Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi is the latest contributor to the anti-Israel crusade that’s so prevalent in American academic circles these days. A dust-jacket blurb from Israeli-born “new historian” Avi Shlaim, whose displeasure with his homeland propelled him to England, enthusiastically praises Khalidi’s “brave, brilliant and magisterial” book: The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017. Noam Chomsky (who has characterized Israel as a “mercenary state”) lauds Khalidi for “a riveting and original work … [about] this deeply unequal conflict.”
Khalidi descends from a centuries-old line of distinguished Arab ancestors. His great-great-great uncle Yusuf Diya, an Ottoman Empire government official and mayor of Jerusalem, was a contemporary of Theodor Herzl. He knew, as Khalidi would learn, that “there was no way to reconcile Zionism’s claims on Palestine … with the rights and well-being of the country’s indigenous inhabitants.” The “essentially colonial nature” of the return of Jews to their biblical homeland is Khalidi’s focus—and his target. The “colonization of Palestine,” he writes, “was meant to yield a white European settler colony.” He is convinced that “academically worthless writing” to the contrary (but not his own) “is riddled with historical errors, misrepresentations, and sometimes outright bigotry.”
For Khalidi, Israel’s roots “are as a colonial settler project … that would not have succeeded but for the support of the great imperial powers.” He is oblivious to the existence of Jewish nationhood in the Land of Israel as far back as King David’s reign two millennia before the emergence of “Palestinians.” He makes no mention of Palestine’s genuine “indigenous inhabitants”—namely, Jews—thousands of years preceding the appearance of Islam (and, indeed, the first Khalidi).
Khalidi concedes that there were no signs of a Palestinian national identity before the Balfour Declaration (1917). Until then, Arabs in Palestine defined themselves as “Arabs,” not “Palestinians.” Only when they confronted “the promised national home for the Jewish people in Palestine and emergence of Zionist colonialism in their midst” did they become “Palestinians.” Khalidi evades what that reveals about “Palestinian” history before World War I. Because there was no such history.
The British Mandate for Palestine, which recognized the historic connection of the Jewish people to that land, did not mention “Palestinians.” That was surely attributable to their as yet non-existence as a recognized, or even self-recognized, people. Indeed, Khalidi notes that during the 1930s, British authorities treated Palestinians “as if they had no national existence.” British authorities were correct; at that time, they had none.
Even by the end of World War II and the birth of the State of Israel three years later, Khalidi recognizes that Palestinians had yet to develop “the apparatus of a modern state.” Their “disarray in regard to institution-building,” he admits, “was profound.” Given the “strongly patriarchal, hierarchical and fractious nature of their politics,” it’s clear why there was as yet no “Palestinian” people or state.
Khalidi is proud—in his American homeland—of the durability of his Palestinian identity. Born in 1948 in New York, where he lived until 1976, when he moved to Beirut for 15 years, he returned briefly to his native city before relocating to the University of Chicago and then back to New York, where he has taught at Columbia ever since, where he now is the Edward Said Professor. Said, proudly proclaiming his own spurious “Palestinian” identity, grew up in Cairo before his family resettled in New York.
By mid-book, Khalidi is reduced to familiar clichés: Israeli “colonization of the Occupied Territories,” more reliably identifiable historically as biblical Judea and Samaria. The “colonial task of historic Zionism” was “creating a Jewish state in all of Palestine.” Why not, he is unwilling to ask since “all of Palestine,” historically, comprised the Land of Israel?
For Khalidi, the State of Israel is nothing more than “a callous occupying power”—to be sure, if unacknowledged, of its own ancient homeland. After its “colonization of the Occupied Territories,” which provoked the first intifada in 1987, Khalidi went back for the first time in 20 years. It was, he concluded, “the first unmitigated victory for the Palestinians in the long colonial war that began in 1917.”
A participant in back-channel peace negotiations between Israeli and PLO representatives in 1993, Khalidi was blind-sided by the discovery that the PLO and Israel had been conducting their own security talks in Oslo, where the important decisions were made. In his warped view, “fervent religious-nationalist partisans of the Greater Land of Israel” have dominated Israeli politics ever since. He ignores Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s give-away concession offer in 2006, which would have relinquished 90 percent of the West Bank to Palestinians who, unnoticed by Khalidi, rejected it.
Obsessed with the century-long “Zionist colonial project,” Khalidi finds “a measure of solace” in “the Palestinians’ resistance, their perseverance and their challenge to Israel’s ambitions.” Embracing “exclusivist settler colonialism” as an accurate description of the return of Jews to their ancient homeland, Khalidi laments its sorrowful consequences for the Palestinian people, whom he embraces from his protected enclaves on the Upper West Side and at Columbia University.
Yearning for “a postcolonial future” for Palestinians, Khalidi realizes that “establishing the colonial nature of the conflict has proven exceedingly hard given the biblical dimension of Zionism, which casts the new arrivals as indigenous and as the historic proprietors of the land they colonized.” In translation, Jews—hardly “new arrivals” compared to Palestinians—are the true inheritors of their ancient land. Bound to the fantasy that Palestinians comprise “the original population” of the Land of Israel, Khalidi longs for their possession of the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
For Khalidi, Palestinians are the Native Americans of the Middle East. He imagines “striking parallels” between “the resistance of Native Americans to their dispossession and that of the Palestinians.” But his futile search for valid parallels exposes the spurious nature of his claim. That failing, Khalidi discovers “inequality” at the core of the creation of a Jewish state in “an overwhelmingly Arab [curiously, not “Palestinian”] land.” With “systemic inequality inherent in Zionism,” he can lacerate Israel for its “illiberal and discriminatory essence.”
The “colonial reality” of Israel—with its “dynamic of injustice and inequality”—concludes Khalidi’s tortured narrative. How ironically, revealing that the two most prominent Palestinian intellectuals of our time—Edward Said and now Rashid Khalidi—chose New York, and not Palestine, as their homeland.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.