The Inventions of Newt Gingrich and Palestine

December 12, 2011 |
Mr Gingrich is confused. The Palestinians are not an invented people. What he is (presumably) trying to say is that since the Palestinian state of the 20th century was either part of the Ottoman Empire or a British mandate, it never counted as an actual sovereign "state" and what never "existed" should, presumably in his view, never exist in the future.
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The half-educated man is dangerous because, as the adage goes: "Knowing a few things, he thinks he knows everything." There is bizarrely something of the half-educated man in the Republican presidential candidate and front-runner Newt Gingrich. A PhD "historian", Mr Gingrich certainly "knows" a few things. In fact, he has impressed audiences in debates with sweeping historical references and a seemingly assured command of policy details. This has partly contributed to the Gingrich surge, catapulting him into first place in many Republican polls.

But he also displays the classic half-educated flaw: he thinks he knows more than he does. Combine this with a politician's need to pander for votes, and you get breathtaking statements such as Mr Gingrich's recent remarks that the Palestinians are an "invented people" who, therefore, do not deserve a state of their own.

In an interview with The Jewish Channel, a US cable network, Mr Gingrich 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."

Perhaps Mr Gingrich should read the ancient world's most celebrated historian, Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th century BC of the Palestini people, who inhabited a strip of land on the Mediterranean from Phoenicia down to Egypt. Numerous Greek and Roman historians followed suit, referring to the land of Palestine or to the Palestinian people, a mix of Christians, Jews and later Muslims from the southern Levant.

But this is not a history lesson, nor is it a "who was on the land first" inquiry. In fact, that question is no longer even debated. There are two peoples living in the current territory of Israel and the Palestinian territories and virtually all mainstream political leaders accept that a two-state solution is the best outcome to the long-festering wound in the Middle East.

Mr Gingrich is confused. The Palestinians are not an invented people. What he is (presumably) trying to say is that since the Palestinian state of the 20th century was either part of the Ottoman Empire or a British mandate, it never counted as an actual sovereign "state" and what never "existed" should, presumably in his view, never exist in the future.

What makes this statement so breathtaking is the ahistorical nature of the argument combined with a fundamental misreading of modern nations, one that an "historian" - and an American - like Mr Gingrich should never make. By this reasoning, Israel, too did not have a right to exist in 1947. For that matter, the United States, too, stands on shaky ground since before 1776 it was merely a vassal of the British Empire and not a sovereign state. By Mr Gingrich's reasoning, the vast majority of nations that comprise the United Nations are illegitimate.

Mr Gingrich is mixing up nations and peoples. Nations are always "invented". Peoples are not. The American revolutionaries who courageously shook off the yoke of British imperialism "invented" a nation with a flag, a progressive constitution and laws that govern the land. The "peoples" who made up those revolutionaries - the English, Swedes, Dutch, Germans, Scots-Irish, French and others - became overnight citizens of this new United States of America.

Today, they are Americans. Presumably, Mr Gingrich the PhD student would have read Anthony D Smith, the father of modern nationalism studies, who notes that a nation is simply "a named population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for its members".

The descendants of those first Americans - that "named population" first composed of European peoples - voted four years ago for the son of the Kenyan Muslim migrant with a middle name "Hussein" to be their President. This was a defining moment in American history: a nation that fought a civil war over slavery, that did not even allow blacks to vote until after that war, had elected a black man to the presidency.

Mr Gingrich's statements are all the more troubling since they come from an American who aspires to the highest office in the land, a land (a nation, to be exact) that grew from a peoples' desire for freedom from a foreign colonial power.

If Mr Gingrich's statements were merely the half-educated musings of a man who knows a little and therefore thinks he knows everything, perhaps they would be less alarming. Presidential candidates spend all day talking, after all. They are sure to slip every now and then. But this is a man who also has said that one of his first acts as president would be to issue an executive order recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

A first order of business? With unemployment near 10 per cent and a sluggish economy, Mr Gingrich will upon entering office take a cheap shot at the Muslim world, inflict a heavy blow to the peace process, further weaken Palestinian voices of peace and destroy America's already shaky credentials as an "honest broker" for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Quite a day's work, and an interesting choice of priorities.

Mr Gingrich is not alone. The Republican candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, have perfected pandering to Israel. It is a reality of Republican elections: to win primaries, they must appeal to evangelical Christians for whom "defence" of Israel is a litmus test.

Mr Gingrich simply took it much further. Or, as Michigan's Senator Carl Levin put it: "The vast majority of American Jews (including this one) and the Israeli government itself are committed to a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side as neighbours and in peace. Gingrich offered no solutions - just a can of gasoline and a match."