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The State Of Scholarship At Columbia – And Of Book Reviewing At The New York Times


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Professor Rashid Khalidi, who directs the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, is currently on a multi-city book tour for his new book The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Beacon Press) – aided by a favorable New York Times review from an unlikely book reviewer.

A window on Khalidi’s views was provided earlier this year, in an August 21 PBS interview, in which he described “Palestine” as a “country” that has “been under occupation by Israel ever since 1948.” Not since 1967 – since 1948.

Khalidi is critical of Yasir Arafat – not for Arafat’s refusal to accept a state on 97 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with a capital in Jerusalem (and thereby end the “Palestinian Struggle for Statehood”) – but for signing the Oslo Accords in the first place. And Khalidi’s discussion of Palestinian refugees in his new book is blatantly disingenuous, something that – as I will demonstrate below – can be proved within a few minutes by anyone with access to Google. But you would learn none of this from the New York Times book review.

The Times chose as its reviewer not a scholar familiar with the history that Khalidi describes in his book, but rather Steven Erlanger, a Timesreporter who sometimes reports from Gaza. The Times chose someone, in other words, whose access to future journalistic sources (and possible personal safety) might be jeopardized by a poor choice of words, not to mention a poor review.

Erlanger diplomatically described Khalidi’s book as “more of an analysis than an exercise in original research” (translation: not a work of scholarship – the “exercise” one expects from a professor). But Erlanger nevertheless gave the book a scholarly patina with this sentence:

Jews did not begin the fighting, but from March to October 1948, slightly more than half the Arab population – 750,000 people, Mr. Khalidi estimates (and his footnote on the topic is well worth reading) – fled, were forced to flee or were expelled from areas that became part of the new state of Israel. [Emphasis added.]

From Erlanger’s sentence, you would think the well-worth-reading footnote might shed light on how many Arabs (a) fled on their own, (b) were forced to flee by the Arab leadership, or (c) were expelled (as Jews were expelled from Arab countries in 1948). But it doesn’t, and in fact the footnote does not meet the minimal standards of academic integrity. Here is the footnote (page 225, footnote 3) in its entirety:

The exact number of Palestinian refugees in 1948 is difficult to ascertain, and has long been highly disputed. Contemporary UN estimates put the figure at over 750,000, while Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1, writes of “some 600,000-760,000″ refugees. The first figure given by Morris is low; the latter is probably closer to the truth. Morris’s book, which drew on the newly opened Israeli archives to dispel some of the most tenacious myths regarding the Palestinian refugees, has become the standard work on this topic. See also Morris’s 1948 and After, rev. ed. (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1994. Norman G. Finkelstein argues convincingly that Morris fails to draw the requisite conclusions from the damning evidence he assembles: see Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (London: Verso, 1995, 51-87. Among the first to publish results of research in the Israeli archives regarding the Palestinian refugees that reached conclusions similar to those of Morris were Segev, 1949, and Flapan, The Birth of Israel, published in 1986 and 1987, respectively.

Three things are apparent from the footnote: First, contrary to the implication in Erlanger’s sentence, the footnote does notestimate how many refugees fell into each of the three categories he identified. And if a significant portion of the Arabs either (a) fled on their own or (b) were forced or encouraged to flee by the Arab leadership, the 750,000 figure is highly misleading.

Second, the sources cited in the footnote are not current. Benny Morris’s book

The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem was published in 1987. The other cited sources were published in 1986, 1987, 1994 and 1995. The footnote has no reference to any scholarship on this issue in the last 11 years.

Third, anyone with access to Google can tell that there is a particularly important recent source – and one that Khalidi is undoubtedly aware of – curiously omitted from the footnote. In 2004, Benny Morris published The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, based on new documents released since his initial book 17 years before.

Khalidi cites Morris’s 1987 book in his footnote – and labels it the “standard work on this topic” – but fails to reference (much less analyze) Morris’s 2004 Revisited book. In fact, Khalidi does not reference Morris’s 2004 book anywhere in any footnote in his entire book – an omission even more curious given the fact that Morris wrote a prominent article about his revised findings in 2004.

When Revisited was published, Morris wrote an article about its findings, entitled ” For the Record,” in the January 14, 2004 issue of The Guardian. Here is a key excerpt from the article:

Birth Revisited describes many more atrocities and expulsions than were recorded in the original version of the book. But, at the same time, a far greater proportion of the 700,000 Arab refugees were ordered or advised by their fellow Arabs to abandon their homes than I had previously registered. It is clear from the new documentation that the Palestinian leadership in principle opposed the Arab flight from December 1947 to April 1948, while at the same time encouraging or ordering a great many villages to send away their women, children and old folk, to be out of harm’s way. Whole villages, especially in the Jewish-dominated coastal plain, were also ordered to evacuate. There is no doubt that, throughout, the departure of dependents lowered the morale of the remaining males and paved the way for their eventual departure as well….

* * *

[T]he problem wasn’t created by the Zionists but by the Arabs themselves, and stemmed directly from their violent assault on Israel. Had the Palestinians and the Arab states refrained from launching a war to destroy the emergent Jewish state, there would have been no refugees and none would exist today. [Emphasis added.]

So the well-worth-reading footnote cites a refugee number that is misleading, since it does not

estimate how many fled on their own, or were encouraged or ordered to flee by their leadership. Even Khalidi’s 750,000 overall figure is overstated, given Morris’s 2004 figure of 700,000. In Revisited, Morris concluded that, of the 700,000, the number of Arabs who fled not under Jewish orders or direct coercion were in the “hundreds of thousands.”

But when you look at the text in Khalidi’s book surrounding the footnoted portion that Erlanger touted, you find this bald assertion, made once again without reference to or discussion of either Morris’s 2004 book or his 2004 article:

Israel’s new historians, using Israeli, British, United Nations, and other archives opened since the early 1980s, have shown these claims [that "Arab leaders told the Palestinians to flee"] to be groundless. (Page 3.)

Khalidi allows only that in “a few areas” noncombatants were urged to flee, and that “some” fled before the fighting reached them. Even a book that is “more of an analysis than an exercise in original research” should cite the original research (particularly by the leading scholar, published two years ago) that contradicts the “analysis.”

From Benny Morris’s 2004 article it is evident how “more than half” of the Palestinian population could possibly have left during the 1948 war: when the Arabs “ordered or advised” women, children and old people (more than half the population) to leave from a “great many villages,” and moreover ordered “whole villages, especially in the Jewish-dominated coastal plain” to evacuate, and when many of the demoralized males eventually followed their family and left as well, the numbers can add up.

In Revisited, Morris also concluded that the majority of Arabs nevertheless remained in Palestine; so even Khalidi’s “more than half” statement is wrong.

In the end, the significant part of Erlanger’s sentence is not the reference to the faux-scholarly footnote (which turns out to be well worth reading, but not for the reasons Erlanger thinks), but rather the grudging admission at the beginning of Erlanger’s sentence: “The Jews did not begin the fighting, but . . .”

The fundamental responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem obviously lies not with the Jews, but with those who began the fighting – those who attempted to wipe out the Jews instead of living with the UN resolution granting the Jews a sliver of a state, and those who in many cases advised and ordered the “noncombatants” (more than half the population) to get out of the way so the war against the Jews could proceed.

But you won’t find that basic point in either Khalidi’s book or Erlanger’s review.

The truth is that the Palestinians have not Struggled for Statehood. They have struggled to destroy another state. If they had wanted a state, they could have had one many times over by now. But they rejected formal offers of a two-state solution in 1937 (Peel Commission), 1947 (UN Resolution 181), 1978 (Attachment to Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty), 2000(Camp David), and 2001 (Clinton Parameters). Moreover, from 1949-1967 they did not revolt against an “occupation” when the “occupiers” were Egypt and Jordan.

In 2003, the Palestinians famously endorsed the Quartet’s road map “without reservations” and then failed to meet even their Phase One obligation to commence dismantling their terrorist infrastructure. In 2005, after Israel nevertheless unilaterally ceded all of Gaza to them, so they could demonstrate their willingness to live side by side in peace and security, they commenced firing more than a thousand rockets into Israel. In 2006, they elected the terrorists to run their government.

This is not the record of a people struggling for a state, but rather a people that has continually rejected one, in pursuit of a different objective.

The very title of Khalidi’s book is thus disingenuous – as is its cover, which shows a picture of the small portion of the Israeli security barrier (necessitated by Palestinian suicide bombers) that is a wall rather than a fence. The cover tacitly encourages readers to think that the Palestinians’ “Struggle for Statehood” is barred by an “iron cage” constructed by Israel.

But the “cage” turns out to be the “complex and unique legal and constitutional framework through which Britain managed its occupation of Palestine,” which according to Khalidi “constituted a kind of iron cage.”

Even assuming a British “framework” in the years before 1948 could be analogized to an “iron cage,” that is not what the image on Khalidi’s tendentious book conveys.

Apparently this is what passes for scholarship at Columbia. As for the New York Times review of this book, the Times’s compromised reviewer did not even knowledgeably discuss the well-worth-reading footnote

Rick Richman edits “Jewish Current Issues” at http://jpundit.typepad.com

. His front-page essay “Visiting Israel At War” appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Jewish Press.

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