Khalidi and Obama: kindred spirits


“He has family literally all over the world. I feel a kindred spirit from that.” —Rashid Khalidi on Barack Obama

The link between Palestinian-American agitprof Rashid Khalidi and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has finally been picked up by the mainstream media. It’s something they should have looked at long ago, and even now, they aren’t really digging. They’re simply reporting the demand of the McCain campaign that the Los Angeles Times release the video of Obama’s praise of Khalidi, at a farewell gathering for Khalidi in 2003. Obama and Khalidi (and their wives) became friends in the 1990s, when Obama began to teach at the University of Chicago, where Khalidi also taught. In 2003, Khalidi accepted the Edward Said Professorship of Arab Studies at Columbia; the videotaped event was his Chicago farewell party. The Los Angeles Times, which refuses to release the tape (and which endorsed Obama on October 19) reported last spring that Obama praised Khalidi’s “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.” Other speakers reportedly said incendiary things against Israel. Whether or how Obama reacted, only the videotape might tell.

That Obama spoke on this important occasion suggests that his attachment to Khalidi wasn’t a superficial acquaintance. As Obama admits, the two had many “conversations” over dinner at the Khalidis’ home, and these may well have constituted Obama’s primer on the Middle East. Yet Obama has given no account of these conversations, even as he has repeatedly emphasized other ones which would seem far less significant.

For example, Obama, in an interview and in his spring AIPAC speech, recalled conversations with a Jewish-American camp counselor he encountered—when he was all of eleven years old. “During the course of this two-week camp he shared with me the idea of returning to a homeland and what that meant for people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home. There was something so powerful and compelling for me, maybe because I was a kid who never entirely felt like he was rooted.” (In the same interview, Obama said Israel “speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus.”)

Of course, the story of someone like Khalidi could just as readily have spoken to Obama’s history of uprootedness, exodus, preserving a culture, and longing to return home. (So too would the story of the late Edward Said, who was photographed seated at a dinner with Obama in 1998, and who entitled his memoir Out of Place. Obama has never said anything about the impact, if any, of that conversation.) And indeed, it stretches credulity to believe that a two-week childhood encounter at a summer camp was more significant to Obama that his decade-long association, as a mature adult, with his senior university colleague, Khalidi.

Nor does it seem far-fetched that the sense of “kindred spirit” felt by Khalidi toward Obama was mutual. One particularly striking parallel deserves mention. Obama, it will be recalled, was born to a nominally Muslim father (a Kenyan bureaucat) and an American Christian mother, which has created some confusion as to the religious tradition in which he was raised. Khalidi’s father, a nominally Muslim Palestinian (and a bureaucrat who worked for the United Nations) married his mother, a Lebanese-American Christian, in a Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, where Khalidi would later attend Sunday school. For such people caught between traditions, Third Worldist sympathies often serve as ecumenical substitutes for religion. (Obama himself allows that as an undergraduate, “in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism and patriarchy.” One wonders how Israel fared in those conversations.)

Were we to see the videotape, it might give us some sense of how far down the road Obama went in that direction—and not all that long ago. It would be interesting to know, for example, if there was reference to Iraq. In 2003, when Khalidi’s friends gave him his goodbye party, he was deep into propagandizing against the Iraq war. Among his arguments, he included this one:

This war will be fought because these neoconservatives desire to make the Middle East safe not for democracy, but for Israeli hegemony. They are convinced that the Middle East is irremediably hostile to both the United States and Israel; and they firmly hold the racist view that Middle Easterners understand only force. For these American Likudniks and their Israeli counterparts, sad to say, the tragedy of September 11 was a godsend: It enabled them to draft the United States to help fight Israel’s enemies.

This argument against the war was not at all unusual on the faculty of the University of Chicago at the time. Another professor of Middle East history, Fred Donner, gave it blatant expression on the pages of the Chicago Tribune, calling the Iraq war “a vision deriving from Likud-oriented members of the president’s team—particularly Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith.” So perhaps it is not surprising that Obama, in his October 2002 antiwar speech, declared: “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.” No mention of Cheney or Rumsfeld—and no need to mention them, to a constituency that knew who was really behind the push for war, and why. (Later, the same argument would figure prominently in The Israel Lobby, co-authored by another Chicago professor, John Mearsheimer.)

Obama, when pressed during an appearance before a Jewish audience, admitted that “I do know him [Khalidi] because I taught at the University of Chicago.” This sounds wholly innocuous; I also know Khalidi because I taught at the University of Chicago—twice, in 1990 and 1991, when I had an office on the same hall. Obama continues: “And I do know him and I have had conversations.” Well, even I’ve had conversations with Khalidi. (A former Chicago graduate student who must keep meticulous records writes to me that he spotted me on December 6, 1990, at the Quad Club lunching with Khalidi.) Nor does it mean much if Khalidi introduced Obama to Edward Said; Khalidi introduced me to Edward Said in New York in November 1986.

The difference is that while I came away from these encounters convinced that Khalidi’s purported moderation was a sham, and have said so, Obama went the other direction, maintaining their friendship right up to Khalidi’s send-off from Chicago, to which he contributed an encomium. Which is why I’d really like to see that videotape. I’m just curious which of Rashid Khalidi’s virtues I somehow missed, and Barack Obama saw.

Pointer: The next public sighting of Khalidi will be at a Columbia conference entitled “Orientalism from the Standpoint of its Victims—An Edward Said Conference,” on November 7. Khalidi will deliver the opening address.

Update: See my follow-up post, “Khalidi of the PLO.”

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