Interview with Rashid Khalidi

6 min read

Professor Rashid Khalidi is one of the world's leading scholars of Middle Eastern history. In The Hundred Years' War on Palestine - the history of a century of Israeli-Palestinian conflict - he describes and critiques a series of seismic 'declarations of war' against the Palestinian people that culminated in the creation of the state of Israel and the progressively-worsening situation in the region that sadly shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

We asked Professor Khalidi to tell us about why he decided to write The Hundred Years' War on Palestine when he did, the audience he was aiming to reach and his hopes for the future. We are grateful to Professor Khalidi for taking the time to respond to our questions. For anyone who would like to educate themselves on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this book is a good place to start.

How would you characterise your intended audience for The Hundred Years' War on Palestine?

I hope to reach a general audience, including people with some knowledge, as well as those who are unfamiliar with a Palestinian perspective because another narrative has been so pervasive in public discourse.

Please can you explain why you decided to frame the book with the concept of six declarations of war against the Palestinian people?

I was trying to shatter the false notion that this is simply a conflict between two equal sides, or that it is solely between Palestinians and Israelis, whereas it has always been an externally supported assault intended to dispossess the Palestinians.

Which of the declarations of war had the biggest impact on you personally and why?

Probably the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut. This is because of its traumatic nature (17,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed), and because I was living in Beirut with my family at that time.

Why did you decide to write and publish this specific book - articulating the creation of Israel as a history of settler colonialism - when you did?

I felt that the moment was appropriate, and that this essential nature of the sustained assault on the Palestinian people had been obscured in most treatments of the topic.

What do you consider to have been the biggest turning point or missed opportunity in the fortunes of the Palestinian people during the time period covered in the book?

There were several: the 1939 St. James Palace conference was one; the first intifada and subsequent negotiations that culminated in the disastrous Oslo accords was another. In these and other cases, however, the utlimate result was probably overdetermined.

What makes you hopeful about the future for the Palestinian people?

Because they have not given up their struggle for their rights in spite of setbacks and imposed and self-inflicted divisions of their ranks, and because they are facing a discriminatory colonial settler regime that is completely out of step with the norms of the 21st century.

What criticisms has the book faced since its publication and how do you respond to them?

There have only been a few: they essentially boil down to whining that the book is one-sided, coming mainly from those unused to seeing a serious challenge to their largely false narrative of this history, which has heretofore been hegemonic in Western public discourse.

You have talked about the importance of building a unified Palestinian movement. What do you see as the main obstacles to achieving this?

A decrepit, bankrupt generation of leaders, Palestinian political movements with no strategic vision, and external meddling by powers, notably Israel, determined to keep the Palestinians divided.

You have also emphasised the importance of achieving equality for all people living in Israel/Palestine. How do you envisage this being achieved?

I cannot presume to predict the future, but there is no alternative if the awful current situation is to change for the better. It will require those with privilege -- mainly Israelis -- being confronted with the fact that this is an unsustainable situation. And it will require both peoples devising an equitable, just way to share one small country.

You have said that the project to create Israel was a century or two centuries too late. Why?

This derives from an insight of the late Tony Judt. He said it because a European colonial settler project like this might have succeeded fully in the 18th century or a bit later, when this form of domination and dispossession was still acceptable. It no longer is.

You have said that American support for Israel actually harms American interests. Please can you explain why this is the case?

Because of the opposition to the biased US position in favor of Israel that is engendered all over the world, especially in Arab and Islamic countries, and because this position is in contradiction with values the US supposedly espouses in terms of democracy and human rights. Where these countries have democratic regimes, this opposition is a serious hindrance to the US. Where they have dictatorial regimes that can suppress public opinion, this is less of a problem.

If you could take one quote from the book and have every child in schools around the world read it, what would that quote be and why?

I really cannot think of one. Perhaps the words of an ancestor of mine, Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, in an 1899 letter to Theordore Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism: "in the name of God, let Palestine be left alone."

How can Palestine win the public relations war in the US and do you believe that the Palestinian movement needs a popular cultural work to captivate public imagination in a similar way to how Leon Uris’ Exodus (and the subsequent film of the same name) became the average American's reference point to the story of Israel?

What is most needed in order to change US public discourse is to make widely known the actual nature of realities on the ground in Palestine. Also crucial is a revival of the Palestinian national movement around a clear strategy that offers both peoples a secure future in Palestine/Israel, and that can be effectively communicated.

Artistic and cultural works, whether novels, poetry, movies, TV, theater, or other forms, were hugely important in creating a positive image of Zionism and of Israel. This is changing as such works are beginning to better reflect the realities of oppression and discrimination in Palestine/Israel.

Rashid Khalidi is the author of The Hundred Years' War on Palestine, Palestinian Identity, Brokers of Deceit, and The Iron Cage, among others. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and many other journals. He is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York and co-editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies.

The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: Professor Rashid Khalidi.

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