be inflammatory," Friedman observed. "I felt he was missing certain levels of historical analysis, but overall, he was interesting."
The buzz about his second chance at a Princeton appointment surfaced just as the university's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs announced the appointment of Daniel C. Kurtzer, former United States ambassador to Israel and Egypt, as the university's first S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in Middle East Policy Studies. Kurtzer will take his chair in January.