Newt Gingrich is RIGHT about the Palestinians…

…and it doesn’t matter. 

Thoughtful voices across the political spectrum and the world have rightfully been attacking Gingrich for calling the Palestinians an “invented people.”  But let’s be clear on what Gingrich is wrong about.

You don’t need Gingrich to tell you that the idea of a “Palestinian people” is relatively new.  All you need is the foremost historian of the idea, Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi, to confirm it.  In his (very good) book Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, Khalidi puts the crystallization of the idea slightly after 1908, the year of the Young Turk revolt in Istanbul.  That event, Khalidi argues, catalyzed the Arabs in what is now known as Palestine to reconsider their allegiance to Ottoman Sultan (also the holder of the Caliphate), and begin to think in more nationalistic terms.  (For Khalidi, this timing is important because it allows him to argue that Palestinian Identity did not arise simply as a reaction to the Balfour Declaration and the beginnings of mass Jewish migration).

And you know what?  It’s irrelevant as a political or a moral matter.  Millions of Palestinians now sincerely and deeply see themselves as Palestinians.  It genuinely forms part of their identity.  It’s not a pose.  To tell them that they are all living under some form of mass false consciousness and that thus they have no claim to national rights is profoundly unethical.  Gingrich converted to Roman Catholicism just a few years ago, in order to marry his third wife.  (Insert joke here).  No one would dare say that Gingrich’s newfound religion is fake because it is new or because he “invented” it himself.  (They might say that it is false because the man is a massive hypocrite and fraud, but that’s not about timing: that’s about Gingrich).

Before the middle of the 19th century, virtually no Jews were Zionists.  No one seriously entertained the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, least of all Jews themselves.  You can’t divorce Zionism from the rise of nationalism in the 19th century.  One could easily argue that a majority of global Jewry before the Second World War were not Zionist.  Does that mean that it is “invented”?  Well, maybe, but the point is irrelevant: it is real.  It is true.  It is authentic, and it doesn’t matter when it arose.

In 1782, Thomas Jefferson could call Virginia his “country,” and only a few people in what were formerly the American colonies would have identified themselves nationally as Americans.  So that’s invented, too.  Are we happy now?

All identities are, as Benedict Anderson so clearly pointed out, “imagined.”  These identities are all culturally constructed and none of them is in the least illegitimate because of that.  To properly judge the legitimacy of someone’s identity, we might ask other questions, such as whether they accept others’ definitions of their own identities, how they see their identities developing in the political sphere (i.e. do they want to establish free and just societies — I know, that’s a longer discussion), what are the basic values underlying their collective conception.  But enough of this.

What is really wrong with Gingrich’s position isn’t that he is wrong, or even that he is telling a partial truth, but that he arrogates to himself the right to invent his own identity as well as the right to tell others that their identities are false.  He is, in short, a bigoted elitist.  But you knew that.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

28 thoughts on “Newt Gingrich is RIGHT about the Palestinians…”

  1. I’m not sure this works.

    In the area of contested identities that I know the most about (American vs Virginian) the general point of view today seems to be that the Americans had a right to insist by force of arms that the Virginians were American, whatever the Virginians thought.

  2. Americans could only force the issue upon Virginians because Virginians ratified a document promising allegiance to the United States of America. The dispute which escalated to war was whether or not that agreement was irrevocable. I’d like to think that the Civil War settled the matter internally and today even most southerners consider themselves Americans first.

    Jonathan is arguing that it would be ridiculous for, for example, Great Britain to unilaterally decide that Virginians weren’t Americans, regardless of what Virginians thought….

    1. Not to mention the fact that the primary reason why Virginians decided in 1860 that they weren’t Americans is that they wanted the right to keep tens of thousands of other Virginians enslaved (or sell thousands of others into bondage elsewhere). That was the essential nature of southern nationalism; it was the essential reason why they seceded; and it remains the essential reason why no one should have respected their claims to nationalism. As John Randolph remarked, “If the federal government can do that, then it can take away our slaves.” This goes to my second-to-last paragraph. But it’s not because it was “invented”; it was because it represented a moral abomination.

      1. I’m not certain that “but their goals were evil” really enlightens the discussion much; similarly, some portion of the Palestinian/Arab “people” would very much like to have no Jewish state in Palestine. That might be relevant from a “can we tolerate this” perspective, but it is not very important to a “are Palestinians a people distinct from Arabs generally?”

        1. Yup. Virginia’s national aspirations weren’t legitimate, but that judgment is a contingent one, based on the nature of those aspirations. Gingrich’s point is that Palestinian national aspirations can’t be legitimate.

    2. Virginia seceded as an individual state, but promptly joined the Confederacy – under a constitution which carried over the essential federal clauses of the US Constitution, and made no provision for re-secession. The Condeferacy fought and died as a bloc. I suggest that Virginian identity post 1800 is a red herring.

  3. Useful somewhat analogous situation was the Serbian identity: pretty much submerged during Tito, cynically reborn after. Lots of folks felt authentically Serbian, enough to kill as enemies the neighbors they had been living amicably with for fifty years. My father-in-law was wistful for the relaxed non-nationalism of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Minor differences can be inflamed. Legit? Of course. Desirable? Of course not.

  4. I’m no Gingrich fan but I don’t think this last paragraph follows from the rest of the article. Palestinians are an invented people. Yes. But so too are Americans an invented people. Or even Virginians. Yes. That makes him bigoted? Does he state that because Palestinians are invented that they don’t deserve to live? I mean come on, at least connect the dots here. Don’t phone it in.

    1. I cannot speak for Jonathan but I would answer by saying that we are not likely to hear Gingrich say that Israelis are an invented identity–certainly not when he is in a hotly contested nominating process among Republican primary voters, who would bolt from his camp if he hinted that Zionism was anything less than an eternal verity declared and guaranteed by God. If Newt does say that Israelis are a newfangled invention also, then we can await another leading contender for the nomination plummeting from grace.

      1. Benny, seriously, one doesn’t have to advocate genocide or even burn a cross to be a bigot. Gingrich’s meaning is unambiguous. Do you really think it is in any way conceivable that Gingrich was saying that the Palestinians are an invented people, just like Americans? If so, how can you defend that view? If not, why would you suggest such a thing?

        I’d truly like to rehabilitate the words “bigotry” and “racism” to describe not only people like Gingrich, but people who engage in deliberate, aggressive ignorance about people like Gingrich.

        1. To answer your question (which was addressed to me but confusingly a reply to Ed Whitney) I will ask a question. What exactly do you mean? Your aren’t being clear. Are you suggesting that Gingrich sees no parallel in invented people, and therefore no parallel betwixt Palestinians and Americans?

          As to why I would suggest a view that I know Gingrich does not subscribe (that is your second question, right?), I guess I would answer it with: to prod the blog’s authors to write better. If a casual reader who had little knowledge of Newt’s foreign policy views read the post they might be a bit baffled as to why calling Palestinians an invented people was bigoted when the author points out that Americans are an invented people. It is terrible writing, and I hold the authors to a higher standard because sometimes they write good things.

          1. It’s bigoted because Gingrich denies other peoples legitimacy based upon their self-conception while insisting on it for himself and his people. In other words, Gingrich gives himself rights that he denies to others, and his grounds for denying it to others is something that he does himself. That’s bigoted. Not that complicated.

          2. As to why I would suggest a view that I know Gingrich does not subscribe (that is your second question, right?), I guess I would answer it with: to prod the blog’s authors to write better.

            All I can say is that this isn’t helpful. Why in the world should an author address an issue that even you acknowledge doesn’t exist? Nobody – including you, apparently – is confused about Gingrich’s intent. Why should we pretend that we are?

            If you’re merely advocating on behalf of people who lack your sophistication, you need to supply evidence that such a person exists. And if you find such a person, you might want to tell them to follow the link in the original post, which included more elaboration on Gingrich’s views.

      2. “That makes him bigoted? ”

        Yes, unless (a) he goes around saying it about other people, and (b) supports crushing those other people.

        1. Even saying (a) about the Israelis would create a firestorm, and maybe some interviewer will awaken his pedantic “historian” sub-personality just long enough to induce him to blurt something which will lead to the disenchantment of the Christian Coalition.

  5. Just today, I had to correct another person of Jonathan’s and my tribe who tried to tell me there was only a Palestinian national movement after the Israelis won the Six Day War in 1967. I had to enlighten him that the first official Palestinian liberation movements took up arms in 1955, against the Jordanians and even the Egyptians. The different Palestinian armed movements merged into the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964. They had battles against King Hussein of Jordan, who finally shut them down for good in a 14,000 person massacre in September 1970, which is how Arafat ended up just barely making it to Lebanon. Yes, the PLO called for the destruction of Israel in 1964, but it was also about overthrowing the Hashemite Kingdom.

    Nuance doesn’t do very well among the more extreme Zionists, regardless of religious faith. I still call myself a Zionist, but only to try and restore some positive view of the term. If you are not a Zionist, then you don’t believe in the State of Israel. I believe in the State of Israel, I just don’t believe it needs to be in the West Bank or exercising the sort of control of Gaza that it continues to do….But that’s another story.

    1. Did Zionism exist prior to the 19th century?

      Nationalism seems to be a new, strange and highly varied concept, and largely one that did not exist prior to the 19th century. It appears to be people who self-identify as ‘a people’ who are citizens of a sovereign state. It’s not a language grouping normally but in the case of Germany it was a people who identified themselves as German-speakers and who created a state (Germany) they could belong to in common. At the same time the Italians, who created Italy based on identification as members of a historical land and tradition, but when Italy was created only about 2 1/2 % of the members of the new Italy spoke Italian. Australia, I am told, became a nation instead of just several colocated British colonies because of their participation in WW I.

      What was it about nationalism that destroyed both the Austria-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire? How many nationalities – including the Palestinians – grew out of the collapse of those two Empires?

      Did nationalism itself exist prior to the 19th century?

      If Newt is a historian he should know the answer to my questions. But if he is just a stupid man acting like he thinks an intelligent person would act ….

      1. Zionism in the nationalist European sense began with Moses Hess and his essay in the 1860s, “Rome & Jerusalem.” Theodore Herzl, a journalist in Europe, wrote the significant and popular piece on Zionism in the 1890s. You are correct that the nationalist movements in Italy and Germany began in the 19th Century, and it is from those sources that the Zionist nationalism began.

        On the other hand, you are also correct that there was a larger sense of being German or Italian for many centuries before. And of course, the Jewish religion’s tenet since the so-called Great Dispersion 2,000 years ago was that one day, all the Jews would return to the Promised Land, i.e. Zion or Palestine.

        The Palestinian Arabs were there for centuries, though somewhat nomadic.

        As I think most commenters and Jonathan agree, Gingrich’s denialism is sick, but there is a sizable group of prominent members of American-Jewish organizations who nod in agreement with Gingrich’s remark. That is why I and other Jews like Jonathan are right to stand up and reject such statements.

  6. Thank you; as anyone at all familiar with the history of nationalism knows, they’re all invented. And considerable effort went into inculcating (aka retailing) these identities. Just think about Bildung, or about classrooms throughout the French empire echoing to “nos ancetres les Gaulois.”

    But what’s really wrong with Gingrich is that he then went on to say that these people are evil, that they teach their children to blow themselves up, and all like that. So my last paragraph would have been different. He exempts America from the invented nationalities. Maybe. By implication. Or maybe not.

    What’s *really* wrong with Gingrich when it comes to blithe pronunciations like this one is twofold: the consequences he’s willing to entertain for those others, and what he leaves out and lets his audiences infer.

  7. From the point of view of achieving a peace deal, the question of the authenticity of the Palestinians as a distinct people whose aspirations for national self-determination must be recognized is equivalent to the question of the authenticity of the Jews as a distinct people whose aspirations for national self-determination must be recognized. Either both of these propositions must be respected to achieve peace, or neither of them need be. So Gingrich’s claim is deeply irrelevant either from a political perspective, or from a logical perspective.

  8. For the record, the Young Turk revolt in 1908 broke out in Salonika (Thessaloniki today) not Istanbul. Curious that both Ataturk and Venizelos cut their political teeth in the same city, though not quite at the same time.

    1. I believe Ataturk’s childhood home is in Thessaloniki (Salonica). Which always reminds me of the fact that Jinnah’s home is in Mumbai (Bombay). The world is strange.

  9. Allow me to pounce on this opportunity to recommend “The Invention of Tradition” (1992), edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.

  10. So Gingrich was technically correct (their nationality is “invented”) but that is true of just about everyone in the world today, and certainly Newt intended his comment to reflect the popular bigotry of the GOP electorate. About the only usefulness of the comment to those of us in the RBC is that it confirms his utter shallowness as an historian, something to which we all have a duty to point out at every opportunity.

Comments are closed.