In 2012, as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich sought the American Republican presidential nomination, he appeared on a Jewish cable TV program to curry favor with Jewish voters. During the interview Gingrich declared that Palestinians are “…an invented people.”
I’ve thought about Gingrich’s claim. And if one pays any attention to the discourse, it’s impossible to not think about the assertion. It’s a central claim among a large segment of pro-Israel Americans.When I saw the Gingrich interview seven years ago, my response was emotional. It made me angry that he would so blithely try to invalidate these people and, by extension, their economic and political plight.
But as time passed, I realized he was right, albeit embracing a truth more inconvenient than he could have ever imagined. So, are the Palestinians an invented people? Yes.
Arabs are not native to the part of the world to which the term “Palestine” is applied.
They are aboriginal to Arabia.
They are, as Gingrich noted, Arabs who have embraced a national self-identity that they call “Palestinian.” And he was correct that many have migrated from other regions in the Middle East. Moreover, it’s an invention sufficiently modern that I witnessed its birth. Yet some supporters of Israel continue to embrace a zero-sum mentality, thinking that Palestinian nationalism can somehow be undone.
Remember the inconvenience I mentioned? It’s not that Palestinian national identity is now immutable. It’s that Gingrich’s claim does not distinguish the Palestinians from numerous nationalities, including Americans.
Even the Israelis are an invented people. And like the Israelis, Palestinian national self-identity is tied to a specific geographical location.
In fact, the Jewish people are an invented people. Whereas Judaism, the Hebrew language, and the Jewish people were invented in the Holy Land about a thousand years before the emergence of Islam.
That the invention of the Jewish people occurred thousands of years before the self-invention of the Palestinians makes it no less true. It’s simply been obscured by time and the oneness of the land of Israel and the people whose name has been “Israel” since biblical times.
Gingrich attempted to suck up to Jewish voters by invalidating Palestinian national self-identity. It probably worked with some Jewish voters. But others paused, took a deep breath and realized what he was trying to do.
Still, one should give credit to Gingrich. In the span of a single sentence, he managed to denigrate Palestinians by assailing them for doing what Americans do every Fourth of July.
Imagine a spokesperson for Native Americans noting that Americans are an invented people. Emotional responses aside, it’s true. We Americans ARE an invented people. In fact, we take pride in the fact that we are a nation of immigrants! So trying to invalidate Palestinians because so many came from elsewhere in the Middle East just isn’t going to work.
Consider how many Israelis were native-born when Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948.
Palestinians don’t lack in passion for their self-identity. Unfortunately, their society is so unfettered by anything resembling civility or decent governance that they’re nowhere close to being worthy of a place among the nations. It is a national self-identity that validates itself primarily by invalidating Israel. Meriting that place among the nations cannot include the destruction of a neighboring one.
That said, Gingrich and other Americans and Israelis who share his view on Palestinian legitimacy ignore their own national self-identities as an invented people. The corrupt and self-destructive nature of current Palestinian nationalism doesn’t invalidate it. Nothing can.
There is no time machine to take the world back before the birth of Palestinian national self-identity. For whatever it is, it is real. It’s time to take to foot off of that anti-intellectual brake pedal and move forward, thoughtfully.
As of this writing, Americans seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination haven’t had to address. But they will.