“Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” asks the voice of God from out of the whirlwind in the Book of Job (38:2).
This week the answer would be Newt Gingrich, whose sloppy and misleading comment that the Palestinians are an “invented” people set off predictable reactions of outrage and mockery.
Where was the mockery when President Obama spoke of 57 states, sullen Newt partisans will ask, not without reason. In this country the gaffes of conservatives are dissected, picked over and spotlighted by a vindictive media that for the most part deeply hates and fears the right wing. Liberal gaffes get a lighter treatment, unless the press is angry at a liberal leader for not being liberal or successful enough.
True enough, but all the more reason why a Republican on the national stage for more than twenty years should have learned to avoid damaging slips.
When it comes to the Palestinians, the Newtster isn’t all wrong. (Being 100 percent wrong is almost as hard as being 100 percent right and in this case Gingrich hasn’t achieved it.)
[R]emember 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.
This is not factually incorrect as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Palestinian nationalism is a relatively young movement and the Palestinians themselves have disputed from time to time whether their primary identity should be as Muslims, as Arabs or as Palestinians. Palestinians freely acknowledge this and Palestinian historians write about the modern emergence of a specifically Palestinian identity.
But this doesn’t get the ex-speaker off the hook. The media may be overplaying the gaffe, but it was a real one and unlike random verbal missteps it is the kind of thing that would set off a diplomatic firestorm if uttered by the President of the United States.
On the question of the Palestinians, Gingrich is only half right — and it isn’t the big half. Yes, there was a time in the not too distant past when the forbears of many of the people who think of themselves as Palestinian did not think of themselves in that way, but so what? Nationalism in its modern form is itself a relatively young phenomenon, and the creation of newly conscious nationalities and identities is one of the most common developments in modern world history.
Until relatively recently the idea that people who speak a common language should have a common political destiny expressed in a common state made no sense in much of the world. It still doesn’t in India, for example, where the nation is a mix of many different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups — some of them larger than many independent ethnic nation states in many parts of the world.
Some “nations” are newer than others, and many national identities are still hotly debated. Indians weren’t nationalists in 1880 by and large, but by 1947, they were. French Canadians still argue among themselves about who, exactly, they are. Countries like Indonesia and Nigeria have “artificial” identities; those nations were constructed rather than growing out of the immemorial past. The Palestinian case is not really different from these.
The residents of the 13 colonies did not think of themselves as possessing a national “American” identity in 1760 when they toasted the British victory over France in the French and Indian Wars; by 1789 when George Washington took the oath of office Americans had a new identity. Most Germans did not think that all “Germans” should live in one country under one ruler in 1800; by 1850 most though not all had come to see things differently. Most of the ancestors of today’s Israelis did not believe in 1880 that being Jewish meant they should work together to build and defend a state in the Middle East. And there are many countries (like Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom) where the citizens disagree about whether they are one people (Spaniards) or many (Basques, Catalans, etc.).
The Palestinians, however much they argue about the meaning of ‘Palestinianness’ among themselves, and however unsuccessful they have been in establishing stable political entities through which to express their national identity, were bonded by their searing experiences of defeat and exile into a strongly self-conscious national society in the last century, and that identity remains strong today. To question the authenticity of that identity is as pointless as it is provocative; the statement indicates a shallow view of modern history as well as a failure to grasp the nature of the conflict.
Gingrich’s error isn’t to say that Palestinian identity is to some degree invented; his error is to use that fact to undercut the reality and legitimacy of the Palestinian national movement. God did not create the human race into separate nationalities at the beginning of time; national identities develop in a historical process and some developed at an earlier date than others. Ironically, many Arabs who want to deny Israelis the right of self determination make exactly the same argument about Zionism. Judaism, they point out, is an ancient religion, but Zionism (the idea that Jews should not wait for the Messiah but return to the lands of the Bible and build a state by their own efforts) is a modern ideology of recent vintage.
Gingrich and the anti-Zionists are both wrong. Being young does not make a nation unreal.
Speaker Gingrich, one suspects, would get this if he spent some time thinking about it. He has his faults, but stupidity is not one of his habitual failings. (Shooting from the lip and speaking carelessly, on the other hand, have repeatedly caused him serious problems over the years.)
The pity is that this intellectual coarseness and sloppy thinking detracts from some significant points that the former Speaker was trying to make. We need a discussion about ways in which the international system is perpetrating rather than solving the Palestinian refugee problem and about ways in which the complex cultural cross currents within the Palestinian sense of identity make it difficult for any Palestinian leaders to make peace — or for the Israelis to trust them.
American politics could use more people who could speak clearly and sensibly to the voters about this subject. More, both the US and Israel need people who can make a sober and reasoned case for the legitimacy of the Jewish state and of America’s support for it in ways that reduce international misunderstanding of and opposition to the two countries. But unfortunately remarks like Mr. Gingrich’s (to be fair, a short aside in a longer interview) make that conversation harder, not easier to have.
The entire transcript (available here from the Washington Post) is worth reading. One sees Gingrich taking a strong pro-Israel position, seeking support from conservative American Jews, but stopping well short of the full court pander that his critics assume he was making. His discussion of the Jonathan Pollard case combines an openness in principle to the possibility of clemency with a clear refusal to commit. Fairness and the US national interest, he says, are the two considerations that should guide the disposition of this case. He argues that the US should fulfill its current commitments of aid to Israel but makes no promises for when the ten year commitment runs out seven years from now. Gingrich’s views on Israel can be disputed, but they are coherent and consistent with a view of the way the world works and how US interests are advanced in it that Gingrich propounds on other topics.
Gingrich’s Israel position isn’t a pander, though he dresses it as attractively as possible; it is congruent with his general vision of American foreign policy.
Oddly for a man who prides himself on American history and who is trying to reach Jewish voters, the most significant factual error in the interview is his statement that most Jews vote Democratic because a “wave of Jews” immigrated into the US in the 1920s and 1930s and fell in love with FDR and the New Deal. Given the importance of immigration policy in politics today, it is strange that Gingrich overlooks the fact that mass Jewish immigration into the US ended in the early 1920s. Agonized struggles to get the US to open up to more Jewish refugees in the 1930s failed, and the failure of the US to accept more Jews in those years helped persuade many American Jews (historically not sympathetic to the Zionist project) that an independent Jewish state was the only possible answer to the “Jewish Question.”
A well-read and experienced man, Mr. Gingrich must have come across this information more than once in his career. That he hasn’t processed it and integrated it enough to understand the importance of getting this right in the context of television interview that will be watched closely by potential Jewish supporters suggests something more troubling than a tendency to speak loosely. The thought process and not just the speech governor seems to be a little out of whack.
In any case, the casual, unnecessary, inaccurate, provocative and pandering reference to the allegedly artificial quality of Palestinian identity overshadowed everything else in the interview. There was clearly an element of political intention as well of spontaneous anger in the reaction; Gingrich’s policy ideas are such that his election would not be seen as good news in the “Palestinian camp” and it is not surprising that those who would not welcome his election pounced on the most vulnerable point in the interview. But that hostility is all the more reason why Mr. Gingrich should weigh his words.
We all misspeak from time to time, and some of us are unlucky enough to do that when the cameras are recording. But presidents have to do better — otherwise, they will squander their time and political capital putting out brush fires caused by misstatements and intentional distortions of their own poorly chosen words. Nobody will get this completely right, but Newt Gingrich has been in the public eye for a long time and the problems in the Middle East are not new.
Via Meadia is nowhere close to an endorsement for 2012, and may not make one at all, but we do think that Republican voters should watch Mr. Gingrich’s performance carefully in future weeks to see whether he is gaining the upper hand in his struggle to make sure the brain is fully engaged before opening the mouth. More profoundly, they should be evaluating his ability to develop thoughtful policies and advocate them effectively abroad as well as at home.