Once upon a time, Newt Gingrich was a professor of history, and since he is now competing to become the Republican presidential candidate, his record as a historian is being mined for clues about his political views. Needless to say, Gingrich’s professorial past doesn’t necessarily impress his critics – indeed, Gingrich has already been advised to “read a history book.” If he followed this advice, he could read one of the books he wrote…
Unsurprisingly, Gingrich also got some history lessons in response to his recent observation that historically, “there was no Palestine as a state” and that the Palestinians are an “invented” people “who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community.”
Responding to Gingrich’s statement, Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine asserted that “there was no Israel and no such thing as an ‘Israeli people’ before 1948. So the idea that Palestinians are ‘an invented people’ while Israelis somehow are not is historically indefensible and inaccurate. Such statements seem to merely reflect deep historical ignorance and an irrational hostility towards Palestinian identity and nationalism.”
While Ibish conveniently ignores the fact that the “Land of Israel” as well as the “Israelites” are of course biblical concepts, he is not entirely wrong, because – as Walter Russell Mead demonstrates in an essay devoted to Gingrich’s statement – it is indeed easy to argue that national identity is often an “invented” construct. At the same time, Mead acknowledges that Gingrich’s statement “is not factually incorrect as far as it goes;” yet, he is also sharply critical of Gingrich, arguing that his “error isn’t to say that Palestinian identity is to some degree invented; his error is to use that fact to undercut the reality and legitimacy of the Palestinian national movement.”
Mead also emphasizes that “both the US and Israel need people who can make a sober and reasoned case for the legitimacy of the Jewish state and of America’s support for it in ways that reduce international misunderstanding of and opposition to the two countries. But unfortunately remarks like Mr. Gingrich’s (to be fair, a short aside in a longer interview) make that conversation harder, not easier to have.”
While I would largely agree with Mead’s post, I think it’s worthwhile contemplating the notion that there is still a need to “make a sober and reasoned case for the legitimacy of the Jewish state and of America’s support for it in ways that reduce international misunderstanding of and opposition to the two countries.”
Obviously, Mead believes that it is utterly counterproductive to respond to the prevalent questioning of the Jewish state’s legitimacy by Palestinians and the larger Arab and Muslim world by pointing out the fact that the case for a Palestinian state is not based on a long-established and historically-rooted Palestinian national identity.
But I’m not sure if this really true.
As Adam Levick points out on Cif Watch, the non-existent state of Palestine is already recognized by some 125 of the 193 UN member states – while Israel, more than six decades after its acceptance as a UN member state, is still not recognized by 36 UN members, including 30 Muslim majority countries. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence showing that the UN supports a veritable “infrastructure of anti-Israel propaganda” and devotes truly disproportionate resources and energies to censuring Israel.
So while Israel and its supporters are supposed to play by the rules of fairness and to strictly observe the dictates of political correctness, the rule for the supporters of Palestine seems to be “anything goes.”
But it turns out that when the Palestinians find themselves at the receiving end of even the slightest breach of political correctness, the result could most definitely be described as a “teachable moment.”
Consider some of the Palestinian reactions to Gingrich’s statement:
Saeb Erekat, the veteran Palestinian peace negotiator, characterized Gingrich’s statements as “despicable,” asserting that they not only reflected “the lowest point of thinking anyone can reach” but also contributed to “the cycle of violence.”
Hanan Ashrawi, another veteran Palestinian spokesperson, described Gingrich’s remarks as “very racist” and “an invitation to further conflict rather than any contribution to peace.”
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, asserted that Gingrich had made “grave comments that represented an incitement for ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians.”
If all these Palestinian officials familiarized themselves with the “Golden Rule” that admonishes us to “do as you would be done by,” we can look forward to a bright future in which no Palestinian – and no Arab or Muslim – will ever think of denying Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.
* * *
For more on this story, check out my essay “Reflections on the invention of peoples”