Needed: A new narrative

After two intifadas and the failure of the Oslo peace process, Rashid Khalidi has published a revised edition of ‘Palestinian Identity’ in an attempt to explain why the Palestinian state is still nowhere in sight.

palestinian identity 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
palestinian identity 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Discussing the historical evolution of Palestinian independence is a project laden with perils both political and methodical. The highly charged tone of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict causes the question to be considered through the prisms of mutually exclusive political and ideological narratives, not only between the two sides but also within each community.
Analytically, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific date for the origin of Palestinian nationalism as we now know it, as it developed over time simultaneously with other ideologies and identities, including Arab nationalism, the nationalisms of the respective Arab states and various versions of political Islam. However, most acknowledge the leadership of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, whose open and close ties to Adolf Hitler remain an important topic of debate, as the effective beginning of Palestinian identity and its rejectionist narrative.
Enter Rashid Khalidi, who occupies the Edward Said Chair at Columbia University and deconstructs his version of the topic in Palestinian Identity. In this study Khalidi attempts to unearth the origins of Palestinian self-determination as unique and, of course, independent of the Zionist movement. Furthermore, in this revised publication post-Yasser Arafat, he stresses the need to reexamine “the appropriate forms of resistance” by Palestinian society under Hamas and Fatah.
Khalidi’s political predilections made him a good fit for the chair, which was established following Said’s death in 2003. Said was one of the most influential Palestinian scholars and America’s most prominent advocates of Palestinian nationalism. Said’s major work, Orientalism, blamed all of the troubles of the Middle East on the West, stemming from a “trifecta of evils” – imperialism, racism and Zionism. While Orientalism often ignored evidence that ran counter to its thesis, it is still the canonical text in the field of Middle Eastern studies. Like Khalidi, Said could, at times, sound relatively moderate, condemning Palestinian terrorism in general (although refusing to condemn specific, individual acts) and encouraging Palestinian democracy.
In 1996, when Khalidi published the first edition of Palestinian Identity with the aim of detailing what he believed were the major trials and indignities endured by Palestinians, he wrote, “The quintessential Palestinian experience, which illustrates some of the most basic issues raised by Palestinian identity, takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint... For it is at these borders and barriers that 6 million Palestinians are singled out for ‘special treatment,’ and [are] forcefully reminded of their identity... [E]very Palestinian is exposed to the possibility of harassment, exclusion and sometimes worse, simply because of his or her identity.”
And now 17 years later, following two intifadas and the failure of the Oslo peace process, Khalidi published this revised edition in an attempt to explain why the Palestinian state is still nowhere to be seen.
Today, he believes that Palestinians have moved even further away from the two-state solution model in favor of the “one-state solution.” He is even more convinced that Israel has ignored Palestinian suffering and that at the core of the problem is a “Palestinian Holocaust.”
As Khalidi writes, “Most Israelis and many others are mesmerized by their own profound fears about threats to the continued existence of the Jews as a people (and therefore of Israel). These fears are rooted in the searing experiences of 20th-century Jewish history culminating in the Holocaust. Such fears seems to blind those in their grip to the fact that the Palestinians are tormented by their own profound existential crisis as a people, one born largely of their traumatic historical experience suffered at the hands of Zionism and Israel over the past century.”
One real and one imaginary genocide are equated, their “trauma” made equal, and this is introduced as the great stumbling block to Middle East peace.
Similarly, US President Barack Obama in his Cairo speech made the same moral equivalency comparing the Holocaust to the suffering of the Palestinians. Khalidi’s friendship with Obama, which dates back to their days at the University of Chicago, almost certainly influenced that speech and on the way Obama views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How any of these new ideas influence Palestinian nationalism is unclear, except inasmuch as academics and Palestinians themselves must always point to “resistance” as a core value. Equating Palestinian suffering to that of Jews is a passive dimension to resistance that has the added benefit of sounding therapeutic.
In fact, Khalidi in the past has made numerous extreme statements on Israel; he calls it an “apartheid system in creation” and a “racist state.” Moreover, as I wrote in 2004, Khalidi was an official spokesman for the PLO when it was considered by most a global terrorist organization. In 1976 The Los Angeles Times, reporting from Beirut, described Khalidi as “a PLO spokesman.”
Although Khalidi would like us to believe that Palestinian identity developed independently and did not emerge as a response to Zionism, history shows that Husseini and Hitler came together because of their desire to eradicate world Jewry in Europe and in Palestine. After 1948 what tied Palestinians together was and still is the refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish sovereign state, a negativity that binds Fatah and Hamas alike.
For real change to happen, Palestinian society needs to start developing an identity independent of Zionism, one based on democratization and social mobility.

The writer is a senior fellow at EMET and an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum.