Out of the blue, the talk shows and blogs have brought the name of Rashid Khalidi into view. He's the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia, and a well-known propagandist of Arab nationalism. At one point towards the end of the 1970s he was director of WAFA, a Palestinian news agency serving the purposes of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. A book of his, Under Siege, in 1986 was a panegyric to the courage and endurance of the PLO as the Israeli army forced it out of Beirut, parts of which the Palestinians had occupied by force of arms, with no legitimacy at all. And now Khalidi pops up in some sort of relationship with Senator Barack Obama, as a fundraiser and supporter, possibly an advisor.
I have been covering Middle East affairs all my life. The Arab-Israeli clash looks outwardly as if reason could resolve it, but time and again reason is thwarted by Arab violence. Time and again, the Arabs seem to take the same decision to resort to force, but of course this is a clash not open to resolution by force, and so the Arabs are in each round left more desperate than before. Obviously they are as rational as everyone else, so how come they repeat the same mistake rather than draw the logical conclusion that self-injury has to stop? In 1989, I published a book The Closed Circle to address that vital question. Arabs who have read it often tell me that I say harsh things about them, but as someone who wishes them well and not as an enemy. That's true.
As part of a book tour at the time of publication, I found myself in Chicago appearing on the Milt Rosenberg talk show. And in the studio there was a guest, lo and behold Rashid Khalidi, transformed into an academic at Chicago University. Lack of democracy, I said, was blocking Arab development. He said furiously that the Arabs were democratic in their fashion, citing Kuwait of all examples, which at that moment was just standing down its vestigial parliament. I said that Arab nationalism had only served to extend despotism. He became even angrier at that, and accused me of writing a hatchet job. Apparently I was a purveyor of essentialism. This is a doctrine, as I understand it, that ascribes fixed characteristics to people, as though they couldn't change. You talk to me about philosophical terms, I heard myself saying, but I am talking to you about murder and war.
Rashid Khalidi comes from a very well known Palestinian family, and someone in his position commands respect in that society. He is of course safe in the United States, but the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza have to bear the consequences of what the social and intellectual elite to which he belongs are doing and saying. Nationalism of his kind, its deceptions and self-deceptions, conditions the repeated mistake of favouring war over reason. In the first place, he is letting his people down, but then the wider world has to suffer the consequences. If Senator Obama really has friends like this, he – and all of us too - had better beware.