Rashid Khalidi in Brooklyn Pt. 2: “You never know when a tipping point is going to come.”

16 Nov

The educator’s spirit I alluded to in my first post on Khalidi’s talk was very much on display during that night’s Q&A.

While there were a few pointed and enlightening inquiries, the degree of background knowledge evinced by audience questions was often nil or, in the case of broad questions based on erroneous assumptions, less.

Khalidi handled confused questioners graciously–far better than many academics who’ve put in years speaking on this issue to a painfully ignorant and misinformed public. When an elderly Egyptian man used his turn at the microphone for a rambling five minute sermon exhorting Muslims and Jews to honor their ancient religious-Abrahamic kinship, Khalidi looked tired but, smiling, waited it out.

The Q&A’s high point came when Noor Elashi, daughter of Holy Land 5 prisoner Ghassan Elashi, stepped up to the mic to speak about her father and the plight of Palestinian political prisoners.*

To be immodestly frank, it was a relief just to hear an informed and specific query. 

Since I probably sound like an asshole, I should clarify that I don’t begrudge anyone their right to speak and be heard in a public forum, nor do I mean to slight those less-informed audience members who participated. On the contrary, it’s a heartening fact that so many older (esp. white and Jewish) Americans are taking an interest in long-misunderstood Palestine.

And it was precisely this spectacle of dozens of older and, it would seem, previously disinterested people flocking to hear an Arab-American academic deliver a historico-political critique of American and Israeli policy that ultimately brought me to the microphone queue.

The event was already running long and the last few responses had seen Khalidi’s animated hand gestures begin to lose steam. But, perhaps a bit selfishly, I hopped up to fill the void where the moderator’s “Was there one more question or shall we conclude?” was at first met with silence.

Below is a transcript of my question and Khalidi’s reply (very much worth reading in full), edited slightly for clarity.

William Brown
[i.e. me]: I’m curious as to how much of an impact changing public opinion, and specifically Jewish opinion, can have on US foreign policy without first dislodging 1. AIPAC and 2. Evangelical Christian Zionism. People like Peter Beinart, Norman Finkelstein, and others have documented that large swaths of the US population are changing their attitudes and their views toward Israel. But without overcoming those daunting pro-Israel power blocs, it doesn’t seem like they can do all that much–can they?

Rashid Khalidi: Well, your question brings up a couple things.

One is the fact that it’s clear that the basis for support for the kinds of policies that this Israeli government is engaged in has moved to a very large extent in American political life to the right of the American political spectrum. It’s no longer quite as strongly supported in a bipartisan fashion. It’s really a Tea Party-rightwing Republican-South West bastion.

Those are areas where, as you say, among many other things Christian Zionism [is significant]–[but] it’s also a worldview where force is absolutely necessary because the world is hostile. It’s more than just Christian Zionism. It’s more than just whatever attitudes people have toward Muslims. It’s a whole worldview about how the United States should perceive the world and about the use of military force. And Israel fits right into that. And so that’s why some of these people are as vehemently in favor of occupation, settlement, and Israeli aggression, and so on and so forth, as they are.

I don’t think, in spite of the fact that there has been that shift, I don’t think that it’s unimportant to pay attention to and try to further the kinds of transformations that are taking place among younger people in the Jewish communities, among students generally, among Churches, [and] in some unions. You are beginning actually to see significant movement in all of these groups–most importantly, I think, young people on campuses.

When I was an undergraduate, it was not permissible to even talk about Palestine. The idea of a group on dozens of campuses called Students for Justice in Palestine was unimaginable…You have…Turath, Arab Students and Muslim Students, Students for Justice [in Palestine], Campaign to End the Occupation, Jewish Voice for Peace–[three to six] groups on a given campus operating more-or-less in coordination–[this was] inconceivable twenty years ago. Inconceivable! So something has happened with younger people.

One thing is that they’re no longer in thrall to the mainstream media because nobody reads news sources made of dead trees anymore. I know graduate students…who’ve never actually seen a physical New York Times, although they read like fifty other sources online. So the access that they have to information is completely different [than] their elders’. And that has helped enormously. They disbelieve what is in the mainstream media, so…the lies, the Orwellian language–they’re not really affected by it, they don’t see it. And I think that’s helped a lot.

Now a lot of people are being indoctrinated in other ways, so it’s not the case that everybody at every university is exposed to all sides of the issue, but that change is [still] enormously important. The change in a lot of mainstream Protestant churches is very important. The change in a lot of parts of the Jewish community, especially younger parts of the Jewish community–those are really important things.

And I think as time goes on, the task of AIPAC and the myriad organizations with zillions of dollars at their disposal will operate in the public sphere harder and harder. The media is still pretty much occupied territory, Capitol Hill is completely occupied territory. But outside of those very important and crucial bastions, I would not like to be fighting the other side of this issue because they have no moral case whatsoever, there’s not much of a strategic case in my view, and a lot of the myths that were so essential to the early decades of Israel’s establishment and expansion, and the way in which it fixed itself in the American mind, have much more of a hold over people in their 70s and their 60s and their 50s than they do over people in their 20s or 30s.

You know, the connection between the Holocaust and Israel, the idea that Israel was on the verge of extermination in the [June 19]67 war–these are articles of faith among people much older than you. Articles of faith. Not for everybody, there’s lots of smart 70-year-olds and 60-year-olds who figured it out–just look at most of the people in this room! [*laughter*]–but that stuff just doesn’t cut any ice with you[nger people], including people who see themselves as very pro-Israel. They just don’t believe it. They know it’s not true or it doesn’t make any sense. That’s really important. And it’s not been replaced with anything equally powerful.

I mean, I speak to groups who never would have received me decades ago and it’s clear that the other ones don’t have the kinds of absolute vehement certitudes that the older ones had. So that change is very, very important.

Where it leads in terms of politics in the future, I don’t know. I can’t tell you.

I can tell you what I see when I go around. Something I see on campuses is a level of activism that I’ve never, you know–unimaginable, even a decade ago. BDS is changing things, Jewish Voice for Peace is. There are a few groups, four of five of them. The amazing thing is, each of them is following its own path, each is doing something slightly different. But they have enough of a level of coordination that it all works to bring more information.

I mean, look–this was an issue on which there was one side in this country from the dawn of Zionism right up until the 70s or 80s. There was only one side to this story, you couldn’t find a book that told you the other side. It was unavailable, it didn’t exist. Or if it did it was very, very hard to find.

Well today, it’s hard to find…properly vetted, respectable academic publications that don’t at least pay serious lip service to both sides of the issue. And a lot of great scholarship–historical or sociological or anthropological or literary–which tells the whole story and gives you entirely different narratives that weren’t available to anybody 30 or 40 years ago.

So, in academia, anybody who actually studies the issue, whatever your political positions are, you’re going to know things today, you will be exposed to things today, that were impossible to find out about 40 years ago. Whatever your views were, if you were pro-Palestinian or whatever–it didn’t matter. You couldn’t know those things unless you were yourself a first-person researcher out in the field.

Well, any graduate student, any undergraduate, has access…and I’m talking about academic stuff. And then there’s the internet, and they can find out about what’s actually happening today in real time.

So, I think those are very important changes. And I think that stuff that in one sense seems like it’s not moving in some senses moves much faster. You can see that in Egyptian and other transformations that have taken place.

Think of the things that have happened in Egypt since 2010–in less than 3 years. Amazing things have happened very rapidly that were unimaginable thirty or forty years ago. So stuff can happen very quickly. I could give you examples from Lebanese or Palestinian or other cases of people’s views changing very rapidly. I’m not saying that’s definitely going to happen, but it can. And so you never know when a tipping point is going to come, you never know when suddenly opposition is going to become completely indefensible.

*Originally I had intended for this post to include an excerpt from Ms. Elashi’s contribution and Khalidi’s response. Unfortunately, my audio of this portion of the evening is particularly rough. If there’s any serious interest in this, let me know in the comments and I can try to produce an accurate transcript.


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