Gingrich defended his statement on the Palestinians during Saturday’s debate. Paul made a fair point that his original statement wasn’t helpful and the U.S. shouldn’t be involved anyway, but neither Paul nor Romney directly contested the substance of what he said. Romney was so busy trying to demonstrate how obsequious he would be to Netanyahu that everything else faded into the background. He scored some points by painting Gingrich as a “bomb-thrower,” but otherwise Gingrich was able to bluff his way through the confrontation. I wouldn’t bother dwelling on this, but he managed to get away with insisting that his statement was accurate, and he repeatedly got away with the claim that he was just courageously telling the truth. He wasn’t telling the truth. He was peddling an ideological fantasy.
Gingrich originally said this:
Remember 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. And they had a chance to go many places.
The first half of this statement is really irrelevant to what Gingrich is claiming, and the fact that he doesn’t understand its irrelevance is another mark against him. During the Ottoman period, Syria and Lebanon weren’t states, either, and the inhabitants of these countries along with the Palestinians had local identities as well as a greater Syrian identity that they shared. These people had multiple overlapping identities, and one of these was a local national identity that was in the process of being formed. There was no recognized, independent Kurdish state in the Ottoman era, the Mandate period, or after WWII, but no one is so dense as to deny that the Kurds are a nation. The non-existence of a Palestinian state in the Ottoman period or later has no bearing on the existence of a Palestinian nation then or later. The nationhood of a people is not dependent on possession of their own state. The main things that are required in order to be a distinctive national group are a story of common origin and self-identification as a people. Obviously, the Palestinians have both, and they have had both for many decades.
The second part of Gingrich’s formulation doesn’t make much sense. Everyone acknowledges that Palestinians are Arabs, and their identity as Arabs is an important part of their Palestinian identity. What is Gingrich’s point? What he is trying to say is that Palestinians have no claim to the land of their ancestors because they are Arabs, and there are a lot of other Arab countries where they might go. In other words, the “chance” was an opportunity to abandon their own land to go become refugees in someone else’s country. This is a variant of what Huckabee was saying on this subject in the past when he was saying that there was no such thing as a Palestinian.
As I wrote two years ago:
The idea that national identity is something that comes into existence at a particular moment in time is utterly foreign to people who say these things, and even if they acknowledged the existence of Palestinian nationhood they would still say that the recent construction of this identity renders it insignificant.
Gingrich’s remarks have nothing to do with telling the truth, and there’s certainly no courage required to make these statements. On the contrary, he is deliberately trying to deny an obvious reality to curry favor with hard-liners in his party. It’s a shame that the other candidates and the journalists at the debate allowed him to preserve the appearance of being someone interested in an accurate understanding of history.
P.S. Josh Marshall marvels that people are falling for Gingrich’s ridiculous claim about Palestinian not being a common term until after 1977. Weigel seems to think this remark was a “knowledge-bomb,” which only makes sense if the purpose of a “knowledge-bomb” is to destroy real knowledge.
Update: Matt Barganier has gathered several examples of much earlier uses of the word Palestinian to refer to Palestinian Arabs.
Second Update: For the record, Weigel was joking.