On a bright, frozen morning in January, Rashid Khalidi is set to talk about his new book, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East (Beacon Press), a concise glance back at the four-and-a-half-decade-long superpower struggle in the Middle East between Washington and Moscow. He eases into a blue chair in his spacious, book-filled corner office at Columbia University, crosses one leg over the other, and begins to vent about Israel's recent military campaign in the Gaza Strip: "The discourse in America is dominated by one incredibly mendacious and tendentious version of events," Khalidi fumes, his voice rising from a near whisper. That narrative, "hammered home by Israel and all its supporters," forms the "bedrock of how Americans view" the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Holder of the Edward Said Chair in Modern Arab Studies at Columbia — named for the prominent Palestinian literary critic and public intellectual — Khalidi is a lean, compact man with a narrow face, sharp features, and a graying, tightly clipped beard. Clearly indignant about the subject, he chops the air with his right hand for emphasis. The moment is classic Khalidi: gruff, passionate, a bit sermonic.
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."
Khalidi seemed to answer detractors who questioned whether he could turn a critical gaze toward the Palestinians with The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Beacon Press, 2006). Seeking an explanation for why Palestinians have failed in their quest for statehood, he emphasized the role of outside forces — Israeli, British, American — but also excoriated the ineptitude of Palestinian leadership. In the years before the establishment of Israel, he argued, Palestinian political elites failed to build a coherent governing structure that might have allowed them to more effectively resist the Zionists. Instead, Palestinian society crumbled. He described the Palestine Liberation Organization, which reconstituted the Palestinian national movement in the early 1960s and morphed into the Palestinian Authority after the 1993 Oslo Accords, as patronage-laden, corrupt, and ineffective. Khalidi's despair about the direction of Palestinian politics is even more acute today: "The state of the Palestinian national movement is worse than it has ever been since 1948," he says in his office. "I can't find words strong enough to criticize either Hamas or the Palestinian Authority."
That assessment has earned him a comparison to the New Historians. He rejects the parallel. "Revisionist history has to kick against an established, hegemonic, historical narrative," he says. "Such a version of Palestinian history arguably exists in Arabic, but it isn't yet well established internationally." More accurate, he says, is to view his work as an attempt to shape a still-unsettled story.
Khalidi, who is 60, is a scion of one of Jerusalem's oldest and most prominent families, members of which have long been fixtures among the city's political, religious, and intellectual elite. (His father is Palestinian, his mother Lebanese.) To this day, the Khalidi family library, known as Al-Khalidiya, stands near the center of the Old City and is a major repository of Islamic and Palestinian manuscripts.
Born in New York, where his father was a senior official at the United Nations Security Council, Khalidi recalls a steady stream of intellectuals from the Arab world passing through the family home. Dinner-table talk revolved around politics, and by the time he graduated from Yale University, in 1970, he was passionate about Palestinian statehood. "The challenge Rashid has always set for himself is being a scholar and an activist at the same time, and I think he handles that tension about as well as anybody," says Bruce Cumings, a professor of history at Chicago. "He continues to have access to The New York Times, to the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, and other mainstream media outlets, which is a mark of Rashid's success, because it is easy to get buttonholed, sidetracked, and marginalized when you make your views so clear."
When Khalidi entered the field, in the mid-70s, the Middle East Studies Association was an intentionally nonpolitical organization. Its leaders — primarily patrician WASP's ("In the mid-60s, what else was there in academe?" jokes Juan Cole, a historian at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) — were keenly aware of how polarized opinion was on the modern Middle East. They made what Cole calls a "gentleman's bargain" to avoid discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many professors feared weighing in publicly on current events, says Georgetown's Esposito, because "it might compromise them as scholars."
In his presidential address to the association, in 1994, Khalidi decried what he saw as the discipline's turn to provinciality and overspecialization and its willingness to allow the national discourse about the region it studied to be shaped by nonscholars, "ill-informed sensationalists" who "hog the headlines and grace the podiums of think tanks and lecture halls." If he were addressing the group today, Khalidi says, he would deliver the same tough message: "We have some of the cushiest jobs around, and we have a responsibility to use that comfort to educate."
His early work was pitched to a scholarly audience. But even by the time British Policy Towards Israel and Palestine came out, in 1980, he was already being drawn into a wider dialogue. He had received his Ph.D. in modern history from the University of Oxford in 1974 and was teaching at the American University of Beirut, in a city engulfed by civil war. Home to Yasir Arafat's PLO, parts of Beirut were something like a Palestinian ministate. Foreign journalists soon made Khalidi's office a regular stop on their daily reporting rounds, sometimes identifying him as a spokesman for the PLO. His wife, Mona, worked at Wafa, the official news agency of the organization. "I was someone journalists talked to as both a scholar and an analyst," Khalidi firmly explains, "but never as a spokesman. Journalists came to me when they knew the spokesman was lying and they wanted to find out what was really going on." When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, pushing into parts of Beirut, "those of us who were politically involved felt in some sense threatened," he recalls.
Khalidi's close ties to the PLO and Arafat earned him unique access to the organization's archives. Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War (Columbia, 1986) is an inside account of the political and military calculations that led to the organization's ouster from Beirut. Thomas L. Friedman, then a Jerusalem-based reporter for The New York Times, called Under Siege "generally objective, lucid, and incisive"; Daniel Pipes, a conservative author and commentator, writing in The Wall Street Journal, decried it as a piece of "propaganda parading as scholarship," an attempt to "improve the image of a terrorist organization." It was an early skirmish in the larger war over the direction of Middle Eastern studies that would intensify considerably in the years ahead.
In 1991, Khalidi signed on as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference, an attempt to negotiate an end to the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. That effort, which was supplanted by the Oslo Accords in 1993, deepened Khalidi's understanding of how Palestinians perceive themselves; it was like "watching Palestinian national identity slowly but inexorably become embodied in concrete form," he wrote in Palestinian Identity.
Upon the death of his close friend Edward Said, in 2003, Khalidi left the University of Chicago and took the chair named for Said at Columbia, assuming an even higher public profile. (When Arafat died, in 2004, Khalidi spoke to 34 news-media outlets in a 24-hour period, New York magazine reported.) "With the passing of Edward, Rashid became one of, if not the, most significant voice on Palestinian issues," says Ussama Makdisi, a professor of history at Rice University, who is Said's nephew. Khalidi jokes: "It means that I inherited the target that was on his back."
Khalidi was torn about leaving Chicago, where he had been a professor of history and Near Eastern languages and civilizations for 16 years. The mortally ill Said "put lots of pressure on Rashid," says W.J.T. Mitchell, who was close to Said and remains close to Khalidi. After three months, "Edward persuaded Rashid that he was not going to be around much longer, and that the Palestinians need a spokesman who is knowledgeable," says Mitchell, a professor of English and art history at Chicago. As Khalidi told The Chronicle at the time, "the U.S. is about to go to war with an Arab country, and there is a gross misunderstanding of the Middle East in the public here. There's an obligation to do everything we can to help people understand the region, and I think I can do that better at Columbia."
His latest book, Sowing Crisis, was born out of Khalidi's commitment to place America's current approach to the Middle East in historical context. A sharp criticism of U.S. policies during the cold war, the book's principal thesis is that those policies, formulated to oppose the Soviets, consistently undermined democracy and exacerbated tensions in the Middle East. For instance, "outright disdain" for democracy and human rights led policy makers to exploit militant political Islam as an "ideological tool" against Communism, Khalidi writes. "It may seem hard to believe today, but for decades the United States was in fact a major patron, indeed in some respects the major patron, of earlier incarnations" of Islamic fundamentalism. The maladies that plague the Middle East today, he argues, are in large part the "toxic debris" of American interventions during the cold war.
The new book reads like a companion volume to Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East, Khalidi's 2004 indictment of the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. In both works, the historian listens to contemporary echoes of the past with an unflagging outrage at the inaccuracies and distortions that he thinks dominate public perceptions of the Middle East. "Rashid has all along spoken out, but now he is writing out," says Juan Cole.
In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Middle East moved to the center of the foreign-policy agenda in Washington. Ever since, Middle Eastern studies has attracted considerable attention — and outside scrutiny. One blow landed just six weeks after September 11, in the form of a slim book by Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington Institute for Near East Policy). "America's academics have failed to predict or explain the major evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over the past two decades," Kramer charged. Due in large part to a sharp leftward turn in the discipline, he argued, the credibility of campus-based expertise among foreign-policy professionals has been devastated. A few months later, Daniel Pipes unveiled Campus Watch, a Web site that says it "reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America, with an aim to improving them," and monitors the work of professors it considers biased against Israel and America. Khalidi, who is a primary target of the site, has described the people behind it as "intellectual thugs" conducting "a well-financed campaign of black propaganda."
Arriving at Columbia in 2003, "I came under fire right away," Khalidi says. External groups had pressured the university administration to deny his appointment, according to an essay in Daedalus by Jonathan R. Cole, who was provost at Columbia at the time Khalidi was hired. Some New York newspapers accused Khalidi of supporting acts of violence against Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories; The Washington Times declared that he had spent decades "shilling for terrorists," and that "neither his vocabulary nor his agenda has changed, except that he now oversees a major university's interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict." The New York Post pointed out that Khalidi, as director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, would oversee the expenditure of close to $1-million in federal funds over the next three years. A " biased professor is taking over a biased department ... and administering a taxpayer-subsidized program," a Campus Watch staff member wrote in an op-ed in the Post.
At issue was Title VI, the federal law. In September 2003, in response to claims that Middle Eastern studies had developed an anti-American and anti-Israeli agenda, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would create an advisory board to ensure that federally supported programs "reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs." (The legislation died in the Senate.) Michigan's Juan Cole, among many other scholars, argues that Middle Eastern studies is not ideologically homogenous. But Georgetown's Michael Oren responds that by the 1980s, almost all departments were toeing the Said line and have continued to do so.
For Khalidi, there was worse to come. That winter an activist group called the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership produced a half-hour video documentary, Columbia Unbecoming, in which several Jewish students accused professors in the university's department of Middle East and Asian languages and culture, known as Mealac, of displaying a pro-Palestinian bias and of intimidation of dissenting students in the classroom. The video caused a sensation. Columbia convened a faculty investigatory committee, which concluded in a lengthy report that little evidence of systematic classroom bullying and discrimination existed. But a short time later, the chancellor of the New York public-school system, citing Khalidi's views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, barred him from lecturing about the Middle East in a university-sponsored professional-development course for high-school teachers.
Khalidi was not part of the Mealac faculty, and no wrongdoing on his part was alleged. He was, however, outspoken in defense of his colleagues, delivering speeches, organizing events, and making himself available to journalists. "Rashid took a major portion of the heat, and he did so with considerable grace and incredible aplomb," says John H. Coatsworth, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia.
But even the relatively unflappable Khalidi was shaken by the political storm that engulfed him during the 2008 presidential campaign. In April the Los Angeles Times published a story about a 2003 party at which Barack Obama, then a state senator from Illinois, reportedly described his many talks with Khalidi as "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases." Another person at the party allegedly compared "Zionist settlers on the West Bank" to Osama bin Laden, and a poem was read that accused Israel of terrorism. The conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham branded Khalidi a "racist terrorist," and John McCain likened him to a neo-Nazi. (Google ranked "Rashid Khalidi" the ninth-most-popular political buzzword of 2008.)
Khalidi is not interested in revisiting that unpleasantness; he describes the episode, quoting Bob Dylan, as an "idiot wind." Friends and colleagues remain outraged — Ussama Makdisi, at Rice University, calls the attacks "vicious" and "obviously racist" — but Khalidi displays less anger. "Nobody likes to have tendentious half-truths and falsehoods shown 24/7 on the news cycle," he says in measured tones. He is heartened that Obama won despite having been called a closet Muslim. As Khalidi said in an address in Cairo in December, "it spoke well of the American people that enough of them were able to ignore these ridiculous, scandalous, scurrilous, defamatory statements."
Sitting in his office last month, the professor looks back on his career. "I have tried to argue and show that you can work on these subjects and not be partisan," he says, sounding almost wistful. "It has long been considered an offense against good manners to say the word 'Palestine' in certain quarters. Israel was established in 1948, a source of great joy for some people. Fine, that is well and good. But for Palestinians, that was a disaster in terms of their own history."
The Palestinians' national trauma, Khalidi says, has been subordinated to another people's joy: "I wouldn't ask an Israeli to feel misery at the establishment of his state, so I don't see why a Palestinian should be asked to feel joy about the destruction of his society."
He falls silent for a moment and looks around the room. "One day we will have a textbook like the Franco-German textbook created [in 2006] for students of both countries for a common understanding of their history," he says. "How long did it take them to get there? How many European wars and devastating world conflicts were unleashed before those people stopped butchering one another and wrote a joint textbook? One day that will be possible for Israelis and Palestinians."
There is a knock at the door, Khalidi pops up and commiserates in hushed tones with an assistant. That morning the death toll in Gaza had climbed above 1,000 Palestinians. There is a crew from CBS News waiting to interview him. "I've got to go," he says.
Evan R. Goldstein is a staff editor at The Chronicle Review.