THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE AND THOSE WHO WOULD ERASE THEM
In discussing the horse race known as the contest for the Republican nomination, I have dealt only superficially with the candidates’ positions. What do you say we delve a bit into a recent debate about an extremely important issue. The discussion was sparked by – who else? – Newt Gingrich. Say what you want about that windbag, but at least he is willing to throw out ideas before they have been poll tested. I like that about him. I just don’t happen to like his ideas.
So let’s go back to a bit more than a week ago when Newt first decided to let her rip on the topic of the Middle East. In an interview aired by the Jewish Channel, Newt once again showed off his vast command of all things historical. Referring to the situation in the Middle East in the early part of the previous century, Newt said: “I believe that the commitments that were made at the time – remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places.”
Then, last Saturday night at the nationally televised debate, Newt decided to have a little more fun at the expense of the Palestinians. “The fact is, the Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story,” he said. " 'Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977. This is a propaganda war in which our side refuses to engage and we refuse to tell the truth when the other side lies.”
Newt received a ton of applause for his comments. And to do so he touched on some of the ultimate Republican talking points. To begin, he played the ever-popular terrorism card: “These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools.” But even more importantly, he placed himself in the mold of the Republican’s greatest political hero, the Gipper: “I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth. Just as it was when [Ronald] Reagan went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire.”
You’ve got to give the guy an A+ for rhetoric. Unfortunately, Newt is also claiming to be a historian and a public policy maven. In those regards, he failed miserably.
Before I explain precisely what is noxious about what Newt said, let’s look at the reaction by his fellow candidates. Frankly, they came across as equally tone deaf to Palestinian history.
First, we have Romney: “I happen to agree with most of what the speaker said, except by going out and saying the Palestinians are an invented people. That, I think, was a mistake on the speaker’s part. … Ultimately, the Palestinians and the Israelis are going to have to agree on how they’re going to settle their differences between them. And the United States of America should not jump ahead of Bibi Netanyahu and say something that makes it more difficult for him to do his job.”
Santorum’s comments were similar: “I think you have to speak the truth, but you have to do so with prudence. …This isn’t an academic exercise. We have an ally, and the policy of this country should be to stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally.”
And here are the comments from Perry: “Let me just say that I think this is a minor issue that the media is blowing way out of proportion. ...This president is the problem, not something that Newt Gingrich said.”
Clearly, none of these mainstream Republican politicians were willing to praise Newt for proclaiming that the Palestinians were an “invented people.” Then again, none were willing to take up the Palestinian cause as to why they have a right to call themselves a “people” and demand their own state. Perry seems to suggest that this is all just a tempest in a teapot. Romney went so far as to suggest that Newt spoke the truth about the Palestinian’s lack of history as a people, but just shouldn’t have done so publicly. And both Romney and Santorum suggested that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian divide, American statesmen are obliged to stand behind our one ally (Israel), and Newt’s mistake was that he made statements of which Israel itself may not approve.
It all sounds like a debate you could expect to hear at an AIPAC meeting, doesn’t it?
Let me begin my response to Newt by pointing out that what Israel needs most from America is not just another “ally” but a powerful broker for a just and secure peace. Obama tried to serve in this capacity, and I applaud him for that attempt. The only problem is that he didn’t have a friggen clue what he was doing. (As I’ve pointed out on different occasions, his crucial mistake was to skew his concrete, controversial demands so heavily against Israel that it allowed the Palestinians to stand firm on virtually all of their positions and put Israel on the defensive about their own. Brilliant!)
As an honest broker, we need to envision what a just and secure peace would look like. And we need to be willing to speak out in favor of whatever is conducive to creating those conditions and against anything that prevents such conditions from flourishing. There is plenty to criticize on both sides of this debate, but there are also principles we must affirm. And none is more important than that both the Jews and the Palestinians have a legitimate claim to the same land, and both can legitimately call themselves a people. Our choice is either in dividing up the land so that they each can have their own “peace of oith,” or supporting the right of one people to dominate the other. There are plenty of extremists on each side who favor a de facto one-state solution. Let us pray, in the name of justice, that they are not successful.
Before we can take exception to the views of the extremists, we must first understand their perspectives. What’s interesting is that both the anti-Israel and the anti-Palestine positions commonly depend on a similar idea: erasing the peoplehood of those who claim the right to a state that would conflict with one’s own desire to dominate the region.
On the Palestinian side, you will find plenty who effectively deny that the Jews are a “people,” at least in any relevant sense. On the surface, this would seem preposterous, given that the Jews have been around for thousands of years. But this erasure of the Jewish people is actually quite simple – just replace the emphasis on the Jewish culture/civilization/peoplehood with that of the Jewish RELIGION. This perspective is not only voiced by one-staters in the West Bank and Gaza but is also shared by many members of the American left. They equate the idea of a “Jewish State” with that of a theocracy based on Orthodox Jewish legal principles and doctrines, which would grossly discriminate against all secular-Jews and gentiles, regardless of whether they are technically viewed as citizens. According to this perspective, any religious state – whether Jewish, Islamic or otherwise – will ultimately turn out to be an opportunity for a group of clerics to impose its will on a society based on the pre-modern teachings of religious law. And indeed, they argue, Israeli society is becoming more and more segregated and the Israeli government is increasingly willing to tolerate Orthodox practices (e.g., there are now Israeli buses in which all women are expected to sit in the back). This is why, the argument concludes, if we allowed a Jewish State to take firm root in the Middle East, the result would be nothing like the Jeffersonian democracy envisioned by Israel’s original founders, most of whom were secular and hardly Orthodox. It would instead take on some of the worst characteristics of the most antiquated and oppressive Islamic regimes.
On the Israeli side, you will find many who subscribe to the perspective of Newt Gingrich. They view the gentiles with whom they currently share the Holy Land as members of a people who historically thought of themselves simply as Arabs, rather than as Palestinians. According to this perspective, it is only right and just that these Arabs be taken in by their own people, whether it is by Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, or wherever, and allow the Jewish people to occupy their own ancestral homeland in peace. The adherents to this position will correctly point out that prior to the 20th century, the area known today as Israel/Palestine was, as Newt suggested, part of the Ottoman empire and it was not until the Jews began settling more and more of the land towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century that the Arab inhabitants of the land began seeing themselves not merely as Arabs but also as “Palestinians.” Thus, the argument concludes, the Palestinians aren’t so much a historically-rooted “people” as a social group that has coalesced relatively recently in opposition to the Jewish people, which has a prior, and therefore superior, claim to the disputed land.
The central problem with both of these perspectives is that the historical facts from which they draw are extremely selective. Let’s start with the anti-Zionistic perspective.
Those who oppose Zionism can legitimately point to certain respects in which the Orthodox Jews have gained disproportionate power and enacted discriminatory laws. But there is nothing inherent in the idea of a “Jewish State” that suggests that it will favor one group of Jews over another. Like any other democracy, Israel will see different groups battle it out for social hegemony and some will be more successful than others at different times. Here in the United States, we have seen all sorts of discriminatory legislation in the past, and we may well see more in the future. But that doesn’t mean we have lost our faith in democracy, or in the principle that even if the majority should rule, the minorities should have rights. I am confident that Israel will remain a democracy and will continue to protect minority rights. But the key is that it is up to Israel – with its Jewish majority -- to make those decisions. And the decisions will be made by all Israelis voting at the ballot box, regardless of whether they view themselves as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular Jews … or as Israeli-Palestinians.
As for Newt’s perspective, it completely ignores the importance of what happened in the last century. The dispute between Jews and Arabs in Palestine didn’t begin in 1948. It had been growing for decades before that, as Jews were clearly demonstrating their desire to re-settle en masse in the area. Yes, the area had been controlled by the Ottoman Turks prior to World War I, but it was the ancestors of those who today call themselves “Palestinians” who lived and worked on the land. They were, in short, rooted in such cities and town as Beersheba, Haifa, Jerusalem and Hebron. And that sense of rootedness only grew when they were told by non-Arab peoples that they would have to be displaced by the Jews.
Imagine yourselves as an Arab booted out of your own home, together with several hundred thousand other Arabs. Imagine the depth to which you would have felt ties to that home, not to mention your neighborhood, your city, and indeed, the entire area known to you then as “Palestine” -- which was being cleansed to make room for a totally different people. The Jews have strong and multifarious claims to that same land, to be sure. But the rationale that was most often voiced was surely that the United Nations was giving them this land – your land, your people’s land – because of the unspeakable way the Jews were treated by the Germans in Europe. And imagine just how unjust that would sound: that just because one group of Europeans mistreated another, the victimized people would be given YOUR land.
If that didn’t give rise to a sense of peoplehood on the part of the Palestinians, I don’t know what would.
Of all of Newt’s comments, the one that truly made my jaw drop is when he said that the word “‘Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977.” Really? I was 17 in 1977, and I remember that term being commonly used for years. You can say what you want about the Palestinian claim to peoplehood prior to the 1940s, but once the better part of a million of them had to flee from their homes in the so-called “Nakba” (translated as “disaster” or “catastrophe”) of 1948, you can better believe that they referred to and saw themselves as Palestinians … and so did everyone else who had at least an ounce of compassion for their plight.
Folks, I am a staunch Zionist. I am committed to the continuation of the Jewish State. And I refuse to join the blame-Israel-first organizations that have the chutzpah to call themselves Zionist but are afraid to call out the Palestinians for their anti-Zionist practices. But that doesn’t make me anti-Palestinian. The only path to peace is for us to be both pro-Zionist AND pro-Palestinian.
As for Newt, I don’t know what kind of history lessons he gave to the folks at Freddie Mac, but I’m assuming they had nothing to do with the Middle East. The next time he wants to delve into Middle East history, my suggestion is to do so as a student, and not as a teacher.