Newt and the Palestinians
It was almost inevitable: Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has lobbed a grenade into the Republican nomination race, and the subject is Israel. In an interview with the Jewish Channel cable network, the former House Speaker said, "Remember, there was no Palestine as a state; it was part of the Ottoman Empire. I think we have an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and historically part of the Arab community; and they had the chance to go many places."
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad reacted predictably: "Our people have been here since the very beginning and are determined to stay on their land until the very end." Still, Gingrich, in trademark fashion, has plowed into a core problem of the Middle East conflict: Who are the Palestinians? The issue involves looking at both the origins of Palestinian nationalism and the nature of nationalism itself.
Modern nationalism, which spread through Europe in the 19th century, sees the nation as a community based on language, kinship, descent, and religion; in turn, a legitimate territorial state is based on the nation. In the study of nationalism, there is an intellectual divide between who believe that national identities and their ethnic and religious precursors can be genuinely ancient and "primordial" and those who think that all nationalisms arise from the transformations brought about in the past few centuries by mass literacy, industrialization, and imperialism.
Both perspectives are correct in different cases. Modern Israeli nationalism and identity, for instance, date only from 1948; Zionism, the nationalist and political movement among non-religious Jews, formally goes back to the First Zionist Congress of 1897. The Jewish sense of being a nation, as an integrated ethnic and religious whole aspiring to return to a territorial base, goes back another two millennia. A Jewish nation dates back another half-millennium, from the Babylonian exile. Its biblical roots go back further still.
But that is not the case for most "nations" on the planet. The Scots and Germans go back a mere few centuries, their cultures and histories deliberately manufactured and backdated. Historian Eric Hobsbawm called this process the "invention of tradition," a pattern of repetitive practices and references that attempts to "establish continuity with a suitable historic past."
A small minority of scholars dates the origins of Palestinian nationalism from the mid-19th century, but most would agree that it emerged in the years immediately before and especially after World War I, when small numbers of Middle Eastern intellectuals and other figures—no more than a few hundred—began to think of themselves as having discrete local identities. This sense reflected the crumbling Ottoman Empire, British and French encroachment, and the spread of European nationalist ideas.
In the Holy Land at this time, the vast majority still based their primary identities and allegiances on religion, tribe and clan, and geography; but to literate, educated Arab elites, Muslim and Christian, the influx of Jews was a mortal threat that provided the primary impetus to nationalist thinking. As Raghib al-Nashashibi, a candidate for election to the Ottoman Parliament, said in 1914, "If I am elected as a representative I shall devote all my strength, day and night, to doing away with the damage and the threat of Zionists and Zionism."
After the war, nationalist leaders indeed worked to create an identity based primarily on the negative—the Jews—and on positive connections with other Arabs, defined by language and culture. First came a call for unity between Palestine and Southern Syria. The First Congress of the Muslim-Christian Association, held in Jerusalem in 1918, resolved, "We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria as it has never been separated at any time. We are connected to it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographical bonds." Only later during the 1920's came the idea of Palestine as an even more local and specific people and culture, still founded on opposition to Zionism.
Thus, over the 20th century, the phenomenon of a separate Palestinian identity came into existence. Its positive aspects were vague. Its core and bedrock was the negative; "muqawama," or resistance—to the British, the Jews, Zionism, and other Arabs. The Palestinian educational and cultural program became committed to the proposition, as Fayyad put it, that Palestine and Palestinians have existed from the "very beginning." In Hobsbawm's terms, the notion of Palestinians as integrated with antiquity was a tradition invented to imagine the Palestinian nation into being, provide it with authenticity and legitimacy, and support its claim that there was only one—Palestinian—nation, "from the river to the sea."
There is a salutary effect in telling the truth about history, including the history of Palestinian identity. Lack of antiquity does not mean lack of unity. But Palestinian nationalism too is being overtaken by events. Arab nationalism in general has foundered on basic contradictions: Was the "Arab nation" based on common culture? What if there was no such common culture? What about ethnic minorities? For decades, Arab nation-states—Syria, Iraq, Libya, and more—used the language of nationalism but in fact served as vehicles for tyrannical leaders and their tribes. In their wake, they leave a fractured tribalism.
They also leave Islam. Palestinian nationalism has been challenged by the Islamism of Hamas, at best a kind of religious-national hybrid. For Hamas, Palestine belongs to all of Islam. The Hamas charter defines nationalism as "part of the religious creed." It says that the Islamic Resistance Movement has both the elements of conventional nationalism and "the more important elements that give it soul and life. It is connected to the source of spirit and the granter of life, hoisting in the sky of the homeland the heavenly banner . . ." For al-Qaeda and other global jihad groups dedicated to establishing a transnational caliphate, even this formulation allows nationalism too much legitimacy.
As nationalism breaks down in the Arab winter, the Islamist view—that non-Muslims have, at best, a subservient place in the Middle East—is taking hold. Jews have no place there or, indeed, on earth. Compared to this emerging future, Palestinian nationalism, despite its recent vintage and bitterness, seems almost reasonable.