Portrait Rashid Khalidi

Barack Obama's Palestinian Friend

Palestinian intellectual Rashid Khalidi has long been seen as the successor to Palestinian-American historian Edward Said, who died in 2003. Now he has another claim to fame – friend of the new American president. Rudolph Chimelli introduces Rashid Khalidi

Photo: AP
Khalidi is Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University and author of "Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East"

​​Arab intellectuals have long considered Rashid Khalidi as the successor to the Palestinian historian Edward Said. Khalidi inherited Said's Chair as Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and is, like his predecessor, an accepted spokesman for the Palestinian cause in academic circles.

Now another distinction has been added – friend of the American president. "He was my colleague at the University of Chicago, my neighbour and a friend of my family," says Khalidi of Barack Obama.

The link came in handy at Tel Aviv airport recently when it helped him avoid the kind of harassment that having an Arab name often entails. Khalidi spent two weeks in Jerusalem where his family lived since the fifteenth century and where his uncle was mayor until the British removed him from office and deported him to the Seychelles (the uncle was later prime minister under King Hussein of Jordan).

The Israelis allowed Khalidi into the West Bank, but not into Gaza. Before returning to America he paid a visit to Beirut, the city where he began his studies at the American University and where he later spent some time teaching.

Underhand Republican tactics

Rashid Khalidi was born in New York in 1948, the year that saw the establishment of Israel. His father, who would later work for the UN, was a Saudi citizen, married to a Lebanese Christian, and still a student at that time.

Edward Said (photo: AP)
Edward Said: since Said's death in 2003, Khalidi has assumed the role of accepted academic spokesperson on Palestine

​​The Republicans employed some rather shady tactics in their highlighting of the Khalidi connection during the Obama election campaign. Obama and Khalidi were once guests at a dinner where the speaker compared Israeli settlers in the Occupied Territories to Bin Laden terrorists. Both, he claimed, were "blinded by ideology". It was enough for the Democratic candidate later to be dubbed "friend of a Palestinian hater of Israel."

Khalidi graduated from Yale University before going on to do a PhD at Oxford. Besides his academic activities, he is also a member of the American Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, which describes itself as an "organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims dedicated to dialogue, education and advocacy for peace." He also edits the Journal of Palestine Studies.

Bitter political reality

He is pessimistic about the situation in the Middle East. The Palestinian people, he believes, have grown weary of the dispute between the fundamentalist Hamas movement and the PLO-Fatah government.

Before the Palestinians could become signatories to any agreement with Israel, the PLO would have to agree to a "historic compromise" with Hamas. This compromise would then have to be approved by a plebiscite.

The two-state solution, he admits, is only "an ideal" after what has now been four decades of Israeli occupation. And his opinion on the policies of George Bush in the Middle East? – "a disaster."

Rudolph Chimelli

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / Qantara.de 2009

Rudolph Chimelli is an expert on Middle East affairs. He has worked for many years as a correspondent for the German "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper.

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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