On Sept. 25, I sat in a packed hall at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs attending a stimulating public conversation between the historians Rashid Khalidi (of Columbia) and Avi Shlaim (of Oxford). Both men walk a difficult line between scholarship and activism: Khalidi as a Palestinian-American who has advised the PLO and long advocated for a Palestinian state, and Shlaim, raised in Israel but now a dual national with British citizenship who has made his reputation as one of the New Historians who document the dark corners of Israel’s history and is an outspoken critic of contemporary Israel.
Khalidi is also very much a chronicler and critic of the Palestinian national movement, but more from a practical perspective than morally. For example, he sees the crushing defeat of the Palestinian-Arab revolt of 1936-39 by the British as having doomed the Arabs to defeat in the 1948 war. But this conclusion begs a question I wish someone had asked: If these casualties had not been suffered and the Palestinian irregular forces were much stronger when they attacked the Yishuv (the organized Jewish community in Palestine) in ’47-’48, would their possible military triumph have been a step forward for humanity? Would the likely result of widespread slaughter and/or displacement of the country’s Jews been a triumph for the good?
In Bennett Muraskin’s review of Prof. Khalidi’s 2006 work, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (“A History of Failure,” summer 2007 issue of ISRAEL HORIZONS magazine), Muraskin addresses Prof. Khalidi’s failure to provide a moral critique of Palestinian nationalism:
Was violence the only answer? What about the binational solution proposed by Judah Magnes, Martin Buber and Hashomer Hatzair? Khalidi disappoints in simply dismissing their thinking as fuzzy. Citing Magnes and Buber – but not Hashomer Hatzair – he said that they advocated for a binational state but “did not flesh out what that formula might mean in practice, nor did they convince large numbers of Jews in Palestine of the force of their arguments.”
When the Palestinians revolted in 1936, it was too late, in Khalidi’s opinion. By then the Yishuv was firmly entrenched―a state-in-waiting. And despite a massive Palestinian general strike in 1936 and an armed uprising that lasted from 1937 to 1939, the Palestinians were no match for the British army. When the revolt was finally crushed, 5,000 Palestinians had lost their lives. This outcome left the Palestinians woefully unprepared to resist the Zionist move toward independence.
Nevertheless, the Palestinian uprising was far from a total failure. The British caved in to Palestinian demands, cutting off Jewish immigration to a trickle in its 1939 White Paper and promising eventual independence for Palestine. But the Palestinians rejected this concession in what Khalidi describes as a “tactical error.” Furthermore, he acknowledges that the Grand Mufti, initially promoted by the British as a Palestinian “leader,” disgraced himself by collaborating with the Nazis during World War II.
Still, their far greater strategic error was in rejecting the 1947 UN Partition Resolution that would have created a Palestinian Arab state alongside the Jewish state. If Khalidi is looking for a reason why Palestinians have not achieved statehood, he need look no further. Yet on this question, he is strangely silent. …
The Zionists in 1948 were both returned natives and settlers whose security had been guaranteed in the 1930s by the British army. To expect the Palestinians to have welcomed them when they had the potential to resist is unrealistic. The tragedy was that it took the Palestinians another 40 years to stop digging themselves deeper into a hole, and then only temporarily. The new historians in Israel began publishing IN ENGLISH only some 40 years after Israel received its independence. Don’t expect Palestinian new historians until long after they have received their independence. Khalidi has the limited freedom that he does because he is an American academic.