(An abbreviated version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed column, “The Palestinian History Hoax” in The Algemeiner, June 1, 2016.)
Those wacky Palestinians! In a region literally exploding with extreme practical jokers, they’ve again mastered this lowest form of humor. They did it by snaring The New York Times (via Associated Press), Washington Post and USA Today simultaneously.
Their latest trick? Opening a history museum with—get this—no exhibits but generating serious coverage. Chutzpah, long mistaken as Yiddish for unmitigated gall, turns out to be Arabic.
Of last month’s press opening, USA Today—paralleling AP in The New York Times and The Washington Post—reported that the $24 million, 43,000 square feet Palestinian Museum of Art, History and Culture in Bir Zeit, about 13 miles north of Jerusalem, “showcases a beautiful building with sweeping views. All that’s missing are the exhibits” (“New Palestinian museum missing one thing: all the exhibits,” USA Today, May 19).
Promised future exhibits sound contemporary and political, not historical.
USA Today said of the museum, “it’s an unfortunate metaphor for a people long in search of a national identity and homeland.” Nevertheless, ribbon-cutting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared, “We have been planted here since the dawn of history.”
Then where were the ancient artifacts? The trick—hardly new—was that the museum’s opening was less about history than polemics. Press accounts noted the debut was “timed to coincide with Nakba week—‘catastrophe’ in Arabic, a reference to the 1948 creation of Israel which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.”
Historically, what led to the Arab “catastrophe” was their unanimous rejection of the U.N.’s 1947 plan to partition British Mandatory Palestine into two tiny states, one Arab, one Jewish. The catastrophe, for their side, was the failure of armies from five Arab countries and Palestinian Arab “irregulars” to destroy Israel the next year. No Arab war against Israel, no displacement. The English translation of nakba ought to be “consequences.”
Were the displaced Arabs actually Palestinian? Abbas’ claim they “have been planted” forever in the land Jews call eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) is more chutzpah. Azmi Bishara, a former Arab Israeli member of Knesset (parliament), said in a 2009 television interview:
Zahir Muhsein, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, told a Dutch newspaper in 1977 that “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.”
Arabs at the First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations in Jerusalem in 1919 wanted victorious World War I Allies to get something straight as they divided defeated Ottoman Turkey’s Middle Eastern empire: “We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious linguistic, natural, economic and geographic bonds.”
“Palestine” and “Palestinian” do not derive from Arabic words or Muslim concepts. It’s the other way around. The Romans used “Palaestina” after defeating the second Jewish revolt, from 132 to 135 C.E. They meant to erase the connection between the land of Judea (Yehuda in the earlier Hebrew) and those rebellious Jews (Yehudim) by recalling instead the long-gone, non-Arab Philistines, wiped out by Babylonia around 600 B.C.E. In contrast, the Jews, taken into Babylonian captivity a few years later, returned to rebuild Jerusalem and their Second Temple long before the Romans showed up.
The Washington Post, covering the museum’s opening, asked of the missing “Palestinian” exhibits, where, for example was “the Roman-era glass”? Where? In Jerusalem’s world-renowned Israel Museum and in collections of the Israel Antiquities Authority, among countless other elements documenting a people’s 3,000-year-plus connection to its homeland. Why ask? (“Palestinian museum opening without exhibits, but creators say that’s no big deal,” May 18 online, in print May 19.)
Maybe because one fell for the museum at Birr Zest, in spite of it being what one Israeli cabinet member called an “attempt to take away the Jewish identity of this contested place.” Palestinian pranksters at it again.