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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fisking Khalidi's "Iron Cage" - part one

In 2006, Columbia Professor Rashid Khalidi published "The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood." Khalidi, an American of Palestinian Arab descent, occupies the prestigious Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia University and he heads the Middle East Institute of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs.

Khalidi's book has been lauded for its supposed even-handedness in being critical of Palestinian Arabs and in describing their missed opportunities, in addition to the usual blame given to the British and Zionists for their troubles.

However, a closer analysis of the book shows that Khalidi is deceptive in his writings, and one cannot escape the fact that he is knowingly dishonest in pushing through his narrative. While he is certainly guilty of omitting and downplaying many facts of Palestinian Arab history, he is also guilty of sleight of hand where he will string together sentences that contain mostly truth but give the reader an impression that is wholly false.

An early example of such dishonesty comes from a close reading of this passage on page 39 meant to show British pro-Zionist sympathies during the mandate period:
In fact, access to those levers (of state power) was systematically denied to anyone of Arab background. The low ceiling that Arab functionaries came up against is best illustrated by the case of George Antonius, an urbane, articulate Cambridge-educated (but Lebanese-born) official of the mandatory government, who...was repeatedly passed over for responsible posts, as mediocre British subordinates were promoted over his head, until he finally resigned in disgust. Similar limitations did not apply to Jewish officials, if they were British by origin rather than Palestinian: among them were the first high commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel and Norman Bentwich, attorney general of Palestine until 1930, both deeply committed Zionists. By way of contrast, although a few senior British officials might well be considered anti-Zionist, pro-Arab, or even anti-Semitic, from the beginning of the British occupation of Palestine in 1917 until its bitter end in 1948, none of the top appointees of the mandatory administration outside the judiciary were Arabs.
Khalidi's dishonesty is subtle but representative: he decries the lack of Palestinian Arabs in high positions of the mandatory government but rather than contrast that with the number of Palestinian Jews (which would be the exact analogy) he instead mentions that some of the officials were British Zionists. He then goes on to admit that some of the senior British officials were pro-Arab - the exact analogy with those who were pro-Zionist. In other words, from parsing his sentences one can see that he has proven nothing about British pro-Zionist leanings from his proofs; he purposefully conflates British Zionists with Palestinian Zionists and he refuses to do the same between British Arabists and Palestinian Arabs, thus subtly using his command of the language to give an impression that is not borne out by his own facts, but one that the reader could be forgiven for not noticing.

Khalidi shows similar dishonesty when dealing with the British-installed Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husayni. He claims in a number of places that al-Husayni kept his end of the bargain with the British by keeping his 1921 promise to "maintain tranquility" among the Arab population (p. 62.) Khalidi claims that Husayni only reluctantly abandoned his pro-British actions when he could no longer contain the "popular" uprising. Khalidi doesn't mention the evidence that the mufti was himself behind anti-Jewish pogroms in the early 1920s as well as the 1929 riots, and he only passingly mentions the Mufti's Nazi alliance during World War II. He accepts, when it is convenient for his thesis of the pro-Zionist British Mandate, that Husayni was a moderating force when in fact he was the opposite - even as Khalidi admits that the British directly subsidized Husayni's position.

Khalidi does give some evidence that the British were more pro-Zionist than pro-Arab until the 1939 White Paper but he misses the point of those leanings. For the first decade and a half of the mandate, the British were following the explicit terms of the mandate, to create a Jewish national home in Palestine. This is not as much evidence of pro-Zionist leanings as it is for British feelings of responsibility. During the 1936-39 strike and revolt, of course, the British were on the same side as the Zionists against the Arabs. The manifestly anti-Zionist 1939 White Paper showed that, rather than being inherently pro-Zionist, the British were mostly concerned with their own self-interest, and the Arab riots had changed the British calculus towards maintaining the peace in the false hope that acceding to Arab demands to limit Jewish immigration would put a lid on their anger. A pro-Zionist government would not have caved that easily.

Worse yet, Khalidi completely dismisses Arab anti-semitism - which is most properly embodied by the Mufti - and claims throughout the book that the Arabs were only anti-Zionist. The fact that the 1929 pogroms were primarily against the old yishuv - Jews whose families were in Palestine before modern Zionism - is ignored as Khalidi spends much of his book claiming that Palestinian Arab nationalism was only fighting against Zionism, not Jews.

In the coming days, I will explore some more of the specifically dishonest claims made by Khalidi, as well as the problems with his larger theses.