By David Remnick, December 11, 2011
Late last week, as part of a Republican pander-fest for the Jewish vote—what Jon Stewart aptly called a “tuchus kiss-off”—Newt Gingrich, the frontrunner in Iowa and South Carolina, turned on the spigot of his pedantry and called the Palestinians an “invented” people.
It was the most underhanded sort of rhetorical maneuver. Speaking on the Jewish Channel, Gingrich said, “Remember, there were—there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire” until the early twentieth century. “I think that we’ve had invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who 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 nineteen-forties, and it’s tragic.”
Naturally and justifiably, Palestinian politicians rushed forward to cite the underlying racism and destructiveness of Gingrich’s remark, which clearly sought to question the historical existence of the Palestinians as a people. A leading official for the Palestinian Authority, Saeb Erekat, called Gingrich’s comments “the lowest point of thinking anyone can reach… He is denying our existence.”
You can be sure that Gingrich did not care a whit for what Palestinians, here or in the U.S., would think. The Palestinian vote will not decide swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, or, above all, Florida; a considerable shift in the Jewish vote could.
Gingrich and his fellow Republicans have sensed a potential softening in the Jewish vote. In 2008, only African-Americans were more solidly behind Barack Obama, who, according to exit polls, won seventy-eight per cent of the Jewish vote. But the Republicans are hoping to woo at least the more conservative sector of Jewish Americans—those who feel that Obama has been too hard on Benjamin Netanyahu. And, because Gingrich has a little learning and a darkly sophisticated memory for intellectual battle, he catered to his cause by employing the word “invented.” In this context, the word summons a 1984 bestseller that was once totemic on the Jewish right (and still is, for some): “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine,” by Joan Peters.
Peters, who was not a historian, put forward a purportedly scholarly construction based on the notion, as Golda Meir famously put it, that there is “no such thing as a Palestinian people.” The book, which is an ideological tract disguised as history, made the demographic argument that most people who call themselves Palestinians have short roots in the territory and are Arabs who came from elsewhere. It suggests that the territory that is now Israel was all but “uninhabited” before the Zionist movement began. It was a book that implicitly made the argument that Palestine was a tabula rasa waiting for its Jewish revival; or, as the old slogan had it: “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
The book was not only a commercial success; it also won plaudits from Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, Martin Peretz, Theodore H. White, Lucy Dawidowicz, Arthur Goldberg, and Elie Wiesel. For a time, it was wielded as a means to dismiss Palestinian claims on the land, and a means to be dismissive of Palestinians entirely. The book was thoroughly discredited by an Israeli historian, Yehoshua Porath, and many others who dismantled its pseudo-scholarship. Even some right-wing critics, like Daniel Pipes, who initially reviewed the book positively, later admitted that Peters’s work was shoddy and “ignores inconvenient facts.”
To this day, however, for some people who cannot accept, or even deal rationally with, the claims of Palestinians, “From Time Immemorial” and other such propaganda still have their place. Never mind that Peters fails to use Arab sources and that her work is full of distortions. Hers is a book with clear polemical purpose: to deny Palestinian Arabs an identity and any territorial claim; it makes the case that the Arabs in question should instead live in Jordan. (It should also go without saying that radical and bigoted polemicists on the other side of the Arab-Israeli dispute have their own pseudo-scholarship—their own numbing, often anti-Semitic, tracts—which make the case that Israel, and the Jewish people, are alien and have no claim on the land.)
Those who value books like “From Time Immemorial,” those who talk as Gingrich has, fail to ask how they, as Americans, can dismiss Palestinians as “an invented people” when national self-invention is a reality for Americans and countless others on the globe. Palestinian nationalism may be historically recent and, in some measure, a reaction to Zionism, but that does not discount its legitimacy, its cultural cohesion and meaning, or its claims. There are many recent nationalisms—many nationalisms that grew out of regional conflicts or colonial borders.
Gingrich was hardly alone in his cynical pandering last week. Rick Perry, who seemed spectacularly uncomfortable lighting a menorah with religious Jews as governor, declared, at the Republican Jewish Coalition Forum, in Washington, D.C., that he feels a “special connection to the Holy Land.” Michele Bachmann trumped him when she reminded her listeners that she once worked on a kibbutz. (Who had the heart to mention that the kibbutzim were radical experiments in collectivism?) Mitt Romney declared that Obama had shown himself “timid and weak” in the face of Iran and had therefore “emboldened Palestinian hardliners.” He said that the President had taken a “course of appeasement” and had “immeasurably set back the prospect of peace in the Middle East.” Rick Santorum said, “the President, for every thug and hooligan, for every radical Islamist, has had nothing but appeasement.” Ron Paul was not allowed to participate in the Forum because, among other things, he would cut all foreign aid, including to Israel.
Lately, no pandering seems out of bounds. Gingrich even pandered to one of the Netanyahu government’s favorite causes—clemency for Jonathan Jay Pollard, who passed American secrets to the Israelis and has been serving a life sentence in prison since 1987. “If we can get to the point where I’m satisfied that there’s no national security threat, and if he’s in fact served within the range of people who’ve had a similar problem, then I’d be inclined to consider clemency.”
Gingrich’s enormous self-regard, his talent for slagging everyone in his path, is nicely laid out by Hendrik Hertzberg in this week’s Comment. In an effort to show how far Gingrich will go to pander to one group in particular, I would only add one last quotation to Rick’s well-chosen galley: In the mid-nineties, when he was at his zenith as Speaker, Gingrich sought to place himself in history. What he said was, “People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz.”