Rashid Khalidi is unapologetic. The longtime Columbia University professor last month said repeatedly that supporters of Israel would “infest” the Trump administration — language that evokes the imagery and metaphors of the Nazis. But for all the on-campus sensitivity seminars and trigger warnings that dominate our age, don’t expect an apology in this case. Apparently, no language, even if it is dehumanizing and deeply rooted in historic anti-Semitism, is out of line in condemning Israel.
Professor Khalidi is well known as Columbia University’s professor of modern Arab studies. January 17, in a lengthy radio interview on WBEZ Chicago’s “Worldview,” Khalidi warned that this infestation would begin under the new president. Describing Israel supporters in terms that evoke vermin was not a momentary lapse or slip of the tongue. He used “infest” three times, saying “these people infest” the Trump transition team and will soon “infest” the government.
Who are “these people?” In his view, they’re a bit crazy but also scheming. Khalidi explains:
There are a group of people, a lot of them in Israel and some of them in the United States, who live in a world of their own. That is to say, they think that whatever they want, and whatever cockamamie schemes they can cook up, can be substituted for reality.
Free speech is a blessed thing, and hypersensitivity to offensive language is a curse on college campuses. I have no desire to stifle discussion, but it’s fair to ask: What’s become of “reasonable people can differ”? What’s become of civil discourse? What’s become of the golden rule? One has to suppose that Khalidi would take offense if someone analogized Palestinians, rather than Jews, to rats or cockroaches.
His remarks may not be the ugliest comment along these lines that ever emerged from the Middle East–studies faculty at Columbia. Professor Hamid Dabashi once described the soul of an Israeli Jew as containing a “vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture.” But the “infestation” theme is nasty enough to warrant special notice.
What makes it especially nasty is its historical resonance. To be sure, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism and not all anti-Semitism is Nazism. But there’s no getting around the fact that in his memoir, Mein Kampf, Hitler over and over again described the Jews as an infestation of vermin. That was one of the book’s main metaphors. And that’s why Nazi officials made a point of saying their Jewish policy aimed not to “kill” but to “exterminate” (vernichten), a word more appropriate for bugs or lice than human beings.
There’s no getting around the fact that in his memoir, Mein Kampf, Hitler over and over again described the Jews as an infestation of vermin.
While characterizing his opponents as nonhuman, Khalidi complains that “these people . . . have a vision whereby there’s no such thing as the Palestinians.” But that’s not an essential trait of Israel’s supporters, many of whom not only recognize the existence of the Palestinians but also sympathize with their suffering. Many believe, contrary to Professor Khalidi’s views, that it’s corrupt and undemocratic Palestinian officials who are mainly responsible for Palestinians’ suffering. But it’s flatly wrong to say that Khalidi’s opponents think “there’s no such thing as the Palestinians.”
Further describing Israel supporters, Khalidi says, “They have a vision whereby international law doesn’t exist.” That’s not true, either. Over many decades, Zionists have published voluminous works on international law, explaining how it supports Israel’s existence and policies. Khalidi can challenge their views, but he shouldn’t grossly mischaracterize them.
I know Rashid Khalidi personally. I was a student in his Modern Middle East course last semester and had several private discussions with him. So after his radio interview, I wrote to him and suggested he publicly clarify that he didn’t mean to characterize his political opponents so harshly. He replied by pointing me to the statement he gave to the Forward.
In that statement, he acknowledged “infelicitous phrasing,” but that’s even less of an apology than the classic non-apology “I’m sorry if anyone took offense.” In an e-mail to me, he then renewed his attack on “these people” as having “a racialist disregard for Palestinians” and using “anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian and anti–international law rhetoric.” In other words, Khalidi doubled down on his insult when he should have simply said “Sorry.” Rather than grant that both sides of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict have points worth hearing, Khalidi painted Israel’s supporters as crazy extremists who lack rational arguments and who don’t deserve serious consideration.
Many good people are puzzled about how the Arab-Israeli conflict can fester and rage for more than a hundred years. A key reason is that Israel’s enemies are so passionate in their hatred that they pass it down through the generations.
Rashid Khalidi’s uncivil words demonstrate the problem. They damage the very people he favors. After all, the Palestinian people would benefit from mutual accommodation and peace with Israel. And his words also harm the interests of Columbia students who hope to have mutually respectful exchanges of ideas about controversial subjects.