Walid Khalidi’s edited works, Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876-1948 (1984) and All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (1992), are stark reminders of the tragedy of Palestine. Rashid Khalidi, historian cousin and biographer of Walid, suggested that Khalidi has helped restore some of the Palestine lost since the nakba of 1948 and before, and that his “life’s work has been defined by the need to fill the voids in Palestinian national life.”
During all his professional life Walid Khalidi has devoted himself to the preservation of the collective memory of the Palestinian people through his research and study of the genesis and evolution of the Palestine problem and the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1870s. In countless lectures, articles, and books he has focused on Zionist, Israeli, and great power policies in the Middle East and on the prospects for a peaceful and honorable settlement of the Arab-Israel-conflict.
Born in Jerusalem in 1925 into a venerable and cultured family of “jurists, scholars, political figures, and educators since before the Crusades,” Khalidi worked in Jerusalem with other young Palestinians in 1945-46 in the Arab League-created Arab Office when it was attempting to put the case of Palestine before the world. The Arab League was called the “unofficial foreign and information office” of the Palestinians. Working in that office did much to point Khalidi in the direction of his life’s work.
Khalidi graduated with a BA from the University of London in 1945 and an MLitt from Oxford in 1951. In that same year he began lecturing in Islamic studies at Oxford while continuing his research and writing on Islamic philosophy. Showing the staunch integrity which marked his entire life, he resigned his Oxford position in 1956 in protest against the British role in the invasion of Egypt.
In 1957 he joined the American University of Beirut’s Department of Political Studies and Public Administration, where he taught political studies until 1982. During those years he was frequently abroad—as a research fellow at Princeton University (1960-61) and two years (1976-78) on leave from AUB as a fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs. Subsequently (1979 to 1981), he spent each fall semester at Harvard as visiting professor of government. When he left AUB in 1982 he settled permanently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was senior research fellow at Harvard’s Center for Middle East Studies until his retirement in 1997.
Rashid Khalidi suggested that Khalidi’s family connections, “useful to him in later life,” also help “explain his conservative, indeed almost patrician sense of duty and public responsibility.” Despite his scholarly drive, Khalidi was also an activist. During his years at AUB he delved into local politics, working with his brother-in-law Sa’ab Salam, advising him during the 1958 civil war and his opposition to Camille Chamoun. Conflict and Violence in Lebanon: Confrontation in the Middle East, published in 1979 deals with Lebanese political problems.
Although never officially a member, Khalidi associated with the inner circle of the Movement of Arab Nationalists and was a friend and confidant of such leaders as George Habash, Hani al-Hindi, and Wadi Haddad. Moving toward diplomacy, after the 1967 debacle he was adviser to the Iraqi delegation to the United Nations; in 1983 he was a member of the Arab Summit delegation to the British government, and throughout the mid ’80s he was special adviser to the secretary general of the Arab League.
Knowing many of the key players, he was able to “mediate conflicts, propose solutions, and influence outcomes . . . in the Jordanian-Palestinian tensions, the Lebanese civil war, internal Palestinian quarrels, and Palestinian-Egyptian and Palestinian-Syrian disputes.” A mediator behind the scenes, he was a member of the joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and to the first two rounds of the following bilateral negotiations in Washington, DC.
While a member of the faculties of Oxford and AUB Walid Khalidi taught scores of young people, many of whom later became leaders in university education, politics, diplomacy, and the professional ranks across the Arab world. When in the United States, Khalidi was a frequent lecturer on university campuses, on television, and at think-tank conferences. He also talked with visiting Israeli academics and public figures while exploring the possibilities of Middle East peace with American Jewish scholars as well.
Walid Khalidi was a destroyer of myths. “Plan Dalet: The Zionist Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine” (1961), Jerusalem: Facts and Fiction (1968), From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948 (ed. 1971), and “Thinking the Unthinkable” (1978) did much to change western views of the Palestinian problem. Khalidi sought to destroy the entrenched Western belief that Palestinians had left their homes voluntarily after 1948, rather than been driven out according to a carefully calculated Israeli military plan. Many years later the “new historians” of Israel largely accepted his analysis of the forced expulsion.
Khalidi has continued his reconstruction of Palestinian history since his 1997 retirement in numerous lectures, books, and articles such as “‘Why Did the Palestinians Leave’ Revisited” (2005), “Illegal Jewish Immigration to Palestine under the British Mandate” (2006) and “The Fall of Haifa’ Revisited” (2008). Books in Arabic include three edited works on Palestine by Arab leaders, treatises by Arab intellectuals on the 1948 war and its consequences, and a collection of his own articles and lectures from 1957 to 2009. Currently working on a new edition of a six-volume history of the 1948 war, an autobiography of Muhammad Izzat Darwaza (“arguably the most important Palestinian activist/scholar during the British mandate”), and other projects, he continues his ceaseless presentation of the Palestinian cause. Khalidi’s Cambridge home is still often thronged with students, scholars, media people, and others interested in Middle East issues.
Walid Khalidi was also an active builder of institutions. In 1963 he founded with others the first private, independent, non-profit research institution in the Arab world, the Institute for Palestine Studies (of which he remains honorary general secretary); he also helped found the Royal Scientific Society in Amman (1966) and the Center for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut in 1975. A founding member of both the Palestinian Welfare Association in 1982 and the Center for Christian and Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University in 1993, he continued with the center as vice-chair of the academic advisory committee until 2006. He also remains chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Friends of the Khalidi Library in Jerusalem, housing the largest Palestinian collection of Islamic manuscripts.
Numerous awards and prizes have marked Walid Khalidi’s long career. In 1994 he was named fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan awarded him the Order of Al Istiqlal (First Class). The Palestinian National Authority awarded him the Jerusalem Prize for 1998. At their 15th anniversary celebration in 2002 Khalidi received the Palestinian Heritage Foundation’s award in “appreciation for his unwavering commitment to the Palestinian cause, the Arab-American community, and the Arab nation.”
Last year a collection of essays, Transformed Landscapes; Essays on Palestine and the Middle East in Honor of Walid Khalidi appeared; he was presented with the Birzeit University Shield for contributions to the contemporary history of Palestine and his role in the establishment of the Institute for Palestine Studies, and he received the Arab Cultural Club of Beirut Annual 2009 Award.