Professor Rashid Khalidi and the Method of Indiscriminate Quotation

Professor Rashid Khalidi
photo by Bryn Mawr Now

Professor Rashid Khalidi is a Middle Eastern expert at Columbia University. At various times of his life he has also been active in various Palestinian causes. His scholarly writings, not always uncontroversial, have earned him an international reputation. Whatever his political commitments, he has always maintained cordial relations with people of other persuasions. His friendly relations with Barack Obama, when both lived in Chicago, have become a matter of public notice. He has an enviable reputation for civility in personal and professional relations; in a recent interview, Professor Khalidi remarked that he has about a thousand Jewish friends.

On January 7, however, he published an op-ed piece in the New York Times that has caused consternation to at least some of his well-wishers. Not only does Khalidi here do what scholarly practice forbids — use indiscriminate quotation as a method of proof — but he also, as we shall see, claims a quotation is genuine when, in fact, it most likely is a forgery.

Khalidi’s piece is entitled “What You Don’t Know About Gaza,” and suggests that Hamas had no part in causing any difficulty in the Gaza situation. Israel’s Gaza operation, according to Khalidi, has no justification at all that he can detect:

This war on the people of Gaza isn’t really about rockets. Nor is it about “restoring Israel’s deterrence,” as the Israeli press might have you believe. Far more revealing are the words of Moshe Yaalon, then the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, in 2002: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”

So the war, according to Khalidi, “isn’t really about rockets” but rather, exclusively, about the malice and the evil intentions of Israelis. This strong assertion, it would seem, needs strong evidence.

But what does he offer ? Nothing but a single quotation which, he says, stems from an Israeli general, some seven years ago. He does not tell us how he obtained the text of this alleged statement, nor does he give any information about the circumstances under which it is said to have been made. Nor did he seem to have searched for statements by other influential Israelis that may be relevant. ( Nor does he address himself to the question of a possible relevance of statements by Hamas leaders, who routinely threaten all Jews with death; but that is another matter.) In other words, he did not do what a scholar must do under the circumstances, viz. determine, assuming the statement is genuine, whether it represents Israeli policy today, as he claims it does. I am afraid that Professor Khalidi, to the dismay of those in academia who wish him well, has here abandoned the method of the scholar to embrace the method of the propagandist: the notorious Method of Indiscriminate Quotation (MIQ).

MIQ is bad, and routinely earns graduate students failing marks. The reason that MIQ is so disreputable is that literally anthing can be proven with it: the world is flat, the moon is made of green cheese. But quite often, when lucky, practitioners of MIQ can get away with it in the non-scholarly public because, on its face, the method looks so persuasive. Often its practitioners are even praised by their friends as great researchers, “scrupulously,” as it is sometimes said, “documenting” all kinds of outrageous assertions. Unfortunately, people often do not ask whether quotations are presented with adequate context.

But in this case, Professor Khalidi is not so lucky. It turns out that the quotation on which he has so carelessly relied is most likely wholly specious. We now know, thanks to the excellent detective work of Jason Maoz, that Generally Yaalon apparently never said what Khalidi claims he said. (Please read the whole article by Maoz; just click on his name above.)

Remember, this is what Khalidi claims Yaalon said:

The Palstinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.

Here, according to Maoz, is what Yaalon actually said

I defined it from the beginning of the confrontation: the very deep internalization by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us, will not make us fold. If that deep internalization does not exist at the end of the confrontation, we will have a strategic problem with an existential threat to Israel. If that [lesson] is not burned into the Palestinian and Arab consciousness, there will be no end to their demands of us….

What Yaalon wants Palestinians to understand, deeply, is that Palestinian violence will not defeat Israel. Professor Khalidi turns that into something completely different, viz. a desire by Yaalon to have Palestinians see themselves as defeated. As Maoz shows, other anti-Israel propagandists, before Khalidi, have twisted Yaalon’s words in the same way, and it appears that the distortion is being handed around from one to the other. Perhaps Khalidi sincerely believed in the accuracy of what he was quoting, but that certainly does not explain away his irresponsibility of passing on this deception without checking the sources.

Professors are human, professors sometimes enter the political fray, and yes, professors sometimes discard all scholarly probity when they allow themselves to be propagandists. These are facts, but not facts that can make us happy. I do worry about that campus up on Morningside Heights and other such places (which, by the way, use up a great deal of public money in the form of grants and tax privileges); I worry about what is happening to the ethos of scholarly responsibility.

2 thoughts on “Professor Rashid Khalidi and the Method of Indiscriminate Quotation”

  1. You ask “This strong assertion, it would seem, needs strong evidence… But what does he offer ?”

    What Khalidi knows too well (as do the rest of us Palestinians), but what Israeli and American media has failed to report, is the devastating carnage in Gaza where horrific images of hundreds of dead and mutilated civilians (especially children) have been beamed daily to our TV screens.

    To anyone who does not regard us Palestinians as subhuman (and we unfortunately have been successfully dehumanized in the West), such carnage is unacceptable, beyond moral comprehension, and yes, is all the proof Khalidi needs.

  2. Nobody doubts, certainly not I, that the Palestinians are suffering, although you and I probably disagree on who is responsible.

    But be that as it may, none of this entitles Professor Khalidi to play fast and loose with quotations. Once you fabricate things, who will believe you on anything ? And how can you hope to have an honest dialogue about peace ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *