Rashid Khalidi's Balancing Act

Historians in the News

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....

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