Monday, January 2, 2012

Invented People or Invented History?

by Jonathan F. Keiler

American pundits have spilled a veritable ocean of ink since Newt Gingrich's comment on the bogus nature of Palestinian nationalism -- Gingrich called the Palestinians an "invented people." But interestingly, Gingrich's American critics, on both the left and the right, are largely in agreement that Gingrich's error was not in denying Palestine's historic national existence, but instead his use of the term "invented people." All nationalisms are invented to some extent, they claim, and the Palestinians have simply invented theirs like everybody else. Perhaps they even borrowed from Zionism, like the Americans from the English, or the French from the Americans. That, goes the argument, does not make their claim inauthentic. And Palestinian nationalism may be a net good, a useful fiction, by tamping down pan-Arabism.

It is true that nationalism is a human invention, and a rather late one at that -- a Western idea that slowly developed through the Middle Ages and took its modern form during the Enlightenment. By this standard, the Palestinians could not have been a nation in antiquity, but then neither could the Jews.

But that doesn't mean that nation-states ought not to have some reasonable historical legitimacy, lest any group of people demand nationhood for any reason. And while the number of nations accepted by the United Nations continues to creep upward (193 at last count), that is still a tiny fraction of the tribes, clans, principalities, kingdoms, and empires that were the governing norm before the idea of dividing the world into nation-states took hold.

Claiming a legitimate national identity is serious business, and it requires a legitimate historical basis. This was the heart of Gingrich's complaint, and it is the point his critics either avoid or brush over. And the Palestinians do not have legitimate historical claims to nationhood, as historians more qualified than I have demonstrated time and again.

Or do they? What say the Palestinians? The Palestinians have never accepted the arguments of their better apologists in the West. They do not consider themselves an invented people like everybody else and so nonetheless legitimate and deserving of statehood. Accepting that line of thinking would also legitimize other "invented nations" like Israel, and the one thing that the Palestinians don't accept is the idea of legitimate Jewish nationalism. So the Palestinians are really in agreement with Newt Gingrich in this sense -- the essence of their rightful claim to the land must be historical or not be at all. So what is their claim?

In 1948, before there were "Palestinians" and there were just Arabs who lived in the British Mandate of Palestine, the local Arab inhabitants claimed simply that the land belonged to the Arabs. That seemed good enough, since no local Arab thought of himself as much more than a person associated with a local tribe or clan. Anyway, the Jews would soon be swept into the sea by Arab armies. Thus although the United Nations offered the local Arabs a state called Palestine, they declined to take it.

When the area was occupied by Jordanian and Egyptian armies in the West Bank and Gaza between 1948 and 1967, there was no call to create a Palestinian state in those territories, but rather to continue the struggle to eliminate the illegitimate (in Arab eyes) nation of Israel. The PLO was created only in 1964 (after the Arabs had lost two wars attempting to destroy Israel) and it rose to become the representative of the "Palestinian people" only in the mid-1970s (after the Arabs had lost two further campaigns).

In the view of their Western apologists, this is the essential beginning of true Palestinian nationalism. It doesn't matter that that it is only a generation or two old. But this isn't good enough for the Palestinian Arabs themselves, who realize that such a limited view of their historical legitimacy would also legitimize the Israeli state. And since attempts to destroy Israel by military force have failed, the better course is to combine military action with attacks on Israel's legitimacy.

So what is the Palestinian Arab's historical claim? Yasser Arafat claimed that the Arab Palestinians were the descendants of the Canaanites. It was a ridiculous assertion. The Arabs conquered the area in the 7th Century C.E., nearly two thousand years after the establishment of the first Jewish kingdoms, and six centuries after the Roman Diaspora of the Jews -- events firmly grounded in history. Arafat needed to establish a historical claim to the land that predated Jewish claims. And the Canaanite claim had a nice ring to fellow Arabs and anti-Zionists in general. The Jews had twice dispossessed the poor Palestinians.

Now, however, in the wake of Gingrich's comments, the Palestinian Arab position has changed yet again. In the Washington Post, Maen Rashid Areikat the PLO's chief United States representative, presents a broader and even more deeply rooted claim. The Palestinian Arabs date back to the building of Neolithic Jericho in 10,000 B.C.E! In accord with this new history -- tacking on another 8000 or so years of national existence -- the Palestinian Arabs now claim to be victims of the Canaanites as well as the Egyptians, Philistines (another previous proto-Palestinian people), Israelites (just one among many occupiers it seems), Persians, Greeks, Romans (they persecuted the Palestinian Arabs including one Jesus, not the Jews), Crusaders, Mongols, Ottomans, British, and finally those damned Israelites again. Never mind countless other conquerors of the area besides, in all those millennia before humans learned to read and write so that Palestinian Arab travails could be recorded. Surely, by Areikat's lights, the Palestinian Arabs are the most victimized people in the world.

Most importantly of all though, according to Areikat, this very ancient of all peoples is indeed somehow, someway, still Arab, a view which legitimizes not only "Palestinian" claims to the land, but broader Arab claims as well. This is absurd, but so what? Arabs and legions of Palestinian supporters will accept it without question.

Thus do the Palestinian Arabs undermine the arguments of their many Western defenders, who argue that a defined Palestinian claim to the land is better for Israel and the West than a larger pan-Arab claim. And for that matter, undermine the official positions of the United States and Israel as well. For Palestinian nationalism, in whatever form, has never been about establishing a new Arab state called Palestine -- call it Canaan for all they care, for Palestine is a Roman name -- but destroying an existing state called Israel. That is the truth that Gingrich touched. It is not just that Palestinians are an invented people, but that by inventing a bogus history, they seek to rob the Jews, a historically legitimate people, of their own.

Jonathan F. Keiler


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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