First, Doctor Professor Newt Gingrich — in an interview with a cable channel called “The Jewish Channel” — said the Palestinians were “an invented people.” They were really just Arabs, he explained, and they “had a chance to go many different places” other than where they live now, except that they didn’t because of some combination of them not wanting to be relocated in order to benefit the creation of Israel and or the people (other Arab nations) not wanting to take them in. (I’ve embeded the video of the original Gingrichian statement at the end of this post.)
It should be noted that although he was being interviewed by The Jewish Channel, in no way was the interviewer soliciting Gingrich’s view on the peoplehood of the Palestinians. The interviewer, Steven I. Weiss, has said that he himself was taken aback with what Gingrich said. The interviewer had asked Gingrich only whether he considered himself a “Zionist.”
I know that term is loaded now in some circles and passé in others. But in this context, the question was really just whether Gingrich supported the fundamental Zionist principle that the Jewish people need a state of their own, a place of refuge from the many atrocities that befell Jews during their many centuries of statelessness. (In the interest of fairness, it must be acknowledged that most of the atrocities and certainly the worst of them were visited upon the Jews by Christian Europeans and not by Arab Muslims.)
Gingrich’s choice to attack the Palestinian “peopleness” was a throwback to a view that is no longer fashionable even on Israeli right, where it used to be commonly asserted as an argument that the Palestinian Arabs were not sufficiently distinctive from Arabs in general as to need a state of their own.
But why would someone make that not-really-a-people argument in 2011? A cynical political analysis is available. The whole Republican field seems to be competing to be the most pro-Israel, which appeals not only to some Jewish voters and contributors but also to the Christian zionists among the evangelicals.
But if we rule out crass political considerations, the only reason I can think of to challenge palestinian peoplehood is to undermine the Palestinian aspiration to a state of their own.
On the other hand, in the aftermath of the interview, Gingrich affirmed many times that he does indeed favor a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and presumably one of the states would be a state for the invented-people, the Palestinians.
On the third hand (and in this matter, Gingrich does seem to need more than the usual allotment of hands), in the debate Saturday night in Iowa, Gingrich also faulted the Obama administration for “tr[ying] to pressure the Israelis into a peace process,” a peace process that would presumably be designed to lead to a negotiated settlement involving a two-state solution, which Gingrich favors.
This is why I said in the headline of this post that Gingrich has not made sense on the issue.
Lies about the Mideast
When pushed at the Saturday debate by moderator George Stephanopoulos on the question of his “invented people” remark, Gingrich said his statement was historically accurate and that he made the statement “as a historian who’s looked at the world stage for a very long time.” He then segued into an attack on Palestinians in general (“These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools. They have textbooks that say, ‘If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?’ We pay for those textbooks through our aid money. It’s fundamentally — time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Enough lying about the Middle East.’”
Gingrich didn’t specify the lies about the Mideast he has in mind. He is certainly correct that many Arabs continue to say vile things about Israel and talk of wiping Israel off the map is, sadly, a popular applause line in the region.
If by telling this truth, Gingrich means that the Palestinians can never be trusted to live in peace in their own state alongside Israel, then perhaps he needs to reconsider his support for the two-state solution.
But before making his name as a Mideast peacemaker, Gingrich was speaking as a historian, about who is a people and who needs a state of their own. If we were take Gingrich’s statement literally and seriously, it would be the entry point into a weird, awkward and complicated inquiry in the nature of peopleness.
It would get pretty wild, but Gingrich at least implies that, in order to have the right to a country of their own, a proper “people” should probably be culturally, ethnically and linguistically distinct and have inhabited a particularly territory for a very long time, many centuries perhaps, or longer, and I suppose have a long history of recognition by the rest of the world as a “nation-state” within settled and widely accepted borders.
The United States wouldn’t even begin to qualify on several of those scores, although most politicians comfortably refer to the American “People,” notwithstanding our staggering ethnic diversity, the relatively recent arrival (by historical time) of the current dominant group and the portions of U.S. territory that was taken by conquest over neighboring peoples.
Other new ‘nations’
In recent memories, we have seen at least the legal creation of many new “nations” (South Sudan, Eritrea, East Timor, Slovakia, the Republic of Kosovo come to mind, although the independent status of Kosovo is murkier than the others, just to rattle off a few cases to make the point).
Israel, in fact, which is a member state of the United Nations, is fairly recent “invention” as an independent state and has never, during its brief and impressive history, had a settled status within internationally recognized borders. And that, of course, is a big part of the reason we are even discussing the peoplehood of the Palestinians.
Gingrich was, of course, a history and geography professor before he went into politics. His dissertation topic (“Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945–1960”) would have surely led to a thorough knowledge of colonialism and the emergence of new, independent nations.
So we should assume he knows that his statement that there had not been an independent Palestinian state during the centuries of Ottoman Turkish domination of the Mideast would apply equally to the Arabs populations of what are now the nation-states of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, all of which were “invented” in 20th century by some combination of the Brits, the French, the League of Nations and the United Nations, mixing and matching all kinds of ethnicities and sub-ethnicities, which is (vastly oversimplified) how Iraq came to be a mixture of Arabs and Kurds and Sunnis and Shiites.
Whoa. I had better stop free-associating about peoplehood and nations before I get in real trouble. If you are motivated, the Gingrich remark about the Palestinians was discussed extensively by all of the Repub candidates on Saturday night and the full debate transcript is here.
The original Gingrich remark on The Jewish Channel is below: