Khalidi, Walid (1925–)

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Khalidi, Walid

Walid Ahmad Samih Khalidi is one of the most prominent and influential Palestinian intellectuals of the modern era.


Khalidi was born in 1925 in Jerusalem, then in mandatory Palestine. He was born into one of the leading Muslim Arab families of Jerusalem; the Khalidi family traces its presence in Jerusalem to Khalid ibn al-Walid, one of the main generals of the Arab-Islamic conquests of the seventh century. The family has distinguished itself for centuries by its religious scholarship, and in the twentieth century produced a series of politicians as well. Khalidi's father, Ahmad Samih Khalidi (1896–1951), was an educator, writer, and social reformer who headed the Arab College, Palestine's premier secondary school and teaching training academy, from 1925 to 1948. Beginning in 1941, he also served as assistant director of education for the British administration in Palestine. Walid Khalidi's grandfather, Raghib Walidi, was a judge, and his Lebanese stepmother, Anbara Salam (1897–1986), hailed from a prominent Beirut family and was a noted writer, translator, and feminist.

Khalidi studied at St. George's School and the Arab College in Jerusalem, after which he traveled to Great Britain for his university education. He received his B.A. in philosophy from the University of London in 1945. He returned to Jerusalem after university to work at the Arab League's information office in Jerusalem, as the office sought to present the Palestinian case to the world while the British, the Zionist movement, and eventually the United Nations discussed the future of Palestine during the waning years of the British mandate. Khalidi moved to Beirut in the late 1940s, after he married, and was there when Israel defeated Palestinian and other Arab forces in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Unable to return to Jerusalem because Israel barred the reentry of Palestinian refugees and other exiles, Khalidi went back to Britain for graduate studies, obtaining a master's degree in Islamic studies from Oxford University in 1951. He began teaching as a member of Oxford's faculty in Oriental Studies the same year.

After the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt in October 1956, Khalidi left Oxford in protest of Britain's involvement and began teaching at the political studies and public administration department of the American University of Beirut (AUB). He remained at AUB until 1982, barring intermissions when he taught as a visiting professor at Harvard and Princeton Universities. In 1982, Khalidi took a position as a senior research associate at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, where he remained until retirement. Based at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Khalidi travels routinely throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the United States and still is active in research and writing.


Khalidi drew much from his family background. The Khalidis were a well-known and respected family in Jerusalem. They possessed a rich heritage of Islamic scholarship and established the Khalidi Library in Jerusalem's Old City in 1900. It houses more than twelve hundred manuscripts, including one from the thirteenth century that was presented to the famous Islamic general Salah al-Din (Saladin), who recaptured the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187 after over eighty years of crusader rule. The Khalidis also produced a number of politicians, diplomats, and administrators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including several mayors of Jerusalem under the Ottomans and British. Khalidi took much from his family's tradition of public service and scholarship. As a youth he also received the best education available in Palestine, studying at the prestigious St. George's School, a British-style school associated with the Anglican cathedral of St. George, as well as at the Arab College, Palestine's best secondary school, where his father was headmaster. Khalidi was also influenced by his stepmother, an erudite and educated woman who hailed from one of the leading families of Beirut. He grew up in an environment of education, intellectual pursuits, and political awareness.


Name: Walid Ahmad Samih Khalidi

Birth: 1925, Jerusalem, mandatory Palestine

Family: Wife, Rasha Salam (deceased); son, Ahmad Samih; daughter, Karma

Nationality: Palestinian

Education: B.A. (philosophy), University of London, 1945; M.Lit. (Islamic studies), Oxford University, 1951


  • 1951: Begins teaching at Oxford University
  • 1956: Resigns from Oxford; moves to Beirut and begins teaching at the American University of Beirut
  • 1959: Publishes "Why Did the Palestinians Leave?"
  • 1963: Cofounds the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut
  • 1972: Publishes From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948
  • 1982: Retires from American University in Beirut; begins as senior research associate at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies
  • 1991: Participates in Madrid peace conference as a member of the joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation
  • 1992: Publishes All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Destroyed by Israel in 1948
  • 2002: Awarded Prize of Distinction in Cultural Achievement in the Arab World by the Arab League's Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization

Khalidi also was influenced by the wider circumstances that befell the Palestinian people. He witnessed growing conflict between Zionists and Palestinian Arab nationalists over the future of Palestine and worked at the Arab League's information office in Jerusalem, which served as a type of unofficial Palestinian information ministry in the late 1940s. The office was headed by Musa al-Alami, a prominent Palestinian politician from Jerusalem with considerable diplomatic experience abroad in service to the Palestinian cause. Young Khalidi was thus able to witness firsthand not only the escalating clashes—both literal and figurative—between Zionism and the Palestinians, but also the international diplomacy surrounding the question. From Beirut he also observed the disastrous defeat of the Palestinians and other Arab forces during the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the destruction of Palestinian society and the flight of over 750,000 Palestinian refugees from their homes, the division of the city of Jerusalem, and the creation of Israel. Particularly given his family's position in pre-1948 Jerusalem, and Israel's refusal to allow exiles like himself to return to their homes and homeland, all of these calamities were bitter pills to swallow.


Syrian intellectual Constantine Zurayk (1909–2000; also Qustantin Zurayq) was born to a family of Christian Arabs in Damascus during the waning years of Ottoman rule in Syria. He received a B.A. from the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1928, an M.A. from the University of Chicago in 1929, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1930. He later taught at AUB from 1930 to 1945 and from 1958 to 1977 and served as AUB's vice president from 1947 to 1949 and from 1952 to 1954 and acting president from 1954 to 1957. He also served as rector of the Syrian University in Damascus from 1949 to 1952.

Zurayk's major work was Ma 'na al-Nakba (The meaning of the disaster), which was published in 1948. It offered the first major intellectual critique of Arab society in light of the Arab defeat in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the establishment of Israel. Zurayk went on to influence a generation of Arab intellectuals and political activists who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the intellectual milieu of Beirut. In 1963 he cofounded the Institute for Palestine Studies with Walid Khalidi and served as its chairman until 1984.

Palestinian intellectual Hisham Bashir Sharabi (1927–2005) was born into a wealthy Muslim Arab family in Jaffa, British-controlled Palestine, in 1927. He earned a B.A. in philosophy from the AUB in 1947 and both an M.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago (1949; 1953). Sharabi was studying in the United States when the 1948 Arab-Israeli War led to the creation of Israel and was unable to return to his homeland when Israel barred the reentry of Palestinian refugees and other Palestinians who were outside the new State of Israel. After a period in Lebanon and Jordan, Sharabi eventually returned to the United States and began teaching history at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 1953. He remained there until his retirement in 1998.

Over the years, Sharabi became one of the leading intellectuals in the Arab world. His 1975 work Muqaddimat li-Dirasat al-Mujtama al-Arabi (Introduction to the study of Arab society) was a very influential and piercing study of Arab society, as was his 1988 Neopatriarchy: Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society. Beginning in 1971, he also edited the Journal of Palestine Studies for many years. Sharabi was an institution builder as well, cofounding the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in 1975 and founding the Arab-American Cultural Foundation and Alif Gallery in Washington in 1979, the American Palestine Educational Foundation (now known as the Jerusalem Fund) in 1977, and the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine (now called the Palestine Center) in Washington in 1990.

Born in Beirut, Ahmad Samih Khalidi (1948–) is the son of Walid Khalidi and grandson of his namesake. Ahmad Samih Khalidi also studied at Oxford and the University of London, as his father did, and continued in the family tradition by becoming a scholar as well. He was an associate at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London and a senior member of St. Anthony's College at Oxford University. From 1991 to 1993, Khalidi was a member of the Palestinian delegation in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Washington and later served as a security adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) during the Israeli-PLO talks that led to the important Interim Agreement (also called the Oslo II Agreement) signed by the two sides in September 1995.

Khalidi's collegiate and graduate educational background was also a formative experience for him. He studied at some of Britain's best institutions and began teaching at Oxford as well. He thus was able to combine his passion for rigorous scholarship with his commitment to the Palestinian national drama and in the process rose to become arguably the most influential Palestinian intellectual of the second half of the twentieth century. In particular, Khalidi focused his keen mind on chronicling the events of 1948: Zionist/Israeli war aims and plans, how the battles unfolded, what caused the flight of the Palestinian refugees, the destruction of their villages after the war, and other such topics. Part of his purpose was to provide scholarly analysis, in English, of that crucial year in Palestinian history from a scholar with intimate personal knowledge of many of the key players and events. Another motivation was his desire to counteract various myths and misconceptions about the war. For example, he was one of the first scholars, Arab or otherwise, to begin systematically trying to deconstruct the oft-cited claim that the refugees fled from their homes because of radio broadcasts from Arab leaders. He wrote several early seminal articles about the war between 1957 and 1961, largely in the journal Middle East Forum. These included "Why Did the Palestinians Leave?" (1959) and "Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine" (1961).

In 1963 Khalidi took his desire to continue serious research into Palestinian history to another level when he cofounded the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS) in Beirut. A private, independent institute not affiliated with any Arab state, party, or organization, IPS is dedicated to scholarship about Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict. IPS eventually developed branches in Washington, Paris, London, and Jerusalem (where it is called the Institute for Jerusalem Studies) and publishes the scholarly journals Journal of Palestine Studies, Revue d'études palestiniennes, and Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyah. The branch in Beirut also maintains a 40,000-volume library.

As his scholarly career progressed, Khalidi expanded on his early research interests. In 1971, he edited an important early work on the background to Palestinian displacement in 1948 titled From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948. In 1984, IPS published Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, a huge book of photographs of pre-1948 Palestinian life, also edited by Khalidi. He later oversaw a massive project to research, map, and photograph every Palestinian village that was destroyed by Israel during or after 1948, which was published by IPS in 1992 as All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Destroyed by Israel in 1948 (an Arabic version came out in 1997 as Kay lā nansá: qurá Filastīn allatī dammarathā Isrā'īl sanat 1948 wa-asmā Shuhadā'ihā). He also published Khamsūn āman alá harb 1948 (Fifty years since the 1948 War, 1998) and Dayr Yāsīn (Dayr Yasin, 1999). He has written countless articles in the Arabic and English press as well. Khalidi's influence on Palestinian and other Arab intellectuals and political activists, both as a professor and a scholar, must also be recognized. Some of his students from AUB went on to academic and political careers.

Impressed by the pan-Arab nationalism and growing regional strength of Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and early 1960s, Khalidi argued for a pan-Arab solution to the Palestinian problem and was close to Palestinian activists within the Arab Nationalists Movement (ANM), such as george habash. After the Arab defeat in the 1967 War, he began to argue more for Palestinians to push their own agenda, although he never lost sight of what he believed was the strategic necessity for Palestinians to work with the Arab states and skillfully read the wider international strategic balance. His appreciation for both a pan-Arab and Palestinian-specific approach to the Palestinian national drama later enabled him to maintain amicable relations with partisans of both approaches, from the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (formed out of the ANM by Habash) to the more conservative Fatah movement of Yasir Arafat.

This unique position also afforded him opportunities to become involved in Arab and Palestinian politics himself. He was a confidant of his brother-in-law, pro-Nasser Lebanese politician and eventual prime minister Sa'ib Salam, throughout the late 1950s—including the period when Salam was aligned against Lebanese president Camille Chamoun during the 1958 Lebanese Civil War. Khalidi also used his good relations with other Arab and Palestinian leaders to undertake mediation efforts in various conflicts, including the Jordanian-Palestinian clashes of 1970 and several intra-Palestinian disputes. Years later, in 1991, Khalidi was a member of the joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation to the October peace conference convened in Madrid by the United States and the Soviet Union and the first two rounds of subsequent talks with Israel held in Washington.


Khalidi has long been widely respected in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East for his keen mind and scholarly pursuits. He has been described as the "doyen of Palestinian intellectuals," and one observer called him one of the two greatest Palestinian scholars of the second half of the twentieth century (the other being Edward Said). Khalidi's academic achievements have not only impacted the study of Palestinian and Arab-Israeli history, they have also played a role in making that history. His July 1978 article in the prestigious American journal Foreign Affairs titled "Thinking the Unthinkable: A Sovereign Palestinian State" was one of the first serious public discussions of the idea of forming a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. His thinking proved influential in the United States, and by the 1980s, virtually all parties to the conflict and around the world came to see the two-state solution (an independent Palestine next to Israel) as the only realistic hope for a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Khalidi's expression of the idea drew the ire of Palestinian hardliners still committed to struggling against Israel, and he has had his share of other detractors as well, particularly certain scholars, in Israel and elsewhere, who have taken issue with his description of 1948 Zionist war plans as a blueprint for the mass, deliberate expulsion of the Palestinian refugees.

In recognition of his many decades of achievements, the Arab League awarded Khalidi its Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization's Prize of Distinction in Cultural Achievement in the Arab World in 2002.


Khalidi will be remembered as the scholar who more than virtually anyone else helped created a tradition and corpus of professional Palestinian scholarship, both as an individual and through the institutions he helped found such as the IPS.



"Thinking the Unthinkable: A Sovereign Palestinian State." Foreign Affairs 56, no. 4 (July 1978). Available from

Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984.

Editor. From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1987.

All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Destroyed by Israel in 1948. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.

"Why Did the Palestinians Leave Revisited." Journal of Palestine Studies 34, no. 2 (Winter 2005): 42-54.

                                       Michael R. Fischbach