Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American historian, underscores student protesters’ sense of ‘moral imperative’

1 month ago
Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian-American historian, underscores student protesters’ sense of ‘moral imperative’

Last week, amidst the settling dust from recent protests at Columbia University, a group of former and current students came together to honor the remarkable career of Rashid Khalidi, a leading advocate for Palestine in the West.

During the two-day retirement conference, several speakers highlighted the distinction between Khalidi’s scholarly work and the student protest movement. They pointed out that among those involved in the now-closed Columbia encampments were individuals who had been students of the esteemed Middle East history professor.

However, Khalidi made it clear that while his recent best-selling book on Palestine has been well-received since its October release, he believes its impact on the uprising has been minimal.

“I hope that I’ve had some impact through my writing, but I don’t really think that students are endangering their careers because of something that (I) wrote,” Khalidi told AFP.

Pointing to social media as a galvanizing force, Khalidi said there was a large part of the younger generation “that feels that moral imperative to oppose what they see on their phones as a genocide.”

The conference opened less than 48 hours after New York police, at the university administration’s request, cleared a campus building that had been occupied by student protesters.

Some students have complained that the protests were intimidatory and veered into anti-Semitism and hate speech, while organizers have said that their slogans and criticisms are aimed at the Israeli government’s prosecution of the conflict in Gaza and that anti-Zionism should be distinguished from anti-Semitism.

Acting out

The morning after the police crackdown, Khalidi, flanked by other faculty outside campus gates, delivered a searing critique of the action in remarks widely shared on social media.

Khalidi said Columbia President Minouche Shafik and other university leaders would “go down in infamy” like Columbia administrators in 1968 who called in police against Vietnam War protesters in a move subsequent university leaders have denounced.

Shafik argued, however, that the demonstrators’ occupation of a campus building was a “violent act” that put both students and protestors at risk and necessitated bringing in the police.

At Columbia, Khalidi was a founding co-director of the Center for Palestine Studies, which opened in 2010. He has served as the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, a post named for another outspoken critic of US foreign policy known beyond academia.

Besides Columbia, which he joined in 2003, Khalidi, 75, has also worked at the American University of Beirut and the University of Chicago, among other schools.

He advised the Palestinian delegation on peace talks between 1991 and 1993 and is frequently enlisted by US media to explain the Palestinian point of view on the conflict.

His statements are closely monitored by the Jewish press. In January 2017, Khalidi acknowledged to the Forward that his statement that hardline pro-Israeli conservatives would “infest” the Trump administration was “infelicitous phrasing,” rejecting accusations of anti-Semitism.

The son of a United Nations official, Khalidi, who was born in New York, ties his evolution as a politically engaged thinker to his ancestors, interspersing his family narrative with the history of Palestine in “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017.”

The 2020 book, a bestseller since shortly after the October 7 events, has been hailed as a must-read by several leading commentators.

He will continue to teach next year at Columbia as contingent faculty, while pursuing his latest project – a study of the links between Palestine and Ireland.

Khalidi said other universities had shown greater skill in navigating the protests, noting that activists at some other schools ended encampments after winning concessions from administrators.

He described the administration’s call for civil dialogue as hollow in light of a refusal to consider divestments.

“You can talk as much as you want, that’s not going to stop the bombing because the politicians don’t listen,” he said of protesters. “So I guess what they’re saying is ‘We’re gonna make a fuss. We’re going to be disorderly.'”