Obama and the Palestinian Professors

Obama and the Palestinian Professors


Ten years ago, Barack Obama went to a lecture by Edward Said, the prominent Palestinian intellectual. Should that be page one news now? The LA Times thinks so – they ran a story on their front page on Thursday on the event, headlined "Campaign ’08: Allies of Palestinians see a friend on Obama."

Obama’s attendance at that speech is news today, of course, because of the Jewish vote. The Times made that clear when it quoted Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who expressed "concern" about Obama’s "presence at an Arab American event with a Said."

Said, who was University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University before his death in 2003, is identified by Times reporter Peter Wallsten as "a leading intellectual in the Palestinian movement." It would be more accurate to call him "a Palestinian and a leading American intellectual." The author of more than a dozen books, his 1978 book "Orientalism" became the founding work of the new field of cultural studies, and is now assigned at hundreds of colleges and universities and has been translated into more than 30 languages.

Said also published political essays in The Nation and elsewhere. He was a fierce critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, but also an outspoken secularist who opposed both the doctrine and the tactics of Hamas. In his later years he was also a critic Yasser Arafat’s leadership of the PLO.

And what did Edward Said say in that speech ten years ago that Barack Obama heard? He "called for a nonviolent campaign" – note "nonviolent" – against Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

That this would be considered page one news today is a sign of just how low American politics – and political reporting – has fallen.

And there’s more: Edward Said was not the only Palestinian intellectual Obama had contact with in Chicago! He was friends with Rashid Khalidi, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago. Khalidi and his wife held a fundraiser for Obama in 2000 when he ran for the House; when Khalidi left Chicago for a chair at Columbia University in 2003, the Obamas went to his going-away party.

Here reporter Peter Wallsten scored a journalistic coup of sorts: he got hold of a videotape of the going-away party. On the tape he found "a young Palestinian American [who] recited a poem accusing the Israeli government of terrorism in its treatment of Palestinians."

And Obama was at the party where the poem was read! — page one news for the LA Times.

Who exactly is Rashid Khalidi? Small world: he now holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia University, and he’s the author of The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. The Times piece calls him "highly visible" – that can’t be good. It does report that "he is seen as a moderate in Palestinian circles, having decried suicide bombings against civilians as a ‘war crime’ and criticized the conduct of Hamas." That, however, is buried in the story in paragraph 30.

Times reporter Wallsten called Rashid Khalidi, and found out he had been "out of touch" with Obama "in recent years." Khalidi "added that he strongly disagrees with Obama’s current views on Israel, and often disagreed with him during their talks over the years." (Obama says he is a "stalwart" supporter of Israel and its security needs, and opposes any US dialogue with Hamas.)

Khalidi added that, because of Obama’s "family ties to Kenya and Indonesia, he would be more understanding of the Palestinian experience than typical American politicians."

A Palestinian says Obama "would be more understanding": here’s another story for page one.

(For another take on this story, see Ari Berman at TheNation.com)

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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