Obama’s Radical Palestinian Professor?

Rashid Khalidi has been called a friend to Barack Obama and an enemy of Israel.

Rashid Khalidi had been bracing for the storm for months, friends said.

Since an April news report detailing his relationship with Senator Barack Obama, Mr. Khalidi, a Middle East scholar and passionate defender of Palestinian rights, had waited to see himself caricatured by Republicans as part of a rogues’ gallery of Obama associates, which has come to include the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. and William C. Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground.

He was surprised, the friends said, that so little criticism came — until this last frenzied week before the election, when Senator John McCain cited the April article in The Los Angeles Times about a dinner Mr. Obama attended in Mr. Khalidi’s honor in 2003, and questioned Mr. Obama’s commitment to Israel.

In recent days, Republican partisans have accused Mr. Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University since 2003, of everything from anti-Semitism to baby-sitting for Mr. Obama’s children.

For Columbia, the firestorm is the latest episode in a string of messy, public controversies regarding Middle East politics. In 2004, pro-Palestinian professors were accused of intimidating Jewish students. Mr. Khalidi was not one of those teachers, but he was barred the next year from lecturing New York City public school teachers for having used the words “racist” and “apartheid” in discussions of Israel.

“It just seems really ironic to me that Rashid would be singled out as a figure in the trumped-up controversy,” Alan Brinkley, Columbia’s provost and a friend of Mr. Khalidi’s since 1985, said in a telephone interview Thursday. “In a field that is often politicized, he is respected by people on the right as well as the left.”

Ariel Beery, a former Columbia student leader who was involved in a pro-Israel group’s film about the 2004 controversy, said Mr. Khalidi was different from those accused of intimidation.

“In terms of his role as a professor, he was excellent,” Mr. Beery said Thursday in a telephone interview from Israel, where he lives. “He was provoking, he always allowed for different opinions, he had an open zone where people could voice their disagreement.”

Mr. Beery did criticize Mr. Khalidi’s leadership of the Middle East Institute at Columbia, saying it was “highly politicized” and “not promoting a diverse view of the Middle East.”

Mr. Khalidi, who is on sabbatical, declined to comment.

Mr. Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia, was born in Manhattan in 1948. His father, a Palestinian Muslim born in Jerusalem, worked for the United Nations, and his mother, a Lebanese-American Christian, was an interior decorator. He graduated from the United Nations International School and earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1970 and a doctorate from Oxford University in 1974.

He taught at universities in Lebanon until the mid-’80s, and some critics accuse him of having been a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Mr. Khalidi has denied working for the group, and says he was consulted as an expert by reporters seeking to understand it.

He was an adviser to the Palestinian delegation during Middle East peace talks from 1991 to 1993. From 1987 until 2003, he was a professor at the University of Chicago, where he became friends with Mr. Obama.

At Mr. Khalidi’s farewell party in 2003, according to the Los Angeles Times article, Mr. Obama fondly recalled their many conversations, saying they provided “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.” But Mr. Khalidi told Harper’s Magazine that a report in National Review Online that he had baby-sat for Mr. Obama’s children was nonsense.

Daniel Pipes, who directs the conservative Middle East Forum, said: “If one’s talking about American political life, he’s at the extremes, at the margins. If one’s talking about the field of Middle East studies, he’s in the middle of it. But the field itself is dominated by professors who do not permit other points of view.”

In 2005, after a New York Sun article highlighted some of Mr. Khalidi’s statements, the New York City schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, barred Mr. Khalidi from a teacher-training course. In an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Khalidi said then that he “may have used the word ‘racist’ about Israeli policies,” and acknowledged saying in a speech that if the movement of Palestinians continued to be restricted, “it would develop into worse than the apartheid system.”

Addressing an accusation that he had endorsed the killing of Israeli soldiers as legitimate “resistance” to occupation, he said: “Under international law, resistance to occupation is legitimate. I didn’t endorse killing Israeli soldiers. These people will take anything out of context. Anyone who knows me knows the last thing I am is extreme. I’ve called suicide bombings a war crime. I’m a ferocious critic of Arafat.”

Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a liberal synagogue on the Upper West Side, said he has known Mr. Khalidi for years and called the allegations “completely absurd and uncalled for and malicious.”

Referring to comments he had seen on blogs and television, he said, “In no way has he ever indicated that he favors the destruction or disappearance of Israel,” and added, “He has always been consistently in favor of dialogue and common ground.”

At Columbia, Mr. Khalidi is known as a gregarious scholar who takes a special interest in students, often meeting them for lunch near campus and hosting dinners featuring Palestinian food cooked by his wife, Mona, an assistant dean at the university. After he came under attack this week, students created a Facebook group called “I stand by Rashid Khalidi,” with 205 members by Thursday night.

“He makes history entertaining,” said Maher Awartani, 24, an Arab student leader who has taken his class. “It’s like a grandfather telling his grandson a story of what happened.”

Mr. Awartani criticized not just the McCain campaign but also the Obama campaign’s tepid response, saying, “It should have been like, yes, I know him, and I’d like to know more Middle East experts, because that’s an important thing when you’re making policies.”

Karen Zraick contributed reporting.

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