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October 27, 2017 3:11 pm

Columbia Professor Rashid Khalidi’s Cynical Use of Antisemitism

avatar by Mara Schiffren

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The Columbia campus. Photo: Columbia.

We’re nearing an age of peak cynicism, when a former PLO spokesman and decades-long anti-Israel activist claims to be more concerned about antisemitism than does Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last month, Rashid Khalidi — now Columbia University’s Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies — renewed his PLO bona fides by marking the centennial of the Balfour Declaration with the lecture, “The Balfour Declaration from the Perspective of its Victims.”

The speech was the first in the series “Palestine/Israel: 100, 70, 50” at NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies. The lecture was held in the magnificent Richard Ettinghausen Library, which showcases a wall of Islamic mosaics. The room was packed to capacity, with about 85 people, including faculty and graduate students, some lining the circular staircase and filling every inch of the room.

Helga Tawil-Souri, the director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center, introduced Khalidi in glowing terms, as “the premiere Palestinian public intellectual,” noting that as an op-ed contributor, he is “the only Palestinian with a direct line to The New York Times.”

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Upon taking the podium, Khalidi qualified her statement, adding, to raucous laughter, that he wished he did have a direct pipeline to the Times, because “they wouldn’t have Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss writing for them regularly if I did.”

In his speech, Khalidi argued that the Balfour Declaration “amounted to a declaration of war by the British Empire on the indigenous population of the land it was promising to the Jewish people as a national homeland.” Balfour, he said, “launched a century-long assault on the Palestinians aimed at implanting and fostering this national homeland, later the state of Israel, at their expense.”

Predictably, Khalidi limited the “indigenous population” he spoke about to Arabs — and ignored the Jewish people’s historical claim to the land of Israel as recognized in the Balfour Declaration. Instead, Khalidi maintained that “the Zionist movement was a colonialist enterprise in search of a metropolitan sponsor,” which was “implanting” and “fostering” the Jewish people “at the expense of the Palestinians.”

Khalidi’s terminology reflected his past as a PLO propagandist.

His use and definition of the term “indigenous,” for example, echoed the fabricated claims of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinians are descended from the Canaanites, who predated the ancient Hebrews.

Similarly, Khalidi’s term “implanting” mirrored PA political commentator Fathi Buzia’s allegation that Britain “creat[ed] and implant[ed] a fabricated, thieving entity upon the Palestinian land.” PA school textbooks similarly refer to Israel “as an imperial colonial implant.”

During the Q&A, moderator and NYU professor Zachary Lockman asked Khalidi to address “the silence of the Netanyahu government on Charlottesville.”

Khalidi responded: “What is Zionism doing here? … When there is actual … Jew-hatred; Jews are targeted as Jews.” Dramatically striking the podium, he continued: “They are overt antisemites, Jew haters. And that’s not the problem? No. It’s BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions). Palestinian activism, that’s the problem,” he concluded, his words dripping with sarcasm.

Notably, Khalidi, who has sponsored multiple BDS conferences as the co-director of Columbia’s Center for Palestine Studies, has a vested interest in dismissing the antisemitic heart of the BDS movement.

Khalidi continued his offensive, citing Netanyahu’s muted response to Charlottesville as proof that Zionism actually harms the Jewish people. “Is that good for the Jews?” he asked derisively. “Is that good for Israel?”

At the same time, Khalidi belittled Netanyahu’s “very dark worldview” that antisemitism poses a perennial threat to Jews. “They will kill us [the Jews] in every generation,” he said, mocking Netanyahu’s concerns. “We [the Jews] can only rely on ourselves. We will have to fight and fight and fight.”

Clearly, Khalidi’s feigned anxiety over antisemitism is nothing more than a cynical ploy. In the hands of such an experienced anti-Zionist propagandist, Charlottesville is an opportunity to drive a wedge between a generation of newly anxious American Jews and Israel.

Khalidi’s lecture epitomized the politicization of contemporary Middle East studies: by twisting a legitimate topic — the Balfour Declaration — into an anti-Zionist, anti-Israel propaganda point, Khalidi distorted the past in order to influence the present. His ahistorical claim that the Jewish people are not the indigenous population of Israel is a transparent effort to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state. There should be no room in academe for such hucksterism masquerading as scholarship.

Mara Schiffren, a Campus Watch Fellow, has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in the Study of Religion. 

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