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December 11, 2011 9:28 am

Why Newt Gingrich Is Right on Palestine

avatar by Benyamin Korn

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Newt Gingrich. Photo: Gage Skidmore

What do Golda Meir, lifelong socialist and prime minister of Israel,  and Newt Gingrich, lifelong conservative and current presidential candidate,  have in common? The courage to tell the truth about  “Palestine.”

Gingrich stirred up a hornet’s nest last week when he  remarked that “The Palestinians are an invented people.” Golda made the same  point when she told the London Sunday Times on June 15, 1969 that “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”

What could have possessed the  Prime Minister of Israel and the former Speaker of the U.S. House of  Representatives to say such a thing?

Simple: an  appreciation of history. Gingrich has a Ph.D. in the subject. Golda lived it.

Golda left her home in Milwaukee in 1921 and  moved to a country that had been known since biblical times as the Land of  Israel. The Roman occupation forces, in 135 CE, had begun calling it  “Palaestina” in the hope of snuffing out its Jewish connection. But that  was never more than the equivalent of a nickname. Nobody ever created a state  called “Palestine.” Even the Muslims, who conquered the region 500 years  later, never considered it “Palestine.” They called it southern  Syria.

The idea that there was a native “Palestinian” people in the  land when Golda and other Jewish pioneers arrived in the early 1900s was  laughable. The country wasn’t empty, but to say that the local Arab  population was sparse is putting it mildly. Mark Twain and other visitors in  the late 1800s described traveling for miles and miles through the center of  the country without seeing a single person.  In 1850, the area’s largest city, Jerusalem, had a population of 25,000, the majority of whom were Jews. The Arabs who lived in  Palestine did not speak “Palestinian”; they spoke Arabic. Their  religion, culture, and history were not “Palestinian”; they were identical to  that of the surrounding Arab countries–because that’s where many of them came  from.

Perhaps Newt has been reading Golda’s autobiography. “The Arab  population of Palestine had doubled since the start of Jewish settlements  there,” she wrote of the 1920s, when Jewish development was creating a  thriving local economy. “[A]ttracted by the new opportunities, hordes of Arabs  were emigrating to Palestine from Syria and other neighboring countries all  through those years.” (p.149)

An Israeli magazine recently profiled a  Jerusalem Arab chef, Sufian Mustafa, who is bent on demonstrating that there  is a uniquely “Palestinian” cuisine. But after much blustering about his  “exclusively Palestinian” creations (“real Palestinians would never cook with  such a bland ingredient as cream,” he insisted) Mustafa grudgingly  acknowledged that “the Palestinian kitchen is definitely a continuation of the  Greater Syrian kitchen, and bears a lot of resemblance to Lebanese, Syrian,  and Jordanian cuisine.” I wonder why!

In the parlance of the  1920s-1930s-1940s, the term “Palestine” referred to the Jews, not the Arabs. The Jerusalem Post newspaper was named the Palestine Post.  The United  Jewish Appeal was called the United Palestine Appeal. Arab spokesmen  vehemently denied that Palestine deserved to be a separate country. Philip Hitti, historian and spokesman for the Arab cause, testified to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry (a U.S.-British commission trying to  resolve the Arab-Jewish conflict) in 1946: “Sir, there is no such thing as  Palestine in history, absolutely not.”

After Israel’s  establishment (1948), the Arabs and their supporters began casting about for  new lines of argument. In the mid-1960s one finds the first appearance  of claims by Arab advocates that there was a separate, distinct “Palestinian” people with deep roots in the land. (The UN first used the term in 1970.) How  can this claim be established? Simple: by inventing–yes, inventing–a  history that predates the arrival of the Jews. According to Palestinian  Authority spokesmen and school textbooks, the Palestinian Arabs are  descendants of the Canaanites, Jebusites, Hittites and other pre-Israel  tribes.

True to form, Palestinian spokesman Nabil Adu Rodeineh was all  over the news yesterday, denouncing Newt Gingrich on the grounds that “the  Palestinians have been in the country for thousands of  years.”

Archaeologists and historians know very well that the tribes of  ancient Canaan died out many centuries before Muhammad and the Muslims  (precursors of today’s Palestinian Arabs) arrived in the area. There is  no connection between the Canaanites and the Arabs. But when was the  last time an archaeologist or historian was given time on a national  television broadcast to explain that Palestinian nationalism is an invention?  The answer is never–until Newt Gingrich, the first presidential  candidate since Woodrow Wilson with a Ph.D. in history, came  along.

Benyamin Korn is former executive editor of the Miami  Jewish Tribune and the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

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