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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."

Relevant Links
GOP Candidates Shine at RJC Forum  Republican Jewish Coalition. Republican candidates appeared and expressed support for Israel. Ron Paul was not invited.
Subverting Scotland's Past  Colin Kidd, Cambridge University Press. A view of the role of 18th-century Scottish Whig historians in creating an Anglo-British identity—and preventing the emergence of a full-scale Scottish nationalism.
Gingrich's Obscene Canard  Khalid Amayreh, Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades. The military wing of Hamas illuminates the flaws in the Gingrich argument.

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.

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Independent Patriot on December 13, 2011 at 7:56 am (Reply)
The question is not whether the Palestinians are a people but when they became a people. In the 1970s, Arafat began the revisionist claim that the Palestinians were descended from the Philistines; now they bring up the Jebusites. The goal of this idiocy is to say that even if the Jews were descended from the ancient Israelites (something the Palestinian Authority and the Arabs deny), who conquered the land, they took it from the rightful descendents of the original owners of the land, the Palestinians. In fact, the Philistines ceased to exist when they were conquered by the Babylonians; ancient peoples, as was the custom, were absorbed by the conquerors such as the Jews. The reality is that the only ancient biblical people who still exist are the Jews.

It was important that Gingrich make the point that the Palestinians are not an ancient people. But he never said that he did not believe in a two-state solution. What he was doing was forestalling any Arab argument that the Jews do not have a connection to the Land of Israel (the Arabs' new mantra) or that the Arab connection to the Land of Israel is equal to that of the Jews. It is not.
Cynic on December 13, 2011 at 8:41 am (Reply)
When you write that "Palestinian nationalism, despite its recent vintage and bitterness, seems almost reasonable," you assume it was the locals who created this identity; in fact, it was the Arab League that created the identity and, with Russian complicity, molded the identity during the Cold War. When the Palestinian Authority can keep so called refugees in the Balata camp in Nablus fenced off from other residents of Nablus, one is not talking about nationalism in the generally accepted sense.
Rob Vincent on December 13, 2011 at 9:01 am (Reply)
"Lobbed a grenade"? No, he simply told the truth, and it is about time we heard this from a mainstream political figure. The lies upon lies that support the fiction of a Palestinian people whose identity necessarily requires a state with which to undermine Israel (their leaders will accept nothing less) merely enable them and prolong the strife imposed on both sides. This conflict also provides a handy excuse for the rest of Arab/Moslem world, such that they can "change the subject" any time they are called upon to account for the sorry, backward state of their own societies. Everything, according to them, wait until the "Palestinians" are "guaranteed their rights."

This observer does not completely reject out of hand the idea of a Palestinian Arab national identity, but it is of very recent vintage. To the extent that it is genuine, a Palestinian state already exists--Jordan. Orderly democratic reforms that would lead Jordan into the modern age, would give the Palestinian Arabs a home that would more than satisfy any legitimate national aspirations, and need not threaten Israel. I'm glad Newt had the guts to call this particular naked emperor out for what he is. I'm disgusted, though not surprised, by the media reaction. If he does not back down, and if we back him up, this is all to the good.
Petra Marquardt-Bigman on December 13, 2011 at 9:03 am (Reply)
Very good piece. It is important to highlight the fact that Gingrich has "plowed into a core problem of the Middle East conflict." The Palestinian reaction to his remarks has created a teachable moment: They (and the Arab League!) are outraged when the authenticity of their identity is questioned, but they think it's just fine and dandy to question the legitimacy of Jews as a people.
Huston Smith on December 13, 2011 at 10:04 am (Reply)
The whole of the country known as Jordan was given to the Palestinians as their own country (and was part of Israel for a day back in 1948). How about President Obama's giving up Queens Detroit, and parts of New Jersey as part of the Palistinian Territories? Obama has said that "we" (not Israel) owe a great debt to Arabs, and they have been here for hundreds of years; obviously, that is all it takes to demand statehood (not).
txjew on December 13, 2011 at 11:37 am (Reply)
Using the term "Arab" to describe everybody from the African Atlantic to Iraq is a gross misnomer and something of a "constructed" identity itself. These are many ethnic groups that share a language group (since modern Arabic is no more a single language than Arabs a single people, just as English, Dutch, Flemish, German, Swabian, and Prussian are related languages but are discrete and belong to discrete cultures). The people of the early 20th century Levant accepted the identity construct of "Arab" before they differentiated themselves into "Palestinians" and others. That said, "Palestinian" is as legitimate a self-identification as, say, "American." Everyone must accept others' self-definitions. Palestinians, in particular, must accept the fact that both "Jew" and "Israeli" are legitimate categories of peoplehood.
Ed Feuer on December 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm (Reply)
Palestinian nationalism, in all of its fits and starts, came about only as a "reaction to" political Zionism, the modern manifestation of millennia-old Jewish nationalism; and there are other minorities in area of the old Arab Muslim empire whom the self-determination backers strangely ignore. The Kurds, for example, want self-determination. Like the Palestinians, the Kurds are primarily Muslim. But they are more numerous than the Palestinians. Their nationalism is many centuries older than that of the Palestinians. It would appear that some Muslims are more equal that others. But real peace with Israel would mean that Kurds and other persecuted peoples, including Copts, Maronites, Berbers, and Sudanese blacks could tell Arab governments, "We want equalit,y or let us have what the Jews have—independence." That is what the Sudanese blacks have done, and that is one of the reasons why Arab religious and political elites fear genuine peace with Israel.
Yeshayhu Hollander on December 13, 2011 at 3:02 pm (Reply)
Gingrich was right, of course. But if there is a Palestinian people, there is already a Palestinian state. See
SW on December 13, 2011 at 4:44 pm (Reply)
Grenades are weapons of overt warfare. Whatever words have been spoken by a United States politician, they are not grenades. Describing words as grenades is hyperbole and wrong. When someone makes a truthful observation, when did that become a "grenade?" Only when political correctness has raised its evil hand to quash words and truths. I don't care for Gingrich, but his observation is far more correct than any blunt grenade. Perhaps scalpel is the better metaphor, for he has cut to the quick, and the Muslim world as patient is howling at the sting of truth.
Beverly Kurtin on December 13, 2011 at 10:11 pm (Reply)
The people who now call themselves "Palestinians" were simply Arabs whose land was Jordan. In 1964, Egyptian Yassir Arafat told those Arabs to call themselves Palestinians. In other words, it was a made-up name. There has never been a nation called Palestine. No flags, no coins, none of the usual things that a nation has.

There has only been ONE country in the entire history of the land: ISRAEL. Despite the worst efforts of the Arabs to deny the fact that there has been a three thousand year history of Jews being in the land, it is nevertheless, the truth.

The destruction under the Temple mount has been enormous; yet they still cannot wipe out history...I hate to say this but Newt is right and if any Arabs don't like it: TOUGH.
Aylana Meisel on December 14, 2011 at 1:31 pm (Reply)
We may have to deal with Palestinian nationalism on the ground, but we don’t have to accept its narrative as “reasonable.” Palestinian national identity did not emerge centuries ago. It is not embedded in generations of collective memory. It is a recent creation. There is still a chance to examine and correct the record, and it is essential to do so. The central elements of the Palestinian nationalist narrative are Israeli occupation, oppression, and land theft. Its fundamental purpose is to delegitimate the Zionist narrative. And the Palestinian narrative is succeeding, not just internationally but within Israel: Witness post-Zionism, Israel’s left-wing academia, increasing refusals to serve in the Israel Defense Force, and more. Thus, accepting this fraudulent history is not just a semantic matter; it is a threat to Israel’s survival and well-being. It is important to speak the truth about the issue, and Newt Gingrich (and anyone else who speaks it) should be given the credit he deserves for doing so.
AKUS on December 20, 2011 at 8:20 am (Reply)
The idea of a Palestine "people" was invented by Arafat around 1964 as a means of propelling himself, at the time little more than a local Egyptian brigand, into the role of a national leader.

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