In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a woman is accused of being a witch. When the knight presiding over the proceedings asks how the people know she is a witch, a man in the crowd responds “She turned me into a newt.” When the knight seems unconvinced, the man says, sheepishly, “I got better.” Here in Washington, DC, our Newt just keeps getting worse.
Former Speaker of the House of Representatives and current Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has been a virtual geyser of hate and bigotry throughout his political career. This weekend, in his latest example of hate speech, Gingrich repeated the hackneyed line that “The Palestinians are an invented people.”
The point for Gingrich, of course, is to show his loyalty to Israel by demeaning the Palestinians. The implication for his Christian Zionist and smattering of Republican Jewish supporters is that he will allow Israel to deal with the Palestinians in whatever manner it sees fit because the Palestinians, collectively, are not entitled to anything. Whatever crumbs Israel allows them are, therefore, huge sacrifices for the sake of peace.
Newt defended his statement as factually true, and in a way it is. All nations are inventions. Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities, defined a nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”
Anderson also described national cohesion:¦regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.
Anderson’s phrasing sums up nicely what so many of us find so distasteful about nationalism. But that imagined community becomes a stark reality, and it’s the one on which physical sovereignty and the modern state is usually based.
The irony of Newt’s proclamation lies in his implication that the Palestinian nation was invented purposefully to “sustain this war against Israel.”
Nations, as Israeli historian Tom Segev pointed out, are created gradually. Professor Rashid Khalidi’s seminal work, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness traces the origins of that national identity to a time decades before the first encounters with Zionist immigrants.
Indeed, few nationalisms were as consciously constructed – one might say, “invented” – than Zionism. That movement consciously sought to unite the Jewish people and reconfigure it as a modern nation, with a state to live in. And it most certainly succeeded.
Creating a nation out of a disparate people, scattered all over the world with a diverse set of histories, cultures and languages was no small feat. From its early days in the 1870s and 1880s right up until the creation of the State of Israel, Zionism was resisted by the majority of Jews worldwide. Still, it grew as an ideology, made impressive political gains and succeeded not only in obtaining a state, but in creating a new culture out of the building blocks of Jewish history and tragedy.
Palestinian nationalism came about under very different circumstances and in a very different way from Zionism; but then, the evolution of most nations we might name are unique in their own way. Arguments against Palestinian nationhood can only be made outside of an understanding of what constitutes a nation-state.
Newt says that Palestinians are really Arabs. Indeed, they most certainly are. Arabs constitute an enormous population, and the term encompasses many nations. Indeed, the only thing one can say all Arabs have in common is that their native language (though, of course, many Arabs who are generations removed from their ancestral lands no longer speak it, as is true of many national expatriates) is Arabic. And at that, Arabic is a diverse language with dialects so different from one another that many Arabs from different regions cannot easily speak with each other.
By Newt’s definition, there is no such thing as a Saudi, an Iraqi or a Syrian either.
Then there is the point that there has never been a state of Palestine. Of course, prior to World War I, when Palestine was demarcated by the Allied Powers under a British Mandate, there was no Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait – many states that had not existed before.
Might we also point out that there was certainly no United States of America before massive colonization and conquest which took a widely disparate variety of people (many of whom were enslaved), and invented “the American people,” which Newt and his fellow Washington politicians love to pander to.
These are important facts for us to hold onto. The Palestinian nation was “invented” in the same sense other nations were. So, fine, Newt, they were invented, just like Syrians, Iraqis, Belgians, Poles, Americans, Canadians and, yes, Israelis.
Like all nationalisms, the Palestinian variety has distinctive characteristics. One of those is that Palestinian nationalism, though it began before it encountered Zionism, was shaped to a very large degree by its conflict with, and eventual dispossession by, Zionism. For the past century, those two national movements have been in physical conflict, and that reality has sharply influenced both ideologies.
But Newt wanted to clarify his statements. So he said: “Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists.” His publicist, who was scrambling, at the same time, to confirm that Gingrich supports a two-state solution, must have been thrilled.
But his constituents certainly were thrilled, and with some reason. Gingrich’s statements clearly deny any sort of Palestinian national rights, and paint Palestinians as a security threat. He seems to be positioning himself not just at the forefront of the far-right constituency he represents, but as a vanguard of US brinksmanship in a post-two-state world.
There is, today, only one state between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. Those of us who supported the two-state solution, if we are unable to yet bring ourselves to admit our opponents have won that battle, must at least start preparing for a new stage in this conflict.
Neoconservatives and fire and brimstone zealots are already envisioning that next phase. It is the maintenance of that single state which holds millions of Palestinians under siege, occupation and threat of expulsion. That’s the language Newt is talking.
Gingrich is unlikely to be the President-elect of the United States a year from now. But his ilk has continued to wield influence on US policy in the Middle East during Barack Obama’s first term in office. As the two-state solution, at least as it has thus far been envisioned, evaporates even as a dream, their influence will increase.
If those of us who wish to see equal justice and a decent future for both Israelis and Palestinians do not act, we will leave a vacuum that the Newt Gingriches, and their friends in Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu will be all too quick to fill. It’s time to take action, before we lose the opportunity to do so.