Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has caused quite a stir with his recent comments about the Palestinian people. Last week Gingrich said in an interview that the Palestinians are “an invented people.”
On Saturday at ABC’s debate in Des Moines, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked about whether Gingrich’s statement was correct and whether it would inflame anti-Americanism in the Arab world. If you expected Gingrich to back off after having unwisely run his mouth—as he frequently does—you would were disappointed. Gingrich quadrupled down on his anti-Palestinian stance. “These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools…. It’s fundamentally—time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Enough lying about the Middle East.’ ”
Ron Paul called Gingrich’s statement “stirrin’ up trouble,” while Mitt Romney said we should not say anything about Israel without prior approval from the Israeli Prime Minister. Gingrich, meanwhile, did his pompous historian shtick:
“The fact is, the Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story. Somebody ought to have the courage to go all the way back to the 1921 League of Nations mandate for a Jewish homeland, point out the context in which Israel came into existence, and ‘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. And you’re not gonna win the long run if you’re afraid to stand firm and stand for the truth.”
It is a perfectly legitimate subject for debate, with evidence on both sides, as to whether Palestinian has been a historically distinct ethnic or national identity. It’s worth noting, though, that every national identity was invented at one point or another.
But imagine, for the sake of argument, that what Gingrich says is true. So what? If Palestinians are just an undifferentiated group of Arabs who happen to live in the West Bank and Gaza, what are the implications of that?
Gingrich seems to think the implication is that Palestinians aren’t entitled to their own state, although he doesn’t quite say so. If he opposes a two-state solution, that puts him on the far fringe of both American and international politics. (His spokesman says he supports a two-state solution as part of a negotiated settlement.)
But more importantly, Gingrich is laying out a perverse definition of statehood. Does Gingrich think that states should be ethnocentric? The United States isn’t, although Gingrich’s appeal is largely based on white Christian ethnocentric nationalism. Israeli national identity is as much a twentieth-century invention as Palestinian identity.
Say what you want about George W. Bush, but he believed that freedom and democracy were universal human rights. The Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, like all people everywhere, deserve the protections of constitutional liberty and the right of self-determination. The people of Gaza City have those rights as much as the people of Des Moines, and neither group should have to prove to Newt Gingrich that they have a unified national ethnic identity to enjoy those rights.
Conservatives claim to treat people as individuals rather than members of groups. One might say that by focusing on the history of national identity a group of people does or doesn’t have, Gingrich is engaging in the worst sort of identity politics. A resolution to the people of the West Bank and Gaza, such as a two-state solution, is optimal for moral and practical reasons. You don’t need to believe in Palestinian national identity to recognize that. Nor, for that matter, do you need to reject Palestinian identity to oppose the right of return as impractical. But morality and practicality seem not to matter to Gingrich.