CHICAGO â It was a celebration of Palestinian culture—a night of music, dancing and a dash of politics. Local Arab Americans were bidding farewell to Rashid Khalidi, an internationally known scholar, critic of Israel and advocate for Palestinian rights, who was leaving town for a job in New York.
A special tribute came from Khalidi’s friend and frequent dinner companion, the young state Sen. Barack Obama. Speaking to the crowd, Obama reminisced about meals prepared by Khalidi’s wife, Mona, and conversations that had challenged his thinking.
His many talks with the Khalidis, Obama said, had been “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases. . . . It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation—a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid’s dinner table,” but around “this entire world.”
Today, five years later, Obama is a U.S. senator from Illinois who expresses a firmly pro-Israel view of Middle East politics, pleasing many of the Jewish leaders and advocates for Israel whom he is courting in his presidential campaign. The dinner conversations he had envisioned with his Palestinian American friend have ended. He and Khalidi have seen each other only fleetingly in recent years.
And yet the warm embrace Obama gave to Khalidi, and words like those at the professor’s going-away party, have left some Palestinian American leaders believing that Obama is more receptive to their viewpoint than he is willing to say.
Their belief is not drawn from Obama’s speeches or campaign literature, but from comments that some say Obama made in private and from his association with the Palestinian American community in his hometown of Chicago, including his presence at events where anger at Israeli and U.S. Middle East policy was freely expressed.
At Khalidi’s 2003 farewell party, for example, a young Palestinian American recited a poem accusing the Israeli government of terrorism in its treatment of Palestinians and sharply criticizing U.S. support of Israel. If Palestinians cannot secure their own land, she said, “then you will never see a day of peace.”
One speaker likened “Zionist settlers on the West Bank” to Osama bin Laden, saying both had been “blinded by ideology.”
Obama adopted a different tone in his comments and called for finding common ground. But his presence at such events, as he worked to build a political base in Chicago, has led some Palestinian leaders to believe that he might deal differently with the Middle East than either of his opponents for the White House.