With characteristic boldness (perhaps we should call it the “audacity of nope”), the GOP front-runner du jour, Newt Gingrich, asserts that the Palestinians are “an invented people.” This was a telling moment at the pander fest that was the Republican Jewish Coalition’s candidates’ forum. Having carefully not invited Rep. Ron Paul, the RJC insured that it would be no less. From the little that I saw of it, only Jon Huntsman– while being warm toward his audience– seems not to have gone overboard in this mode.
Although Gingrich’s comment, according to the JTA account, drew “rebukes” from some of his rivals, these were not anything like the points I’ll raise here. First off, all nations are “invented” at the formative stage in their history. Whether due to geography, history, language, culture or religion, they obtain a level of self-consciousness as a distinct people and generally press their claim in some organized way. As the well-known Palestinian-American scholar Prof. Rashid Khalidi indicated in Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997), “National identity is constructed; it is not an essential, transcendent given….”
Arab-Palestinian identity was largely a reaction to the Zionist movement reestablishing Jewish nationhood in Palestine, the ancient birthplace of the Jewish people, as recorded in the Bible and remembered reverentially in the Jewish religion for two millennia. Just as Palestinian nationalism was born of the Arab struggle against the Jews in the early to mid 20th century, the Jewish national rebirth occurred in Palestine, with Jewish identity made over from what was primarily (but not only) a religious heritage — because of the tragic experience of Jews as a frequently trod-upon minority in Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East.
Gingrich then went on to condemn the Obama administration for trying to “pressure the Israelis into a peace process.” He continued, “These people [i.e., Palestinians] are terrorists, they teach terrorism in their schools.” My understanding is that Palestinian Authority textbooks are an improvement over the Jordanian and Egyptian books that were in use during Israel’s jurisdiction over Palestinian education; they do not demonize Jews & Israel, but they tend to ignore Israel’s existence. Clearly, this needs to be remedied, but Gingrich completely omits the fact that the PA’s security cooperation with Israel against terrorism is highly prized by Israel’s defense establishment.
If the next President of the United States comes to office committed to condemning all Palestinians as “terrorists” and denying them their right to sovereignty, even if living at peace with the State of Israel, where would this leave Israel? Wouldn’t this guarantee that Israel remain the occupying power over another people? And if this is so, how does tiny Israel retain its existence as a secure homeland and refuge (if necessary) for the Jews, a historically downtrodden people?
This is the serious aspect of what transpired at this forum. The comic relief was supplied by Rep. Michele Bachmann, who spoke of chutzpah by pronouncing a soft ch as in “church,” rather than its properly guttural kh or the less good but still acceptable h sound. I was impressed that she had a stint working as a volunteer on a kibbutz, but I wonder if she realizes that even in its semi-privatized form today, let alone what it was like when she worked there years ago, it’s a collectivist institution.