Newt Gingrich’s recent comments that the Palestinians are an “invented people”, while technically correct, is nothing new to the Israel Palestine discourse. The argument has a long history of usage amongst those who seek to distort the history of mass ethnic cleansing and human rights abuse against Palestinians by Israeli Zionist forces. However, the argument made by Gingrich is part of a series of broader pro Zionist collectivist interpretations of the history of the region. This article seeks to show the basis and use of such arguments for political gain.
Collectivism, the analysis of society based on groups as opposed individuals, is ingrained within modern political and historical dialogue. We have come to view classes, nations, and religions as real, living, breathing entities separate and distinct from those individuals whom constitute their membership. These subjective entities have come to dominate political and social discourse. This tendency is particularly acute in historical analysis, for example, it is common to hear in casual, as well as in academic conversation, such collectivist accounts of history as “the Germans killed the Jews in WW2”, the “British colonised the Irish for 800 years” or “the Arabs attacked the Jews in 1948”.
Since the rise of nationalism and the nation state, nations have become the primary means of categorising individuals. Our national identity is often how we define ourselves and how we are defined by others, and can be a source of shame or pride in differing contexts. This was not always the case but has become so as the nation state has become the building block for the international state system. Governments must now claim to be the representative of a coherent distinct national entity to have legitimacy as a state. The challenge of creating coherent unified national entities, often out of thin air, is the main problem facing state elites in newly created nation states. This project often involves creating a common historical narrative, language and culture, often with the aid of mass media and compulsory public schooling.
The Central Role of Nation in Zionism
This challenge is especially apparent in the state of Israel, who has aimed to create national ties and a common historical narrative between individual Jews from highly diverse cultures and backgrounds, few of them with roots in the area currently occupied by the state of Israel.
Israel is highly unusual in the world of nation states in that it doesn’t recognise any such distinct entity as an “Israeli nation”. Instead, the Israeli state recognises only the “Jewish nation” of which is made of up of subgroups of Jewish peoples such as European “Ashkenazy” Jews, North African and Mediterranean “Sephardic” Jews and Middle Eastern “Mizrahi” Jews, amongst over one hundred others.
Uniquely among the international state system, those who hold Israeli citizenship, including around one and half million Palestinians, are not automatically entitled to nationality. As such, Palestinians and their descendants who remained in Israel after the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Mandate Palestine by Zionist forces in 1948 and afterwards, are not entitled to nationality and the many state benefits that are given to Israeli nationals.
Framing the Debate
What is the reason for this? Well, one crucial aspect of creating the “self” is to create the “other”; there can be no “in” group unless there is an “out” group. In Israeli historical and political discourse the “other” is “the Arabs”. Who are “the Arabs”? Well they are certainly not the one million or so Arabic speaking Jews from Arab countries that came to Israel between 1948 and the early 1970’s. Nor are they the Jews who lived in relative peace with their Muslim and Christian brothers for centuries in Historic Palestine. Jews are Jews and cannot therefore, according to Zionist thought, also be Arabs. The Arabs include all non Jewish people of Arab background and, most importantly for Israeli purposes, include the Palestinians.
Now those that have travelled to Palestine as well as the broader Middle East will know that, while Palestinians indeed view themselves as Arabs, they have their own very distinct culture and political outlook, one that has been historically liberal and fiercely democratically minded. The lazy reference to Palestinians as simply “Arabs” is an Orientalist view of the Middle East as being a homogenous mono cultural megalith with little in the way of local tradition or diversity. But classifying Palestinians as such also serves a practical purpose.
It is no accident that the huge cultural and political differences between Palestinians and other Arab countries are ironed over by Israeli historians, educators and media. It is not some simple exercise in taxonomy but serves certain political propaganda functions. The aim in doing so is to frame the debate to one which Zionist thinkers feel they are better equipped to win. If Palestinians can be forced, like a square into a round hole, into a simplified and often ill fitting political entity, they easily slot into the Zionist narrative of Israel’s foundation and raison d’être; which claims that “the Arabs” attacked Israel in 1948, “the Arabs” did not accept the partition and “the Arabs” are barbarous and backward people who have no concept of democracy or human rights.
You will often hear, for example, Israeli commentators claim that “the Palestinian Israeli conflict is a front for the Arab Israeli conflict”. This is because the reality of the foundation of the state of Israel is far more nuanced then the “Israel versus the Arab world” account which Israel likes to present. Individual actor’s roles ranged from hostility to the foundation of Israel, as in the case of Syria, to outright collaboration in the case of Jordan.
Looked at individually, however, the position of Palestinians in the 1948 and 1967 conflicts was clearly that of victim. Relative to the size of the population, the ethnic cleansing of Mandate Palestine during the Nakba is one the worst cases of mass disposition in recent history. To this day the relationship of Palestinians to the state of Israel is entirely asymmetrical: one of colonised and coloniser, oppressor and oppressed. To speak of any meaningful “conflict” in Israel and Palestinian is to mistakenly suggest there are two combatants of relatively equal strength, when there is, in fact, only one. Instead of having to face these realities, Israeli apologists have sought to frame the Israel Palestine conflict in a way more amiable to the David and Goliath story of Israel versus the Arab world.
Collective Responsibility and Punishment
One important aspect of framing the debate in such a way is to put collective responsibility on Palestinian individuals for the perceived misconduct of other Arab leaders. Unfortunately, however, collective entities do not have bank accounts to pay fines or bodies to imprison; they are nonexistent as responsible cognisant actors. As such, the buck for collective responsibility, as conceived by whomever it is that’s passing the buck, is individuals within that collective, however it is envisioned. Whole nations of individuals, under such collectivist logic, can be held responsible for the crimes of “their” nation or group, irrespective of their personal involvement. By identifying Palestinians as simply “Arabs” they become more open to be held responsible for the perceived misconduct against Israel of the broader Arab world.
To give some examples, bellow are the three most common Zionist arguments using the above logic of collectivist responsibility and my attempt to debunk them;
“The Arabs rejected the 1948 partition plan for Palestine and attacked the newly created Israeli state. Why should Palestinians be given rights of national self determination when they rejected Israeli determination in 1948?”
If we accept this argument it would imply that a Palestinian child born this very day is responsible for the decision made by individuals hundreds of miles away, of no relation, from different backgrounds over 60 years ago. This responsibility would not be passed down on the basis of blood ties but on the basis of some loose collective affiliation with a broader entity, not as understood by him or her, but as understood by a hostile state, Israel.
“The Arabs already have several states, why should they be given another one?”
However, for Palestinians the fact that there are several other Arab nation states is irrelevant to the fact there is no Palestinian one. Palestinian refugees in neighbouring Arab states face significant discrimination and are often considered alien both socially and legally, as in the case of Lebanon. That Egyptians or Jordanians or Syrians have a state is no comfort to Palestinians who lack self determination in their places of origin.
“The Arab states exiled Jews after the creation of Israel in 1948 and do not recognise their right to return, therefore the Arabs should not be allowed return to their homes of origin in what is now Israel”
The right of return for Palestinian refugee’s is an individual right held by every displaced Palestinian person and is recognised as such under international law. Such a right is inalienable and is not dependent on the actions of others.
But what about the holocaust?
The argument here almost suggests that Jewish people as a collective have gained up human rights abuse “credits” from the horrors of the Holocaust that can be spent as needed: in this case on the Palestinians. The reality is that the attempt to dichotomise as antagonistic the Jewish experience of the holocaust with the ongoing Palestinian Nakba is crass and illogical. Both the Nakba and the Holocaust stand together as immense injustices; one could not logically be used to justify the other.
Of course Israel uses collective punishment on a smaller scale as it sees fit. Whole neighbourhoods have been flattened by Israeli bulldozers as punishment for the actions of individual Palestinian fighters and activists and commonly the family home of activists were regularly targeted for demolition during the second intifada, leaving whole families destitute.
Categorising whole groups of people is often a useful and necessary activity to better understand history and society. Since we cannot understand history, society or politics without analysing broader groups and group ties, we must be certain to be as exact as possible in identifying relevant actors and what their relationship is with each other and the rest of society. It will always be, however, an inexact science that simplifies individual experiences and relationships to certain events. Israel’s war has been largely against Palestinians: the Israel state and the Palestinian people are the two principle groups in the Middle East conflict and it is on that basis we should discuss both the conflict and the responsibility. Newt Gingrich’s comments are far from a search for historical truth but an attempt to rig collective arguments in Israel’s favour.