Professor Rashid Khalidi

by Mark LeVine, Tikkun, October 30, 2008

With less than a week left before the most important Presidential election in at least a generation, the McCain campaign has decided that, having failed to convince most Americans that Barack Obama is actually a closet Muslim, its best hope for winning undecided voters is to accuse Obama of having Muslim friends.

Not just Muslim friends, Muslim Palestinian friends. Apparently there are few more fearful combinations in the American ethno-religious lexicon.

And so a McCain spokesman has accused the Los Angeles Times of “intentionally suppressing” a video that would “show a clearer link” between the Democratic candidate and Professor Rashid Khalidi, the most important scholar of Palestinian history in the world, who at the time the video was shot, was a neighbor of Obama and a colleague at the University of Chicago.

According to the Times story, in the video in question Obama “reminisces about meals prepared by Khalidi’s wife, Mona, and conversations that had challenged his thinking.”

I was fortunate as a graduate student to have been to one of the Khalidis’ soirees (I think it was catered), and I too have fond memories of the warmth of their home and hospitality.

The gathering, in February 1999, was in celebration of a conference, “The Uncertain State of Palestine,” he had helped to organize. The conversations over hummus and other Arab delicacies were certainly challenging—which was precisely why it was so exciting to be there. Guests included several prominent Palestinian scholars, as well as a few Israelis and a bunch of graduate students.

The “infamous” Edward Said—with whom Obama once took an English class as a student at Columbia—was holding court at one end of the living room, as usual impeccably dressed and moving effortlessly between discussions of postcolonial theory and the best recordings of Chopin while managing to flirt with every attractive woman who wandered into his orbit.

Closer to the kitchen, a few students were comparing notes from their recent research trips to the Occupied Territories; near the front door a leading Palestinian sociologist discussed the almost century-old diaries of a Palestinian musician and bon vivant he’d been given by the man’s family. A few feet away one of the conference’s graduate student organizers was discussing her research on the motivations of suicide bombers with an Israeli colleague.

We were, to a person, angry: Angry at the ongoing occupation and violence that seemed to deepen with each passing year of the Oslo peace process. Angry at the corruption and incompetence of the Palestinian leadership, and at the Clinton Administration’s unwillingness to take on the settlement infrastructure that everyone knew was dooming the chances for peace.

But we were also happy to all be in the same room together, to be, at least for an evening, part of the same tribe—scholars and activists whose lives were enmeshed in the fate of a small country and its warring national communities. We were not unanimous in our views; far from it. But we recognized each other’s common humanity and desire for a peaceful and dignified future for both Palestinians and Israelis, and were willing to listen to and learn from each other’s experiences, even when they contradicted our own.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the bi-racial, internationally raised law professor and then State Senator from the Chicago had a similar feeling while dining at the Khalidis’ home.

Yet it is precisely Obama’s willingness to listen to and even learn from those with whom he disagrees that McCain wants to use to scare undecided voters. In the unreleased video Obama explained that his discussions with Khalidi had offered “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases… It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that… we continue that conversation—a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table,” but around “this entire world.”

In post-September 11 Republican ideology, Americans admit no blind spots or biases. Self-criticism and introspection are for the weak, for “elites” and “radical professors” (as Sarah Palin dubbed Khalidi in a campaign speech yesterday, before mispronouncing his name as “Kaladi”) who don’t share “our values” and who are too self-absorbed to “put country first.”

According to this vision, we can’t admit our blind spots because doing so could lead down a dangerous path of “defeat by our enemies.” More to the point, it could lead us to explore why we have so rarely walked the talk of freedom and democracy. Why in the Middle East (and around the globe) we’ve consistently supported authoritarian, corrupt and violent regimes; conquest and occupation by our allies; terrorism when perpetrated against our enemies—and now, torture, occupation and other inhumane practices when perpetrated by ourselves.

Senator McCain is betting that the idea of sitting in friendship with a Palestinian Muslim—never mind at a gathering were people “freely express anger at Israeli and US policies”—will be unacceptable to enough elderly Jewish Floridians and Rust Belt Evangelical Christians (who believe the return of the Jews to Israel and an Apocalyptic war with Palestinians and Islam will herald the End of Days) to hand McCain the mother of all upsets.

If he’s right, the biggest losers on Tuesday won’t be Barack Obama and Joe Biden, but rather the American sense of decency, tolerance and humanity, towards ourselves and our neighbors. It will be a long four years indeed.

Mark Levine is Professor of History, UC Irvine, and author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House/Three Rivers Press, 2008).