Rashid Khalidi’s “Iron Cage”

Rashid Khalidi’s “Iron Cage”

We of the Zionist peace camp have some experience with Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi, who used to be a regular panelist at forums of Americans for Peace Now. He was definitely a moderate Palestinian nationalist we could cooperate with, but it’s not clear how much he still is. He turned against Oslo following Rabin’s assassination and Netanyahu’s election as prime minister.

In my view, although Olso had its flaws, Khalidi was throwing the baby out with the bath water. He also gave no acknowledgment to the fact that Rabin had frozen new settlement construction (he, unfortunately, allowed construction for “natural growth” – increased population through birth). And Khalidi did not acknowledge that after Peres was defeated, neither Netanyahu nor Barak were supporters of Oslo, although neither totally discarded it.

In 1997, Prof. Khalidi published a seminal work called “Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness.” His new book, “The Iron Cage,” is a continuation of this story.

What I noticed in his earlier book is that Khalidi made too much of Zionist “unity” – ignoring the bitter split with Jabotinsky’s Revisionists that almost led to civil war. Furthermore, unlike Tom Segev’s “One Palestine, Complete,” written a few years later, which documented how uneasy the Zionist-British “alliance” was, Khalidi simply depicts them as allies, full stop. When I made these observations (nearly 10 years ago) in my In These Times review of “Palestinian Identity,” Khalidi wrote a caustic letter to the editor in which he refused to engage any of my points.

The following are selections from a mostly positive review of “The Iron Cage” that my friend Bennett Muraskin wrote for a coming issue of Jewish Currents:

Khalidi tells this story with great erudition. He argues that British support was critical to the development of the Jewish community of Palestine, known as the Yishuv. The British treated the Jewish Agency as a legitimate authority and allowed it considerable autonomy to run its own affairs. The Zionists took full advantage, utilizing their organizing and fundraising skills, marshalling support from Jews throughout the world who provided capital and political clout with their own governments. The Palestinian leadership, on the other hand, floundered. It was divided and elitist….

The British did offer the Arabs an “Arab Agency” but it was in no way equivalent to the Jewish Agency. The British would only recognize an Arab Agency if it signed on to terms of the Mandate, i.e., “a Jewish national home.” As Khalidi comments, “The significance of the quasi-official diplomatic status accorded by the British to the Jewish Agency and the League of Nations through the Mandate…cannot be overemphasized.”

Khalidi… ponders whether the Palestinian leadership “should have come to some sort of accommodation with Zionism” but concludes that none was possible due to “both the drive of the Zionist movement for supremacy in Palestine and the natural resistance to this drive of the indigenous population.” Although he notes that some Palestinian nationalist favored the non-violent strategy developed by Gandhi in India, he does not even mention the 1929 Arab riots that killed 133 Orthodox Jews in Hebron….

[And] was violence the only answer? What about the binational solution proposed by Judah Magnes, Martin Buber and Hashomer Hatzair? Khalidi dismissed their thinking as too fuzzy….

When the Palestinians finally revolted in 1936, it was, in Khalidi’s opinion, too late. 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….

It is not that the Palestinian uprising was a total failure. The British finally caved in to Palestinian demands and cut off Jewish immigration to a trickle in its 1939 White Paper and promised eventual independence. But the Palestinians rejected this concession in what Khalidi describes as a “tactical error.” Further, 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. However, it seems to me that their far greater strategic error was in rejecting the 1947 UN Partition Resolution that would have created a Palestinian Arab state along side a Jewish state. If he is looking for a reason why Palestinian’s have not achieved statehood, he need look no further. Yet on this question, Khalidi is strangely silent….

Where Khalidi truly excels is in his critique of Palestinian attitudes toward Jews who settled in Palestine/Israel. Were they European invaders? In a sense they were, but they were also a persecuted people seeking a safe haven. Palestinians could only see Jews as the former, insisting they were purely a religious entity with no national rights. Lacking any insight into the Jewish condition, they could never understand why the Holocaust and other cases of anti-Semitism convinced so many Jews that security could only come in a state where they held state power. Hence, for decades, the Palestinians had nothing to offer the Jewish population. Not binationalism, not acceptance of partition and not, until 1988, acceptance of UN Resolution 242…. Since then, the mainstream PLO has damaged its own cause by tolerating terrorism and siding with Iraq in the first Gulf War in 1990s….

Although Khalidi is deeply committed to the Palestinian cause, he has his feet planted firmly on the ground. Utopian proposals for a “one-state solution” even when advanced by his mentor Edward Said, have no appeal for him. He refuses to draw facile comparisons between Israel and South Africa. He understands that Palestinian’s must compromise on their “right of return” if they are ever to achieve statehood….

By | 2007-02-16T05:31:00-05:00 February 16th, 2007|Blog|0 Comments

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