Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, December 19, 2011

Are the Palestinians an Invented People?

Newt Gingrich (Cliff Owen/AP)

Much to the dismay and consternation of the Palestinians and Palestinian sympathizers, as well as some American and Israeli political elites, Newt Gingrich recently remarked to The Jewish Channel, a U.S. cable station, that the Palestinians are an "invented people." According to Gingrich: "Remember, there was no Palestine as a state....It was part of the Ottoman Empire. We have invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people, and they had the chance to go many places. And for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and I think it’s tragic.” His point? By arguing that the idea of "the Palestinians," particularly their identity and culture and sense of nationalism, is something created out of whole cloth, without regard to reality or evidence, he's implying that the Palestinians have no real claim to land or political legitimacy in the Middle East, especially vis-a-vis the Israelis.

It's possible Gingrich believes his comments, but it's almost certain that they are part of campaign politics, an effort to cozy up to the evangelicals and the staunch pro-Israelis in the U.S. After all, he is running for the republican nomination for president, and as such it's a good move for him to show his pro-Israeli bona fides by professing skepticism about the Palestinians' role and position in the Middle East. Indeed, much to the delight of key constituents, he is signaling to the Israelis that a potential Gingrich administration would unequivocally side with them, effectively giving them diplomatic carte blanche to handle issues and problems as they please. Furthermore, Gingrich's remarks hammer home the point to republicans that he believes Obama has unfairly treated the Israelis, America's friend and ally, to the benefit of the troublemaking Palestinians, one of the alleged bad guys in the world.

Let's turn to the substance of Gingrich's quote. Specifically, is he right? Are the Palestinians an invented people? In short, yes. Daniel Larison nicely captures point: "If an identifiable Palestinian nation did not exist, say, 150 years ago, it has existed for the better part of the last century. National identities are formed through historical experience, and the last seventy or eighty years have witnessed the emergence of a distinctive Palestinian national identity."

Okay, but does this process of self-invention apply only to the Palestinians? Not exactly. Think of it this way: Which nation or ethno-religious-political group wasn't created or invented in some way? To be blunt, no group or country. This goes for actors in the Middle East, but also for those in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. After all, it's not like when man first started roaming the earth tens of thousands of years, there was a set of countries and groups already present, as if pre-ordained into existence by some higher power. These things were created by people, often for self-preservation and self-defense purposes. In fact, all countries or ERP groups are in part self-created, and in part defined in relation to some Other or Others in the world.

The only real variation in this process is when this occurs and the level of effort involved. Some countries and groups have formed their identities centuries ago, while others, like the Palestinians, only more recently. And some groups and countries simply had to declare their presence, while others have had to fight for their existence and the right to receive recognition of it.

Take Israel as an example. At bottom, what happened there was an intentional effort at self-creating a meaningful and interconnected set of cultural, religious, and political identities, ones that its supporters can rally around and use to distinguish themselves from other regional and international entities. Of course, Israel didn't come into existence as a country until the middle of the 20th century, a process that included a bloody war for independence against its neighbors. The idea of an Israeli nation was around at least a century prior to the country's inception. It was deliberately created and then propagated by Zionists who sought a homeland to keep Israelis safe and secure from violence and discrimination. And going back even further, by most accounts, people didn't start to identify themselves as Israelites until sometime during the second millennium BCE, and they did so largely to distinguish themselves from other locals, such as the Canaanites.

In the end, Gingrich is partially correct. Yes, the Palestinians are an "invented people." But so are the Israelis, Americans, and the rest of the world, though I highly doubt he would ever concede this point, at least as long as he thinks he has a political future in the Republican Party.

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