Columbia prof talks Mideast peace

American public discourse on the Palestinian-Israeli crisis has been stifled by a combination of strong beliefs and a lack of knowledge, said Rashid Khalidi ’70, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University at a Davenport College Master’s Tea Thursday.

To an audience of about 30 people, Khalidi discussed his work on Palestinian identity and politics, as well as American perceptions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. American media sources perpetuate uninformed ideas about the Middle East, Khalidi argued. Similarly, he said, George W. Bush’s ’68 administration systematically excluded experts on the Middle East from influencing policy.

Rashid Khalidi ’70 was a classmate of Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld ’71 MED ’76, and both were students at the same time as George W. Bush ’68.
Rashid Khalidi ’70 was a classmate of Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld ’71 MED ’76, and both were students at the same time as George W. Bush ’68.

“Much of what you think you know about the Middle East, if heaven forbid you depend on the media, is wrong,” Khalidi said. “There is some thoughtful journalism on NPR and shows like Frontline, but the worst reportage about the Middle East is on TV and cable news. And it’s only going to get worse, because the most expensive journalism, foreign reporting, is dying the fastest.”

Many Americans have preconceptions about the crisis that are rooted neither in religion nor history, Khalidi said, citing as an example the popular 1960 movie “Exodus,” which depicts the early founding of Israel and emphasizes the importance of a national homeland for Holocaust survivors.

“Because of movies like this, the conflict isn’t to be understood in terms of Palestinian and Israeli people, but of the tragic history of the Jewish people and the Holocaust,” Khalidi said. “Whatever happens to Palestinians is secondary.”

Khalidi studies the formulation of Middle Eastern identities, specifically the construction of a Palestinian identity. He argues that national identities are formed in response to others: The Palestinian national identity, he said, emerged in the face of competing Ottoman and Arab identities.

He argued that America’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli crisis has been mainly to manage the conflict and go through the motions of the peace process, rather than prioritizing results. In addition, he said, American government officials discussed and formulated policy towards the Middle East without regional experts.

“We don’t elect experts; we elect politicians, and they surround themselves with their cronies,” Khalidi said. “Bush’s government was a fact-free and faith-based administration regarding Middle Eastern policies. But deep in the bowels of our bureaucracy — in intelligence services, the State Department, and in the military — there is a great deal of expertise. But the question is, how can their knowledge get to the top?”

The Tea was something of a reunion for Khalidi and Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld ’71 MED ’76, who were friends and classmates in Davenport College. Khalidi pointed to where another classmate, George W. Bush, lived in Davenport. They laughed, noting that they rarely fraternized with Bush and his friends, who were a few years older.

Several students interviewed said they enjoyed the talk but wished that Khalidi had talked frankly about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“It was great, but he seemed reserved in expressing his opinions about the conflict,” Nafez Dakkak ’11 said.

Later in the day, Khalidi delivered a lecture at the Law School entitled “The Uncertain State of Palestine.” He is the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies and lectures extensively on how the modern Middle East fits into the idea of a world system. Additionally, he studies and lectures on American and British policy toward the Middle East.

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