Newt Gingrich has recently made some waves by calling Palestinians an invented people: “Remember, there was no Palestine as a state – [it was] part of the Ottoman Empire. I think we have an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and historically part of the Arab community and they had the chance to go many places.”
Presumably, Gingrich is using “people” here as a synonym for “nation,” and in that sense he’s right: the Palestinian nation is an invented one. But then again, so are all nations. The doyen of the study of nationalism is probably Ernest Renan, whose famous lecture “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (“What is a nation?”) included one of the most famous pronouncements on the phenomenon of nationalism: “Or l’essence d’une nation est que tous les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun, et aussi que tous aient oublié bien des choses.” (“Now, the essence of a nation is that all the individuals have much in common, and that all of them have also forgotten much.”) Also germane here is Renan’s idea that “L’existence d’une nation est … un plébiscite de tous les jours.” (“The existence of a nation is … a daily referendum.”)
Renan also speaks of the nation as a sort of solidarity, a formulation that Max Weber echoes later in his essay, “Structures of Power,” by calling the nation “a specific sentiment of solidarity in the face of other groups” and “a community of sentiment” with “memories of a common political destiny.” Later, Benedict Anderson expanded on Weber and Renan in his classic Imagined Communities, in which he traced the advent of nationalism to the late 18th century in the American colonies of England and Spain by what he called “creole pioneers.” There has been some dispute as to whether nationalism first emerged in the Americas or in Europe, but the general time period is generally agreed on, as is Anderson’s definition of nationalism as an “imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”
Nationalism, then, is a relatively recent invention but one that relies on national myths of antiquity in order to bolster the modern claims of nationhood. For Anderson, more organic forms of nationalism (as opposed to official, top-down nationalisms) were tied to language and the spread of “print-capitalism” and modeled on the earlier creole models:
If we consider the character of these newer nationalisms which, between 1820 and 1920, changed the face of the Old World, two striking features mark them off from their ancestors. First, in almost all of them “national print-languages” were of central ideological and political importance, whereas Spanish and English were never issues in the revolutionary Americas. Second, all were able to work from visible models provided by their distant, and after the convulsions of the French Revolution, not so distant, predecessors. The “nation” thus became something capable of being consciously aspired to from early on, rather than a slowly sharpening frame of vision (p. 67).
And this model was “pirated,” as Anderson puts it, throughout the world, spawning national movements throughout Europe and then throughout the colonized world.
So where does this leave the Palestinians? Gingrich is right that until relatively recently there was no Palestinian national sentiment (although according to the King Crane commission, there was certainly a pan-Arab sentiment) among Arabs in Palestine, but that was the case in all empires, whether the Maygars or Czechs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Kenyans or Somalilanders in the British Empire. Likewise, before Zionism was established at the turn of the century (Herzl published Der Judenstaat in 1897), there was no Jewish nationalist sentiment to speak of.
Nationalism craves myth in order to lend credence to the national project, and the further back the national myth can call, the better. In the words of Ernest Gellner:
Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, whicih sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing culture: that is a reality, for better or worse, and in general an inescapable one (pp. 48-9).
The continuity that was once offered up by religious tradition is replaced or supplemented by a secular, national continuity. This was primarily done by lexicographers who created collections of national sentiment through dictionaries, eager to use national mythologies in order to create modern nations. Anderson quotes one Greek who wishes to “debarbarize” the Greeks, making them “beings worthy of Pericles and Socrates”:
For the first time the nation surveys the hideous spectacle of its ignorance and trembles in measuring with the eye of the distance separating it from its ancestors’ glory. This painful discovery, however, does not precipitate the Greeks into despair: We are the descendants of Greeks, they implicitly told themselves, we must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it (p. 72).
Consequently, we have a search for historical continuity that has Macedonia and Greece battling over the mantle of Alexander the Great and Uzbekistan claiming the 14th century conqueror Timurlane as an explicitly Uzbek hero.
So for anyone with even a passing familiarity with the study of nationalism, Gingrich’s comment is a banality. However, Gingrich is not just stating that nationalism is constructed; rather, he is implicitly suggesting that as an “invented” nation, the Palestinians have no right to their lands. Presumably, as others have recently done with little regard to history or irony, he is contrasting the invented nationalism of Palestinians for what he believes to be a genuine Jewish nationalism. Leaving aside the fact that Jewish nationalism is just as much a construct as any other nationalism (and arguably even more explicitly so than some), the idea that Gingrich seems to be advancing here is that without the claim of a national sentiment, one’s land and home are up for grabs by anyone who claims them as part of their national heritage or, in the case of the US, manifest destiny.
By this logic, European colonialism was more than fair game, since colonial subjects lacked national identities. Given Gingricht’s attachment to the white man’s burden, this would seem true to form. And this is the Zionist argument (particularly in its contemporary American variety) in a nutshell: since our national myths claim this land as a birthright from God, our “national self-determination” trumps your individual rights to not be ethnically cleansed from your homes and return to those homes once you’ve been dispossessed. And even if you do have a sense of nationhood, it’s artificial and invented, whereas ours is timeless and handed down from the Almighty himself.
Finally, what’s happening here is that Gingrich is attempting to add a veneer of legitimacy to the Zionist national project by attacking Palestinian nationalism with an expression of that Weberian “sentiment of solidarity in the face of other groups.” Of course, American politics being what it is, Gingrich, who is neither Israeli nor Jewish, feels the need to be more Catholic than the Pope, as it were, in arguing for someone else’s national mythology.