Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Are the Palestinians an "Invented People?"

Top-tier Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich recently caused controversy--mostly outside of the GOP--by stating that the Palestinians were an "invented people." He said this in an interview with a New York cable television channel, Jewish TV, that as the name implies is geared towards Jews. He also referred to the Palestinians as terrorists. Gingrich understands the Palestinians as "invented" i.e. phony because in the past they merely called themselves Arabs. In this he is correct. But this is not unique in the Middle East. The area was until the end of World War I part of the Ottoman Empire and the inhabitants of the Levant thought of themselves as Ottomans, Muslims, and Arabs (or Jews or Kurds or Turkomans). Until the end of World War II the Union of Reform Synagogues, then the largest Jewish denomination in America, insisted that the Jews were not a people but only a religion. (I couldn't provide a link to this because it is something that Reform Jews are ashamed of today, but read any standard history of the denomination and it is found.) This sentiment was shared by the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis in Europe and even Palestine at the time. It was mainly secular Jews who were Zionists. They reached back two millennia in time to a time when ordinary Jews spoke Hebrew (or at least Aramaic), lived in Eretz Israel, and regarded themselves as a nation. Are the Jews an invented people as well?

Actually all peoples are "invented." That is to say nationalism is a business or process of selection of bits of culture, history and even language to create a common national identity. In Yugoslavia it involved selecting a particular dialect to become the basis of Serbo-Croatian that was then taught in the schools for both Croats and Serbs. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s the opposite process occurred and the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) all infused their new "languages" with different words to differentiate them. The easiest job in the world was to be an inter-Yugoslav translator or interpreter. Select episodes in history are emphasized and heroes who are useful at the time are set up as exemplars for the population. Needless to say many of the German heroes from the Nazi period are no longer taught in schools as German heroes. 

But none of this is really important to Gingrich, the man who continually reinvents himself. He knows that pro-Israel anti-Arab rhetoric is red meat to Republican audiences. If he is someday elected president and decides to deal with the Middle East diplomatically he can always use the Foreign Service to explain what he really meant (or to explain to the Arab rulers that it was all political rhetoric, which they should understand without too much of a problem). Here is why Evangelical Protestant conservatives have replaced American Jews as Israel's main American constituency. And here is what that may mean for Israel down the road. And here is a post from one of the HaAretz blogs on what the problems with Gingrich's claim are.

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