Last night I went to hear Rashid Khalidi speak at the Brooklyn Reform synagogue, Beth Elohim. A gorgeous temple, and before giving Khalidi the microphone at the altar, Rabbi Andy Bachman went down the list of groups that had sponsored the talk. Brit Tzedek,
Peace Now, J Street, the Dialogue Project, Meretz, the
Institute for Living Judaism, Kolot Chayeinu. I kept waiting for the list to stop. It was like a cordon of bodyguards, but guarding one another, lest
anyone was going to blame any one of them for treachery. Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayeinu was there, proudly– but I can't find the event at the Institute for Living Judaism's website, or J Street's either. (Though J Street promoted the event in a large email.)
That the Palestinian-American scholar was even speaking is astounding and good. He is, or so I'm told, a polarizing figure. Look what happened to him during the presidential race last fall when he was linked to Obama. McCain smeared Khalidi as "a friend of terrorists," a smear revived by the New York Times recently, when it said he blames everything on Israel; and Obama did nothing to back up his old friend. Of course, Khalidi has had harsh things to say against Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. But what sentient being hasn't? And Khalidi has relatives in Gaza.
Still: he is off limits.
With that cordon, you would expect a firebrand. An unsettling speaker. Nothing could be further from the case.
As anyone who knows Khalidi can tell you, he is a courtly man of considerable reserve. He is a historian and prefers historical subjects. He doesn’t like to speak in anger but about historical processes. Even at Harvard right after Gaza, his description of the complete denial of all rights to Palestinians had a scholarly character: he said that Palestinians lead lives like the "helots" of Israel. As my friend James North, who along with Jack Ross accompanied me to Beth Elohim, said, Khalidi is the embodiment of the academic, someone who wants to step back dispassionately from the tumult of events.
The lecture was about superpower rivalries and the Middle East. He stayed away from Israel/Palestine as much as possible but said that the local struggle has been subsumed in and inflamed by a struggle between the US and Iran that has carried over from the Cold War, when American and Soviet conflict continually distorted the local politics. Iran has powerful proxies in Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These are “strong horses.” American horses are weak. We rely on Arab dictatorships and on weak Fatah.
We will gain nothing by bombing Iranian nuclear capabilities. Look at Iran's situation. It wants nukes not only because Israel has nukes, but so does Pakistan, where radical Sunnis regard the Iranian Shi’a as heretics. And also because of the U.S. presence on all sides: Iraq, the Emirates, Afghanistan, the Gulf, etc. Bomb Iran and they will still get nukes, only then they will be enraged. And so will their Islamic horses. A clear and helpful analysis.
From my standpoint, the speech was too polite. Khalidi did not say an anguished word about Gaza. He did not mention the Israel lobby until the question and answer period. He treated the American support for Israel as growing out of American perceptions of its superpower interest, in which the cold war was replaced by the war on Islamic terror. Yes but why did we get the war on Islamic terror? And why does it hang on into a progressive administration? I know Khalidi doesn’t accept the Israel lobby theory to the degree I do, but he obviously believes it somewhat. When he said that Obama would be at pains to reverse policy in Afghanistan and Iran because of a kind of bureaucratic inertia, and briefly mentioned the neoconservatives, he was saying what I say, that a religious ideology in this country as powerful in its way as the fervid ideologies of Asia is distorting our policy. And by the way, I think Khalidi’s wrong about the power of the lobby. How does he explain the ravages of the Columbia University Middle East studies program by the David Project a few years ago—with the overwhelming support of the Jewish community, which is so essential to Columbia’s funding? I would say that he is being willfully/publicly naïve about these forces in our lives with the usual leftwing political correctness, by saying Cheney craved oil. Well yes, of course, he craved oil. But what about all the Judea and Samaria ideologues he hired?
Later, leaving the lecture I realized I was not cutting Khalidi a break. Put yourself in his shoes. After being demonized and smeared in the national campaign–and Wikipedia's page on him is locked to editing due to disputes–he is invited to… a synagogue. He was welcomed there by about 200 to 250 people, obviously mostly Jews. The rabbi introduced him by celebrating the idea of dialogue on this most vexing of issues, and much as I devote this site to a self-interrogation of my Jewishness and the ways in which Jewish identity has interfered with American statecraft in a multicultural age, Khalidi also was performing a self-interrogation here. Whenever he visited the condition of the Palestinians, he heaped blame on the Palestinians themselves, and on the Arab governments. He said that the Egyptians were terrified of a democratic state in Palestine with Hamas at the helm; it would empower the Muslim brotherhood. He said the Palestinian leadership was corrupt and lacking in vision. He was blaming his own people. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
And let us be clear, along the way, Khalidi attacked the occupation, and described the exorcism of Chas Freeman by the necons, and talked about the hateful settlements, which have multiplied through the peace process. He did not hold back. He used to think a Palestinian state is inevitable. Now he thinks the likelihood is bleak; and the alternative is apartheid. Though he did not use that word. His words were respectful. At one time he described the gathering as a “congregation"; and frankly, it was his.
Walking back up 8th Avenue in Brooklyn, Jack Ross and James North– who are both the type whose apartment is lined with books and so he tends to avoid public speaking events because he could be learning much more at home–praised the lecture as splendid. Ross said that his takeaway was that Rabbi Andy Bachman is both ambitious and well-known (I know him as a Darfur rabbi, talking about human rights in Darfur all the time) and so it is a very good sign that he embraced Khalidi, for it shows that he sees which way the wind is blowing, and he wants to be on the right side of history.
Here are my two takeaways, the morning after.
One: Islamic governments seem to be the way of history in the Middle East right now. They are more democratic than the non-Islamic governments, they express the will of the people. And Hezbollah may win in the Lebanon elections in two months, Khalidi said. It gave me the feeling that if the US wants to see the end of Islamic government, and I do, then the best thing we can do is to stop warring against this process and respect the degree to which people are choosing Islamic government.
Khalidi pointed out that the whole region had been proceeding somewhat toward constitutional democracy when we and the Brits ousted Mossadegh in '53.
The other impression is either pathetic (James North’s word) or tragic (mine). Khalidi is a brilliant man. He is far less outspoken than even Chas Freeman, and indeed the fact
that Obama even nominated Freeman to the National Intelligence Council
"astonished me, it flabbergasted me," he said. And remember, Freeman and Khalidi
cannot be in government; and that speaks to the power of the lobby.
But the pathetic and tragic impression I have today is not about foreign-policy-making but about Jewish life. Khalidi is a person of the book. He is a gifted and accomplished scholar. And this was a radical event: to have a courtly man speak so intelligently for an hour and a half before a leftleaning audience? Yes. It is a radical act inside the house of American Jewry. We used to be the smartest people in the world. Zionism is destroying our capacity to think.