In an interview with the Jewish Channel on December 9, would-be US Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich offered his views on the legitimacy of Palestinian national identity:
…remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places. And for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940’s, and I think it’s tragic.
Gingrich may have a PhD in history, but it is pretty clear he knows nothing of the history or nature of nationalism. All nationalisms are, of course, based on a common sense of identity and experience—what political scientist Benedict Anderson famously referred to as “imagined communities.” It is hardly surprising that Palestinian identity would emerge from the shared experience of colonial rule, enforced Jewish immigration, repression, war, and forced displacement (that latter being euphemistically described by Gingrich as “a chance to go many places”–as if ethnic cleansing and exile were a summer holiday).
Gingrich later defended his position, arguing that “Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists.” As the Washington Post commented, “the statement put Gingrich at odds not only with the international community but with all but an extremist fringe in Israel” (a point also echoed by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz).
Rather ironically, earlier in the same interview Gingrich draws upon the example of the American War of Independence to make a point, noting that the pin he wears on his lapel is the command flag of General Washington at Valley Forge. Yet American identity is perhaps the preeminent example of an “imagined community” (or an “invented people.”). No one had ever thought of themselves as “American” before the 17th century or so. European colonists were generally of British stock, and “American” nationalism didn’t become politically relevant until the latter half of the 18th century. In the years that followed, the American state deliberately sought to inculcate a sense of common citizenship among its diverse population, through national myths, symbols, and mass education. (“Canadian” nationalism evolved in somewhat similar ways, and since the 19th century has been very much defined in self-conscious distinction to Canada’s powerful neighbour to the south.)
In short, in finding fault with the supposedly artificial nature of the Palestinians’ deep-seated sense of national identity, Gingrich is showing a fundamental disregard for a core principle of freedom (the freedom to choose one’s social identity) and self-determination. His shallow blindness to the rights, hopes, and dreams of others neither does him credit as a political candidate, nor does it serve the search for Middle East peace. He also shows a striking lack of appreciation for the “invention” of his own diverse country—a country of overwhelmingly immigrant origins, once “part of the British Empire”—and its remarkable struggle to forge a common sense of political belonging through the pain of repression, revolution, and civil war.