Friday, April 11, 2008

Barack Obama Has Palestinian Friends

The Huffington Post's Jon Wiener, in the commentary appended below, writes with jaded incredulity of the LA Times's decision to run a front page article on April 10th about the fact that Barack Obama has a friend of Palestinian descent (the prominent Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi) and went to hear a lecture by Edward Said ten (yes, ten!) years ago. No one can be surprised that big media, in articles like this, and American politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to pander to powerful Israel-right-or-wrong constituents. They merely reinforce a toxic trend in which anyone who can possibly be characterized as a critic of Israel or as sympathetic towards Palestinians is liable to be demonized with all the familiar epithets.

The dangerously irrational power of this kind of demonization is parsed in an excellent article by Jane Kramer in the April 14th issue of The New Yorker magazine. Kramer writes about the recent effort by pro-Israel partisans to pressure Barnard College into denying tenure to anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, author of a critical scholarly book on Israeli archaeology and Zionism. After an ugly smear campaign initiated by a Barnard alumna named Paula Stern, who lives in the Israeli settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, and orchestrated by Daniel Pipes and others, Abu El-Haj was finally granted tenure in November. Her case demonstrates how dangerous it has become in the US to challenge Israeli policies or expansionist Zionist politics. As Abu El-Haj reflects, "What happened last year--it wasn't about me. I was a cog in the big wheel of the issue of the Middle East and Israel."

Americans must make sure that the ideological "big wheel" of which Abu El-Haj speaks does not warp public discourse, international diplomacy, or national politics any more than it already has. The risks of this are not to be taken lightly, when nearly half of the American electorate still believes that Al-Qaeda was the reason the US went to war in Iraq, and when, according to a PEW survey conducted last month, 14% of Republicans and 10% of Democrats believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim (the possibly weirder news is that, even in the aftermath of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, a third of Americans say they don't know what Obama's religion is -- maybe the pollsters can tell us whether these Americans are especially ignorant or especially clever). --Lincoln Shlensky


The Huffington Post

Jon Wiener

Breaking News: Obama Met Palestinian Intellectuals Ten Years Ago

Posted April 10, 2008 | 04:42 PM (EST)

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 in 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.

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Shlensky
Alistair Welchman
Jewish Peace News blog:
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