Although Obama has long withheld his college transcripts from the public, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2008 that Obama took a course from Edward Said sometime during his final two undergraduate years at Columbia University. This was just around the time Obama’s ties to organized socialism were deepening, and certainly suggests a sincere interest in Said’s radical views. As Martin Kramer points out, in his superb 2008 review of Obama’s Palestinian ties, Said had just then published his book The Question of Palestine, definitively setting the terms of the academic Left’s stance on the issue for decades to come.
After Obama finished his initial community-organizing stint in Chicago and graduated from Harvard Law School, he settled down to a teaching job at the University of Chicago around 1992, and went about laying the foundations of a political career. Sometime not long after his arrival at the University of Chicago, Obama connected with Rashid Khalidi.
To say the least, Rashid Khalidi is a controversial fellow. To begin with, although Khalidi denies it, Martin Kramer has unearthed powerful evidence
suggesting that Khalidi was at one time an official spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization. Also, in the years immediately prior to his friendship with Obama, Khalidi was a leading opponent of the first Gulf War, which successfully reversed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. According to Kramer, Khalidi condemned that action as an American “colonial war,” insisting that before we could end Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait, we would first have to end Israel’s supposedly equivalent occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. As Kramer puts it, Khalidi’s influence helped turn the University of Chicago of the Nineties into “the hot place to be for . . . trendy postcolonialist, blame-America, trash-Israel” scholarship.
While we don’t know exactly when their friendship began, Khalidi was reportedly present at the famous 1995 kickoff reception for Obama’s first political campaign, held at the home of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. That is no minor point. We’ll see that as Khalidi’s close friend and political ally, Ayers played an integral role in the story of Obama’s relationship with Khalidi.
In May 1998, Edward Said traveled from Columbia to Chicago to present the keynote address at a dinner organized by the Arab American Action Network, a group founded by Rashid and Mona Khalidi. We’ve known for some time that Barack and Michelle Obama sat next to Edward and Mariam Said at that event. (Pictures are available.) It has not been noticed, however, that a detailed report on Said’s address exists, along with an article by Said published just days before the event (Arab American News, May 22, June 12, 1998). Between those two reports, we can reconstruct at least an approximate picture of what Obama might have heard from his former professor that day.
For the most part, Said focused his article (and likely his talk as well) on harsh criticisms of Israel, which he equated with both South Africa’s apartheid state and Nazi Germany. Said’s criticisms of the Palestinian Authority also were harsh. Why, he wondered, weren’t the 50,000 security people employed by the Palestinian Authority heading up resistance to Israel’s settlement building? In his talk, Said called for large-scale marches and civilian blockades of Israeli settlement building. To prevent Palestinian workers from participating in any Israeli construction, Said also proposed the establishment of a fund that would pay these laborers not to work for Israel. Presciently, Said’s talk also called on Palestinians to orchestrate an international campaign to stigmatize Israel as an illegitimate apartheid state.
So broadly speaking, this is what Obama would have heard from his former teacher at that May 1998 encounter. Yet Obama was clearly comfortable enough with Said’s take on Israel to deepen his relationship with Khalidi and his Arab American Action Network (AAAN). We know this, because Ali Abunimah, longtime vice president of the AAAN, has told us so.
In many ways, Abunimah is the neglected key to reconstructing the story of Obama’s alliance with Khalidi and AAAN. While Abunimah’s accounts of Obama’s alliance with AAAN have long been public, they are not widely known. Nor have Abunimah’s writings been pieced together with Obama’s history of support for AAAN. Doing so creates a disturbing picture of Obama’s political convictions on the Palestinian question.
In late summer 1998, for example, a few months after Obama’s encounter with Edward Said, Abunimah and AAAN were caught up in a national controversy over the alleged blacklisting of respected terrorism expert Steve Emerson by National Public Radio. In August of that year, NPR had interviewed Emerson on air about Osama bin Laden’s terror network. According to columnist Jeff Jacoby, however, Abunimah managed to obtain a promise from NPR to ban Emerson from its airwaves, on the grounds that Emerson was an anti-Arab bigot. It took Jacoby’s research and public objections to lift the ban.