Why Newt Gingrich Is Right on Palestine
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.