The son of exile

By: Karen Gitz

Rashid Khalidi was born in Manhattan in 1948, the year marked in Palestinian history as the Nakba, or Catastrophe. In his office at Columbia University, maps of the Middle East and the Partition Plan for Palestine recall the events that led his family―historically prominent and powerful in Jerusalem ― into exile. He has as many books as memories and a couple of old pictures that tell the story of his ancestors in the streets of Jerusalem since the time of the Ottoman Empire. A professor of Modern Arab Studies, he breathes and speaks as an academic. In this interview, he recalls his family’s history and analyzes the interaction of the great monotheistic religions with Latin American powers in the struggle for Jerusalem.

Q: Latin America has proven to be a major player in the outcome of historical events related to Jerusalem. How can you explain this phenomenon?

A: One reason would be the fact that they are Catholic countries and the Vatican has always had a position on the holy places, including Nazareth and Bethlehem, and Jerusalem in particular. The other reason, in a more recent period, is the growing influence in some of these countries of Palestinian communities.

Q: Chile, for instance, has one of the largest Palestinian communities outside the Arab world.

A: The community in the United States might be bigger, but it probably is outside of the immediate countries around Palestine and Jordan. My son is married to a Chilean and there is a huge, well established and very wealthy Palestinian community. The overwhelming majority of the emigration come from three mainly Christian towns: Bethlehem, Beit Shahour, and especially Beit Jamal.

Q: These communities send funds to Palestine?

A: These people are Chileans today, they had become integrated, but they feel very strongly as Palestinians. They have been very generous funding their hometowns and constantly send remittances to their families. They also built there, so many of them have second homes – but they are never there.

Q: What other factors could have changed the position of Latin American countries with respect to Jerusalem in recent years?

A: These countries sometimes align themselves with or against Washington and take position on Israel based on that. For instance, when you have a government like [that of President Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil, who is a conservative or right-winger, he is going to align himself with Trump. He is also an evangelical and the evangelical churches – which are extensions of American evangelicals – [are] in many cases are very pro-Israel… Everybody knows that if you want to get on the good side of Washington, you would be
nice to Israel… and many Arab countries, too, trim their position on the Palestinians in order to win favor with Washington.

Q: The Arab countries have used the Palestinian cause according to their
convenience? To their advantage?

A: Of course. The Arab governments are more on the side of Britain and the United States, and the Palestinians have complained about this since the 1930s. We are not talking about democracies: most of these countries are dictatorships or have some kind of autocratic monarchy. Public opinion does not have a word and so Sadat sells the Palestinians down the river in 1977, willingly and ignoring his public. In 1948 things were quite different and public opinion had a way: the governments had to go to war because
they were weak and because public opinion demanded they do something to save the Palestinians, who were being slowly driven out of the country before May 15th. Because half the refugees are forced to leave their homes before Israel is even established.

Q: That was the case of your family?

A: My grandfather did not leave. He lived near Jaffa and stayed there until September1. Jaffa fell in late April, early May, and the population was driven out. Most of them left by sea, [but he stayed] and one of my uncles went for him. He was an old man, he was born in 1861, and they did not want him to stay by himself. They were afraid.

Q: Where did they go?

A: Most of the family stayed in Palestine. My grandfather died in Nablus. One of my uncles went to Egypt because the Jordanian authorities were after him. One of my uncles got a job in Lebanon and then another followed him when he lost his home in Jerusalem.

Q: What happened to those homes that were left in Jerusalem?

A: My uncle Hussayn had a home in West Jerusalem and lost everything. Some others lived in the Old City and those properties were not lost. But later in 1967 we lost a lot of waqf property that was confiscated.

Q: What valuable item they were able to save?

A: My uncle Ahmed took with him some manuscripts. He had sent them before to the Rockefeller Museum to be copied because he did not want anything to happen to them, but the museum, instead of returning them to the family library – established by my grandfather in 1899 – returned them to his home. So when he left, he took them with him in a hurry.

Q: At home, how where these events remembered?

A: Several of us are academics who write about these things and are very knowledgeable about them. Also, one of my uncles was the last Arab elected mayor of Jerusalem until the British sent him off into exile in ’37; other of them headed the Arab college and was the most senior Arab educator in Palestine. So they were people who were involved in society and politics and we knew about these things. I have noticed that everybody talks about them all the time.

Q: Tell me more about your uncle Hussayn, the last Arab elected mayor of
Jerusalem. How do you remember him?

A: I only met him a few times when I was a kid. He was a very severe man. He changed a lot because of the exile: they sent him to the Seychelles and lost his fat, chubby and healthy look. He was never the same after the exile, he was gone.

Q: And how was your father?

A: My father was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters. The older four were drafted into the Ottoman army and were serving as officers when my father was born (laughs). He came here at the beginning of 1948 as a graduate student; he and my mother were planning to go back to Palestine after he finished his PhD, but they could not so he ended working for the U.N.

Q: About his career at the UN, did he ever mention something on the issue of Jerusalem?

A: The last 20 years of his career he worked in what was then called the Political and Security Council Affairs, now the DPA―Department of Political Affairs, and his brief was Arab-Israeli stuff. Not with the General Assembly. And my guess is that there was where the issue of the church and Latin American countries would have had the most involvement. It would be interesting to see how they voted, especially in the 40s and 50s when decolonization had not yet created all these new independent states. Outside of European countries and a few Asian and African countries, Latin America made up a very large block of independent countries.

Q: How effective would have been the implementation of the corpus separatum of Jerusalem proposed by the Partition Plan?

A: If the United Nations had implemented the plan, it would have been better than the outcome that we had. But the United Nations did not provide any implementation mechanism: The plan called for economic union, for free movement of people and goods, and called for the corpus separatum. From the moment that the plan was passed, a civil war began: the Yishuv was much better organized, much stronger and much, much more, economically and military powerful.

Q: While your family ruled in Jerusalem, did they have good relations with the church?

A: My uncle Hussayn did. He used to go to church functions, you know, but I cannot tell you the details… I have not read that part of his memoir.

Q: Do you think that the relationship was affected by the fact that some Orthodox churches were selling land to the Zionists?

A: The hierarchy of the Orthodox Church in Palestine and Jordan has always been ethnically Greek, whereas the laity is Arab. And there is a conflict. My father and my mother-in-law’s father were newspaper editors in Palestine: they were big advocates of the Arabization of the church and opponents of the Greek since the Greek clergy has been selling the property against the common will. This is a 120-year- old issue but has been mainly [one involving] the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church has been a very staunchly supportive of the Palestinians as a general rule.

Q: Your mother was a Lebanese Christian. Was her opinion about Jerusalem and the Palestinian conflict different from your father’s?

A: Her point of view did not have much difference in terms of the outcomes.… Why are you asking me these questions? She came here when she was very young and spoke Arabic without an American accent. She was very patriotic, she considered herself an Arab nationalist.

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