“For light relief I read medieval history to get my mind off the present,” says Rashid Khalidi.
The award-winning scholar and prodigious Palestinian-American writer has built much of his career trying to "shift the whole framing" of the conflict as a tragic war between two peoples fighting over a long-contested piece of land to what it really is: a colonial war by Israel on the indigenous Palestinian population.
The Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and editor of the Journal of Palestinian Studies is regarded as one of its foremost academic authorities.
His latest book, The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017, has coincided with US President Donald Trump's controversial Deal of the Century, and now, Israelis going to the polls for the third time in a year.
Does the world really need another book on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Given that Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and the architect behind the "peace proposal", sought to assure critics of his credentials by stating that he had read "25 books on it", many would reply, "Absolutely".
While this marks Khalidi’s eighth book on modern Middle East history, and fourth specifically on Palestine, it is different from its predecessors, he says, “in that it is much more personal”. He is the latest from a long and distinguished family of academic and religious scholars, whose roots stretch back centuries to the Old City in Jerusalem. The book’s introduction provides a quick and fascinating insight to many historically note-worthy and prominent members of the al-Khalidi family – and beyond this it includes memories of and stories shared by his more contemporary relatives.
“There is a lot of family and history, a lot of accounts from people who were involved within my own family and things that I witnessed or was involved in,” and altering his usual “authorial” and purely academic tone took a lot of effort, he says.
“It was very hard to decide what voice to use and where to go into the personal and not to. Historians use other people’s memoirs all the time. But I was talking about my aunt, my uncle, materials from people in my own family, about whom I knew a great deal; so it wasn’t like just taking a book off the shelf by a woman who wrote about her experiences as a kid in Beirut and then in Palestine later on – she was my aunt, she talked to me about stuff and sometimes I’m relating those things. That was very different than anything I’d ever done before and very hard,” he adds, with a laugh.
While the sheer duration of the war and the completely asymmetrical power balances that have shaped it for over a century might make for sobering reading, Khalidi is hopeful that Palestinian resistance in its myriad forms and global grassroots support will eventually sway “the arch of justice”.
Over the past two decades, many accessible and ground-breaking academic books have been published by Palestinian and ‘New Historian’ Jewish Israeli academics that set out to reframe Palestine-Israel as an indigenous people engaged in a brutal settler-colonial conflict.
Contemporary Palestinian literature and cinema are vibrant and acclaimed. In America, “the Squad” of Democratic Congresswomen, including Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, have opened a new and potent political space where the truth about Israel and Palestine is being openly and fiercely debated. There too, four of the candidates in the Democratic leadership race – Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg – dared to distance themselves from the powerful pro-Israeli lobby group, AIPAC by skipping its annual conference this week.
The United States is where the battle for Palestine needs to be waged, and while a growing number of academics are reframing the narrative on Palestine, Khalidi says that he is kept optimistic by a growing tide of young Arab-Americans and Jewish Americans who are markedly different from the two generations before them in terms of their identities and outlooks.
“Something more profound is going on with the younger generation of Arab-Americans, who are more integrated than any generation before them, and more assimilated and self-confident, and more knowledgeable about their constitutional rights than any Arab-Americans ever were. This generation of kids, they’re Americans: they were born and educated here, they know their rights, they know their language, their Constitution, many are becoming lawyers and becoming prosperous. And they are contributing to political campaigns, running political campaigns and acting like everyone else in American society.”
Whereas middle-age and older generations of Jewish Americans were traumatised by the horrors of the Holocaust and saw 1967 as a moment of potential annihilation for Israel, young Jewish Americans don’t have that same connection with, or view of, Israel, Khalidi says. He says the current perception of Israel among other young Americans has also shifted.
“They look at what’s happening and they don’t see Israel as David and the Arabs as Goliath. First of all, they don’t see the Arabs involved – there are no Arab armies fighting Israel, there hasn’t been since 1982, almost 40 years ago. Secondly, they see the Palestinians as weak and Israel as overwhelmingly powerful.
"They see it as unfair and there’s no reason why America should put its big thumb on the scale of the dominant actor in this scenario. Certainly people feel this injustice and respond to it, so there’s a change going on.”
Khalidi’s latest book also concludes optimistically on the note that a society founded on settler-colonialism in the early part of the 20th century, in a century that saw many liberation struggles overcoming their colonial manacles, must inherently come with a ‘best-by’ date – and that Israel, and particularly its Western supporters, sense this.
“I take comfort from the fact that this has always been a project, that is largely dependent on the outside; and that what has happened in Israel and what Israel represents and does in some key respects in anathema to certain democratic liberal values that still exist in many parts of Europe and the US – in spite of countervailing tendencies. In the long run that’s not sustainable: you can’t rule over that many people without rights and be this dependent on the outside world.”