Posted by: sean | December 13, 2011

Newt Gingrich and Palestinian national identity

Palestinian refugees at the Lebanese border commemorating the nakba.

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.



  1. I wondered if you’d have the balls to go straight from a post eschewing all forms nationalism to one that defended Palestinian nationalism, and you didn’t disappoint. Of course, you did so while playing fast and loose with what Gingrich said. First, he referred to a people, not a nation. Therefore, the Jewish people have clearly been a people for millenia while the Palestinians have had no distinction from other Arabs until a century ago, which is where the word “invented” comes in. His argument doesn’t hinge on the recency a Palestinianism, but on the fact that it was a conscious tactical decision. When the Arabs couldn’t defeat Israel militarily, they created a distinct nation that would defeat it on grounds that westerners might be sympathetic to. But the history doesn’t support this invention, because unlike other nations which came about in much more organic or diplomatic ways, this was one created solely to ensure the destruction of another, thus making it more unique in recent history and a more cynical move that need not be indulged. After all the PLO in 1964 specifically said that the West Bank and Gaza were no “Palestinian” land, and only switched that claim when that land too came into the hands of the Jews. This is what happens when you invent a nation – there is not history and no facts to anchor your nationalistic arguments. Similarly, when a Fatah Revolutionary Council member rebutted that “The Palestinian people descended from the Canaanite tribe of the Jebusites that inhabited the ancient site of Jerusalem as early as 3200 B.C.E. The “Gingrich remarks are ignorant of the basic historical facts of the Middle East,” he was again uninhibited by facts (which maybe your national “myths” don’t require) because the Palestinian people have no distinct history as such. If he’d been at all constrained he would have know that the Jebusites were neither Arabs nor Semites. But to really put this artificial invention into context, we need only look to the PLO who’s military commander at the time said,”“There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation. It is only for political reasons that we carefully underline our Palestinian identity… yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.”

  2. Clearly you’re more comfortable engaging with anti-semites than with people who disagree with you… I’ll let you figure out what the underlying meaning of that is (here’s a hint: it’s not very liberal). Anyway, I’ll still be here, poking holes in these oh-so-soft arguments.

  3. Nate: I don’t engage (or these days read) your comments because they’re so often patently ridiculous and imply that I’m an anti-semite (exhibits 1 and 2 above). I generally don’t delete comments on here unless they’re really beyond the pale. But I also don’t feel obliged to respond to idiocies like this:

    “unlike other nations which came about in much more organic or diplomatic ways, this was one created solely to ensure the destruction of another”

    That sentence is so laughably absurd that I wouldn’t even know where to begin engaging it. So I won’t.

  4. Palestinians do not exist and because they don’t exist you can’t really kill them because they are invented anyway….but they are surely annoying like fuck sitting there, so they should be cleansed to make things coherent …so that when some shlomo opens his bible, things make sense again. It’s pretty simple actually. Of course it does help that our shlomo is armed to the teeth…Nate: guess what, the chair is also invented, but shit it exists, and so does the door, it’s invented, but hey it exists! You know what even the flag, somebody made it up few hundred years ago, but shit it exists too…but you are invented Nate, because I said so, and because you are invented, I think we should lock you up!!

  5. Sean, if you’d like to explain how you are so comfortable engaging with someone who makes and anti-Semitic remark without calling them out on it, as you did in the UNESCO thread, the floor is clearly yours. As for Exhibit 1, I’m not sure where you see the anti-Semitic implication there. As for the fact that you have an obsession with the world’s only Jewish state while ignoring much graver crimes in your adopted culture or anywhere else that fall way short of “liberal”, that’s up to you to explain as well. The fact that Israel holds itself up as a liberal democracy is no excuse for your obsession, since even the most heinous human rights abusers claim to be democracies. Again, I know it’s not comfortable to talk about, but how do you reconcile any of these things with your positions? As for the absurdity of my statement, and the statements made to back them up (by Palestinians and other Arabs, no less), I don’t think claiming their absurdity is a legitimate response. If anything it implies an inability to respond.
    Niz, I never, ever said that Palestinians don’t exist or that they should be cleansed (show me an Israeli policy that does), or that the bible is my basis. You make an extreme argument because it makes the whole thing sound absurd, rather than actually engaging and replying to anything that I’ve written. Namely, the recency and purpose of the “Palestinian People” which in no way denies the existence of Palestinian people. It’s not that complicated… If they were not simply created as a nation in order to destroy another, then how does that square with any of the arguments or quotes that I’ve written?

  6. I’d like to point out how impressed I am that despite not reading my posts you can quote them back to me… I’m guessing that’s based on intuition. “I generally don’t delete comments on here unless they’re really beyond the pale.” I hate to bring up the A word again, but there have been a lot of anti-Semitic posts that I’ve seen in your comments section, which clearly means that anti-Semitism is not beyond the pale. Kudos again.

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