“The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct ‘Palestinian people’ to oppose Zionism.” – Zahir Muhsein, member, PLO Executive Board (1977)
“...it’s true that a specifically Palestinian identity is a relatively recent development.” – BYU Prof. Daniel Peterson
“…that they might be an instrument in the hands of God to bring, if it were possible, their brethren, the Lamanites, to the knowledge of the truth, to the knowledge of the baseness of the traditions of their fathers, which were not correct.” – Alma 17:9 (Book of Mormon)
My last three posts were dedicated to answering questions about Mormon beliefs posed by a thoughtful rabbi. My task today is to respond to a thoughtful BYU professor who believes that Newt Gingrich was wrong when he said that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Dr. Daniel Peterson is every Mormon’s favorite Arabist, as well as one of the LDS Church’s leading apologists. In a recent article in the Deseret News, he makes the case against Newt with a barrage of facts that don’t hold together well. Although I am certainly not a Gingrich supporter (as a true conservative, I consider “conservatives” who vote for Newt to be akin to feminist liberals who voted for Ted Kennedy), he is right on this point. I will address each of the professor’s objections while raising a few of my own to Palestinian nationalism.
The best response to Newt’s statement by his opponents is, “So what?” After all, Americans are an “invented” people as well, and we seem to be doing pretty well for ourselves. There was no American nationalism 300 years ago, yet that did not prevent one from coalescing around great political figures and eventually inspiring them to establish the greatest democracy in human history. The fact that a people is not a historical one doesn’t mean that it cannot eventually lay claim to nationhood. However, Palestinian supporters have not advanced this argument in response to Newt. For some reason, many of them seem determined to prove that the Palestinians’ historical legitimacy is on a par with those of, say, Armenians, Kurds, and Jews. Any such attempt is bound to fail.
Based on his statement quoted above, I suspect that Prof. Peterson agrees with Newt and me that Palestinian nationalism is of late vintage. What he objects to is the assertion made by Mr. Muhsein above: that Palestinian nationalism is a fraudulent attempt to put a respectable patina on hatred of the Jewish state.
In support of his position, the good professor begins by arguing that “Arabs aren’t fungible.” That is, Egyptians, Syrians, and Algerians have distinct histories and cultures, as do Palestinians. He goes on to list several dialects of Arabic in an attempt to further distinguish some Arabs from others. This includes the “recognizably unique” Palestinian dialect.
With all due respect to Prof. Peterson, he has it backwards. Newt’s point wasn’t that there are no differences among Arabs; of course they’re not fungible. What he was attempting to do was to highlight one important difference between Palestinians and some other Arab peoples: their longevity as a people. As long as we’re listing differences between Palestinians and other Arabs, let’s compare Palestinians to Egyptians. Egyptians, like Jews, have had a distinct culture and national identity for thousands of years. Palestinians, it need hardly be said, have not. That is the main point of Newt’s argument, and it is an irrefutable one.
Unlike other Arab peoples, the Palestinians’ distinguishing feature is their narrative of dispossession, not a shared dialect. While there may well be a distinct Palestinian dialect in Arabic, former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat spoke with a heavy Egyptian accent until his dying day. Palestinians living in refugee camps in Lebanon sound like Lebanese, not like Hebronites.
Prof. Peterson correctly points out that many Arab states did not achieve independence until after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. According to him, this somehow makes the absence of a Palestinian state under the Ottomans irrelevant (it “signifies little”). What it really means is that Palestinians are not the only invented people in the modern Middle East. Let’s take the Jordanians, whose country was created by the Brits after Jews were expelled from eastern Palestine and the defeated Hashemite royal family was brought from Saudi Arabia and subsequently enthroned in Amman. History does not record any mention of a “Jordanian” people until 1946, but it is alive and thriving today.
While political Zionism began with Theodore Herzl, many Zionists would take exception to Prof. Peterson’s assertion that Zionism began with the publication of Herzl’s “The Jewish State” in 1896. The first Zionist Aliyah (immigration wave) began in 1882, and for nearly two millennia Jews had expressed in their prayers the desire to return to Jerusalem. This underlines yet again a huge difference between Jews and Palestinians: Jews have been a distinct people for many centuries. There were no “Palestinian” Arab contemporaries of Bar Kochba, Maimonides, Nahmonides, the Baal Shem Tov, or, for that matter, Herzl.
The most candid moment in the essay comes when the professor admits the obvious: “it’s true that a specifically Palestinian identity is a relatively recent development.” However, he then confuses the reader by making the case for the existence of the region/province Palestine since the days of the Philistines. No one is arguing that Palestine, the name formally given to the area by the Romans in an attempt to de-Judaize the historical Land of Israel, doesn’t exist. What Newt and others are saying is that there was not a specific Palestinian Arab nationalism in the territory until the last few decades. Being an honest historian, Prof. Peterson concedes the point.
Now we come to the part of Newt’s claim that strikes at the heart of Palestinian nationalism: its inauthenticity. Peterson claims to believe in the cause, but fails to address perhaps the most damning indictment of the Palestinians’ territorial claim. Israel declared its independence in 1948. One day later, it was invaded by five Arab armies. Did the armies attack Israel in order to establish a state for “Palestinians?” Au contraire. In fact, when Jordan captured the West Bank during that war, it didn`t call it “Palestine” – instead, Jordan annexed it. For some reason Egypt also didn’t get the memo on Palestine: It actively undermined and controlled the “All Palestine Government” in the Gaza Strip prior to 1967. My question is this: if Jordan and Egypt were “occupying” Palestine between 1948 and 1967 (when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza), why were there no protests by “Palestinians” at the time? Didn’t they want their country back? “Palestine” only became “occupied” after Jewish rule began in the disputed territories, which should tell us all we need to know about the true aim of Palestinian nationalism.
It’s quite amusing to me that Palestinian leaders, of all people, should be expressing outrage over Newt’s remarks. Yasser Arafat insisted to President Clinton at the Camp David Summit in 2000 that an ancient Jewish temple was built in Nablus, not Jerusalem. Palestinian officials have actively engaged in what Dore Gold calls “Temple denial” ever since. At the same time, the leaders are trying to convince anyone who will listen that their historical narrative is just as long and rich as the Jewish one. It’s time to call on them to defend their ahistorical claims.
Declaring, “It was our mistake. It was an Arab mistake as a whole,” former Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (his term expired in 2009) shocked many Middle East watchers a few weeks ago by admitting in an interview on Israeli television that Arabs should not have rejected the United Nations 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine. [Had they not rejected it, there would likely have been no invasion of Israel the following year]. This admission was both welcome and long overdue. Since Abbas is interested in setting the historical record straight, he would do well to go on TV again and state the obvious: Newt Gingrich was right.
The Palestinian “right of return” is another historical invention. In law, the proximate cause of an injury – in this case, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs living in Palestine and hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Arab countries – is determined by the “but for” test. That is, but for the action, the injury would not have occurred. In the case of Palestinian Arabs, the proximate cause of their dispossession was their repeated support for genocide, culminating in the 1948 invasion of Israel that they actively supported.
Arab leaders in Palestine enthusiastically supported efforts by the Nazis (the Holocaust) and Arab states (the 1948 war) to annihilate the Jews living there. When you support genocide, you don`t get to hit the reset button when you lose the fight. You also don’t get to return to the nation that you tried to destroy. In the decades following the 1948 genocidal war, a “Palestine Liberation Organization” was created for a “Palestinian” people in order to “liberate Palestine” from those darned Jews who had the temerity to resist repeated efforts to annihilate them. The results of this invented history are plain for anyone to see: “Palestinians” who are now led by a terrorist organization and a termed-out president who can`t even feed their people or meet a payroll without extensive international aid.
How can Gingrich`s statements help the so-called peace process succeed? By calling into question the inane policy adopted by Western governments of propping up Palestinian leaders and giving them a place at the negotiating people. The legitimization of the Palestinian “liberation” movement was a colossal error by the West and Israel, and declarations like Gingrich`s can provide a rationale for putting that genie back in its bottle. There is no good reason for a Palestinian representative to be allowed to negotiate with or demand anything of Israel, let alone to be invited to the White House. Western taxpayers are feeding, clothing and educating Palestinians, so their governments should have the right to dictate to Palestinians the terms of any peace agreement.
Given that both Hamas and Abbas are illegitimate representatives of their people (Hamas launched a coup in Gaza following an election, while Abbas should have left office in 2009), now would be the perfect time to tell the Palestinians that this charade is over. Now is also the time to tell them a few more truths: They are not a historical people, their right of return is nonexistent, and they have no right to engage in negotiations with the state of Israel over the status of land just because they want it for their future state. They`re on the international dole, so the international community will decide for them what the arrangements will be in Israel/Palestine.
It may sound like a harsh prescription for peace, but the continued indulgence of Palestinian delusions and fables has already proved to be a recipe for regional instability and disaster. Over the years Palestinian leaders have destabilized countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Their people certainly deserve better, and they also deserve to have the truth told to them.
I’d like to end with a brief explanation of why I feel so strongly about the issue of Palestinian nationalism. Of all people, Mormons should be those least likely to be duped by the claims of Abbas & Co. The Book of Mormon tells of a people whose belief in the traditions of their fathers, who falsely claimed to have been wronged by others, led them to sin grievously. It goes on to warn against terrorists who try to overthrow governments and engage in “secret combinations” involving murder for gain. Mormons believe that this book of scripture was written for our day. If the Book of Mormon warns against anything in the contemporary world, it’s people like Arafat, Hamas, and other Palestinian terrorists seeking to overthrow governments and murder for political gain.
Eschatology influences me as well. Mormons believe that in the last days, a cataclysmic war will take place that will involve an all-out attack on Jews living in Israel. They will be saved by Jesus Christ, who will appear on the Mount of Olives just in time to protect them from their enemies. On which side, pray tell, will most Palestinians be fighting? Thanks to the lies told to them by their leaders, most Palestinians will be in the wrong army. This is intolerable to me. Mormons have an obligation to expose massive lies, not justify them. In a week where Israel`s 10th Nobel Prize winner claimed his award in Stockholm, the contrast between a legitimate nationalist movement and an invented one could not be more marked.