The Day the Rabbi Rescued Rashid

The spotlight in the Columbia crisis has shifted to Professor Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute and the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies. He’s not a part of the reeking mess over at the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department, where extremist professors stand accused of browbeating their students. But he’s become more outspoken on their behalf, and he’s been swept into the general controversy surrounding anti-Israel agitation by faculty.

As a result, the New York City Department of Education has dropped him from an outreach program to city teachers. Khalidi’s banishment is the subject of an article in today’s New York Times and a lengthy news piece in the current issue of the weekly Forward. People are asking just what Khalidi stands for.

Or who stands with him. In such confrontations, it’s often better to have someone else explain what you stand for—a prominent champion, preferably from the other side of the aisle, who’ll swear to your scholarship, moderation, and bona fides.

Khalidi has one in Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, former president of the American Jewish Congress, historian of Zionism, and frequent critic of the Jewish establishment and Israeli policies. The Forward aptly titled a review of his autobiography “The Great Gadfly.” As it happens, Hertzberg deems himself a great expert on Khalidi, with whom he co-taught a Columbia course some decades back. On that basis, he’s set out to reassure the Jewish public that Khalidi is a tough but decent adversary, whose views aren’t out of bounds.

He did that back in November, in an article he wrote for New York’s Jewish Week. There he revealed how he once intervened to overcome Jewish faculty opposition to Khalidi’s appointment at the University of Chicago. “I wrote the president of the University of Chicago that I found Khalidi to be a solid and serious academic, and that his personal politics were no more offensive than mine…. That was the end of the furor and Khalidi’s appointment went through.” In this week’s Forward, Hertzberg is quoted as saying that Khalidi “is about as virulently anti-Israel as the Likudniks are anti-Arab. Have we decided that we are going to throw all the Likudniks out of public life?” This evening, he and Khalidi are to appear together at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University, to speak about “Academic Freedom in a Time of Conflict.” It’s quite likely this venue will provide an opportunity for more endorsements and encomiums.

Now Rabbi Hertzberg is a very great authority on many things. I took his course on Zionism at Columbia nearly thirty years ago, and I wouldn’t want to get into a debate with him over Ahad Ha’am. But when it comes to his Palestinians, the rabbi is no maven.

Consider, for example, the late Edward Said. Hertzberg once told this very revealing story about what happened when he appeared together with the Palestinian champion, back in the early 1980s:

When I suggested beforehand that, in this superheated atmosphere, with the Israelis in Lebanon, we should make the most peaceful noises, he agreed absolutely. So, for 45 minutes, I gave my most dovish speech. He then came on the dais and made his most fire-eating speech. Afterward, he came up to me and said, “Arthur, now we must continue our conversation at breakfast when we get back to Columbia.”

On the face of it, this is a story about Said, but it really says more about Hertzberg. I’m guessing that Said didn’t give his most fire-eating speech. He simply gave his usual speech. If Hertzberg was taken aback, it’s because he’d made wishful assumptions about Said. The story isn’t about Said’s duplicity. It’s about Hertzberg’s naivete.

But there’s an even more telling example of his misreading of Said. In 2003, Hertzberg published a short book entitled The Fate of Zionism. In it, he rehashes his various intellectual battles, with himself cast in the role of defender of Israel and critic of Israeli policies. Hertzberg tells of how Said started out as “a proponent for the creation of an Arab Palestine, which he was sure would treat a Jewish minority with generosity of spirit.” Hertzberg then (rightly) denigrates this fantastic idea, and crosses swords with those other (Jewish) champions of the “one-state solution,” Noam Chomsky and Tony Judt. But then he offers this eye-opener (pp.137-38):

The only one who seems to have made some progress in his thinking, with the passing of the years, is Edward Said. He has apparently finally arrived at a rather unhappy acceptance of the partition of Palestine…. Said no longer calls for a unitary state in Palestine. He knows that if the Palestinians are not to lose all of Palestine, they must accept the partition of the land into two states. Said makes no secret of his hatred of Israel—not merely for Sharon and his followers, but for Israel as a whole—but he knows that it will continue to exist.

Said accepted the partition of Palestine? On what planet was Rabbi Hertzberg living, where he could have missed Edward Said’s celebrated migration from a two-state solution back to a one-state solution? At what point did he stop reading the New York Times Magazine, where Edward Said published an article entitled “The One-State Solution” in 1999? (Said: “Palestinian self-determination in a separate state is unworkable.”) At what point did he stop reading the weekend Haaretz, where Said made the case for one state directly to the Israeli public, in an interview in 2000? (Said: “The two-state solution can no longer be implemented.”) “For all his sloganizing abilities,” Herztberg announced, “Said is capable of being realistic.” You might have reached that conclusion, had you become too blind to read Said’s words or too deaf to hear them. Hertzberg obviously gave Said his blessing much like Isaac gave his to Jacob—thinking he was someone else altogether.

And that brings us back to Rashid Khalidi. There was a time when Khalidi, too, was a clear supporter of a two-state solution. It won him a reputation as a moderate among liberal Jews who were quick to embrace him. That reputation, maintained through the 1990s, also eased his transition from Chicago back to Columbia. On learning of Khalidi’s appointment, Columbia’s Hillel rabbi at the time called him “a reputable scholar with a balanced reputation who advocates a two-state solution.”

Well, maybe not. Khalidi often takes equivocal positions. He supports the Palestinian right to resist occupation, but he opposes terrorism. He denounces Israeli policies as racist, but won’t label Israel itself as racist. The same equivocation now clouds his approach to a solution. Khalidi, when asked, now says that it may be too late for two states—exactly the argument Said made when he became a one-stater. At a recent Columbia panel, Khalidi had an ideal opportunity to reaffirm his support for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He didn’t take it, and he left the impression that he thought two states had become impractical. It seems that since coming to Columbia, Khalidi has moved along the same trajectory as Said, gradually closing the gap between his past positions and the positions of the man whose name now figures in his title.

And have no doubt what the “one-state solution” means: it is a “final solution” for Israel, a denial of the national aspirations and right to self-determination of nearly six million Israeli Jews. Indeed, support for a “one-state solution” is a more clear-cut marker of extremism than support for terrorism. The list of terrorists who’ve become statesmen is long, and it includes Israelis and Palestinians. But adoption of the “one-state solution” is a call for the elimination of the state of Israel in its entirety—a kind of mass destruction that goes way beyond the tactic of terrorism. For that reason, one-staters have nothing to contribute to any form of dialogue, and no interest in it either, since they have only non-negotiable demands: the unilateral and unconditional surrender of Israel, the complete dismantlement of its institutions, and the final submersion of the remaining Jews beneath a wave of Palestinian “refugees” claiming their inalienable “right of return.”

This is where Edward Said ended up, and this is where Rashid Khalidi is headed, if he isn’t there already. That’s not the Palestinian equivalent of the “Likudnik” position, which today is predicated on disengagement and the road-map to a two-state solution. And that’s why Rabbi Hertzberg should look again before blessing Khalidi again, lest he appear (again) like an out-of-touch fool. Sure, Khalidi is entitled to the full protections of academic freedom (and they aren’t endangered). But is he entitled to the full sympathies of the people who will fill NYU’s Center for Jewish Student Life, as someone who’s part of the solution to the MEALAC problem? Or is he now part of the problem—a glib version of a MEALAC extremist (without the abuse), and someone whose views desperately need to be balanced at Columbia?

Hertzberg (in The Fate of Zionism, p.120) makes this promise: “Even Jews like me who have been opposed to the creeping annexation of the West Bank since it began in the late 1960s, will never make common cause with those who want to put an end to the Zionist state.” Well, rabbi, you’ll wind up doing just that if you don’t pay closer attention to what your Palestinian intellectual friends are saying, or if you deliberately look the other way. That means asking tough questions and insisting on clear answers. When might that start? How about tonight?

Update: Here is a morning-after report on the panel. A bit sketchy.