Newt Gingrich has been challenged for calling the Palestinians an “invented” people. He was accused by a spokesman for the American Task Force on Palestine of “deep historical ignorance and an irrational hostility toward Palestinian identity.” To Sabri Saidam, adviser to Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Gingrich had displayed “extreme racism.” But the former speaker seems to know more about Palestinian history than his critics. Indeed, Palestinians have said the same thing about themselves for decades.
Testifying before the British Peel Commission in 1937, Syrian leader Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi asserted: “There is no such country as Palestine. . . . Our country was for centuries part of Syria. ‘Palestine’ is alien to us.” Shortly before the birth of Israel, prominent Arab historian Philip Hitti conceded: “There is no such thing as Palestine, absolutely not.” According to Columbia history professor Rashid Khalidi, a student of Palestinian identity, “Palestine” did not even exist until it emerged from the wreckage of World War I.
Why was it, wondered Walid Shoebat from Bethlehem, “that on June 4th 1967 I was a Jordanian and overnight I became a Palestinian. . . . We considered ourselves Jordanian until the Jews returned to Jerusalem.” Only after the Six-Day war did West Bank Jordanians begin to define themselves as Palestinians.
A decade later Zahir Muhsein, PLO military commander and member of its executive committee, acknowledged: “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation.” Identification of a Palestinian state, he conceded, was merely “a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.”
Lest these statements be dismissed as obsolete or wrenched from context, even Jihad Watch conceded that “Gingrich is right.” Jihad Watch, which should know, explained that “the Palestinian nation was invented as a tool of the jihad against Israel.”
There is nothing new or wrong with being an “invented” people. The important question is whether a national identity is constructed from the distinctive experience of a people or, as the Palestinians have done, from plundering the history and heritage that belong to someone else.
Nothing is more revealing about Palestinian identity, ironically, than its grounding in Jewish history and sources. The Canaanites, displaced according to the biblical narrative by the conquering Israelites, have become their victimized ancestral people. Their insistent claim of a “right of return” for refugees from Israel’s independence war mimics the law of return, passed by the Knesset two years later, assuring to every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel.
Palestinians plunder modern Jewish history — and tragedy — for their own purposes. They have cast themselves as the new “Jews,” who are oppressed by Israeli “Nazis.” Palestinian teen-agers, comparing themselves to Anne Frank, claim to suffer from a “holocaust.”
The recent Palestinian flotillas to Israel have been modeled on the Exodus and other refugee ships that tried to transport desperate Jews to Palestine before independence. In the Palestinian version, Israel becomes the oppressive British government that prevented Jews from reaching their promised land.
With their appropriations from Jewish history, ironically, Palestinians have inadvertently cast themselves as the biblical Jacob, stealing the birthright intended for his brother Esau. Identity theft, like other forms of imitation, might be considered the highest form of flattery. But it is a fragile foundation for building a nation, as the Palestinians continue to discover.
Mr. Gingrich has been criticized near and far for his “invented” people observation. An Arab-Israeli Knesset member deplored his “lame and shameful comments.” Governor Romney blamed his rival for “incendiary words.” But Mr. Gingrich, as Palestinians have testified for 75 years, knows his history.
Mr. Auerbach, professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College, blogs at jacobsvoice.tumblr.com