Are the Palestinians an Invented People?

12/16/2011 04:43 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2012

Newt Gingrich, the leading U.S. Republican presidential candidate, has drawn fire for his claim that the Palestinians are an "invented" people and "terrorists." His statement sparked fierce condemnation from the Arab League and the Palestinian Authority. Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan criticized Gingrich's comments as a cynical attempt to curry support with Jewish voters that was unhelpful to the peace process.

Gingrich made his claim about the Palestinians being "terrorists" and an "invented people" to the Jewish Channel, a cable TV station, whilst campaigning for the Jewish vote. This is what he said:

Remember, there was no Palestine as a state -- (it was) part of the Ottoman Empire. I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and who were historically part of the Arab community.

Under normal circumstances, one would ignore Gingrich's comments as a flippant, ignorant, and insignificant remark that was made by an aging American politician with a reputation for causing controversy. But the problem is that Gingrich is currently leading the polls for the Republican primaries. Thus, he could conceivably become the next U.S. president, if he wins the nomination; and if he wins the subsequent presidential election in 2012, he would be responsible for making war and peace as commander-in-chief. This is why everyone is taking what Gingrich says about the Palestinians seriously. Moreover, instead of apologizing, Gingrich has since defended his statement.

Whilst some commentators have criticized Gingrich's comments as being unhelpful to the peace process, few have challenged the inaccuracy of his statement. And yet Gingrich's comments display a surprising level of ignorance for someone who previously taught history to college students before he became a politician.

Every history student knows that nations are invented. On an academic level, to say that the Palestinian people are invented is meaningless, since one could say this about all nations. But to say what Gingrich said in the context in which he said it is culturally insensitive because in the process he is denying Palestinian claims to statehood.

Gingrich is implying that because the Palestinians are Arabs and because they speak Arabic, they are part of an amorphous collectivity, and thus lack the qualities -- a unique language, culture, and tradition -- associated with statehood. This is at least how Gingrich's comments have been interpreted by some in Israel, where Israeli Cabinet minister Uzi Landau agreed with Gingrich and claimed the Palestinians do not have their own language or culture, and are instead part of the broader Arab world.

The weakness of this argument is that not all nations have their own language and culture that is distinct from others. For instance, English is the national language not only of the United Kingdom, but is also a national language in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US, and many islands in the Caribbean, which also share a similar culture, but this does not this mean that they are not nations entitled to create and maintain separate states of their own.

Gingrich's categorical assertion that Palestine was never a state since it was part of the Ottoman Empire is clearly nonsensical and misplaced. Nearly all states were formerly part of another Empire at some point in history, including the U.S., which used to be a British colony. Is Gingrich also claiming that Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Libyans, and Tunisians, are inventions, since they were all formerly part of the Ottoman Empire? And if so, is the concept of being an Israeli not also an invention? Why focus only on the Palestinians as an invented people to the exclusion of others unless Gingrich is trying to imply that the Palestinians are not entitled to have a state of their own?

The fact that the Palestinians have never had a state is also misplaced. They seek a state, and they are entitled to one under international law. Prior to the British Mandate of Palestine, established by the League of Nations in 1922, the state of Israel did not exist. Israel did not come into existence as an independent state until May 1948 in the midst of war when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or fled from their homes while not being allowed a right of return to them. This problem has been further compounded because instead of sharing the land with the Palestinians as envisaged in numerous peace agreements, Israel has done everything it can to prevent the Palestinians from being in a position to form an independent state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. Israel has done this by maintaining its 44-year military occupation, colonizing Palestinian lands with settlements, assassinating and imprisoning Palestinian leaders, blocking Palestine's bid to become a member of the UN, and withholding funds to UNESCO, which recently admitted Palestine as a member-state.

Gingrich would be better advised to spend his time by having a candid, honest, and open conversation about how the US can create the conditions for peace in the Middle East, which the current incumbent of the White House has conspicuously failed to achieve. Making divisive, insensitive, and inaccurate historical comments is unhelpful to both Arabs and Jews, and makes the quest for peace even harder to attain.