Saturday, November 1, 2008

Political Storm Finds a Columbia Professor

Rashid Khalidi had been bracing for the storm for months, and the Republicans did not disappoint.

He was surprised, the friends said, that so little criticism came — until this last frenzied week before the election, when Senator John McCain cited the April article in The Los Angeles Times about a dinner Mr. Obama attended in Mr. Khalidi’s honor in 2003, and questioned Mr. Obama’s commitment to Israel.

Their strategy has been to try to find something to denigrate Obama, anything; their tactics have been to throw everything they could find, and wait for something to stick. It hasn't worked, and McCain will lose, but they have continued the tradition in which both Bushes participated: scurrilous attacks, falsehoods, fear-mongering.

Ariel Beery, a former Columbia student leader who was involved in a pro-Israel group’s film about the 2004 controversy, said Mr. Khalidi was different from those accused of intimidation. “In terms of his role as a professor, he was excellent,” Mr. Beery said Thursday in a telephone interview from Israel, where he lives. “He was provoking, he always allowed for different opinions, he had an open zone where people could voice their disagreement.”

Sounds magnificent. Challenging, informative, a good academic setting. Provoking intellectual exploration and learning is good, and it is important.

In 2005, after a New York Sun article highlighted some of Mr. Khalidi’s statements, the New York City schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, barred Mr. Khalidi from a teacher-training course. In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Khalidi said then that he “may have used the word ‘racist’ about Israeli policies,” and acknowledged saying in a speech that if the movement of Palestinians continued to be restricted, “it would develop into worse than the apartheid system.”

It is important to be careful and exact, not something the Republicans care much about.

“He makes history entertaining,” said Maher Awartani, 24, an Arab student leader who has taken his class. “It’s like a grandfather telling his grandson a story of what happened.” Mr. Awartani criticized not just the McCain campaign but also the Obama campaign’s tepid response, saying, “It should have been like, yes, I know him, and I’d like to know more Middle East experts, because that’s an important thing when you’re making policies.”

Here is a smart person talking: yes, Obama's campaign can be blamed for being overly careful of getting enmeshed with any symbols of Islam, yet understandable: the campaign wanted to deny the Republicans anything they could use to link Obama with Muslims. Imagine a TV picture of females wearing head scarfs sitting behind Obama as he spoke at a rally. That would have become stock footage for Republican commercials.

Rashid Khalidi has been called a friend to Barack Obama and an enemy of Israel.

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