Touching A Nerve — Palestinian Origins

U.S. presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s comments in an interview with The Jewish Channel, released December 9, 2011 triggered outraged denunciations by Palestinian Arabs and Arab Americans, as well as a condemnation by the Arab League. The controversy was still percolating a week later with an angry column by former Senator John Sununu in the The Boston Globe on December 16.
Gingrich had said:
Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman empire. And I think we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community.
Palestinian Arab leaders quickly branded the statements “ridiculous,” “racist,” “vulgar,” “ignorant,” and a threat to “peace and stability” and media outlets largely covered the controversy as a political faux pas, an indicator of pandering to Jewish voters and an attempted detour away from creating a Palestinian state. Indeed, many journalists inferred and reported that the Gingrich statements primarily indicated opposition to modern day statehood for Palestinians. The former speaker’s office issued a statement a day after the Jewish Channel interview explicitly saying he “supports a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state.” But the furor continued.
Many media outlets relayed the outrage of Palestinian leaders:
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad urged apology for: “vulgar, hurtful and ridiculous remarks.” He said: “Our people has been on this land from the beginning. And it is determined to stay until the end.” AFP 12/10/11
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: “Mark my words … these statements of Gingrich’s will be the ammunitions (sic) and weapons of the bin Ladens and the extremists for a long, long time.” Boston Globe 12/10/11 
Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi (at left) fumed: “This proves that in the hysterical atmosphere of American elections, people lose all touch with reality and make not just irresponsible and dangerous statements, but also very racist comments that betray not just their own ignorance but an unforgivable bias.” ABC 12/10/11
Ashrawi said: “It is unbelievable that Mr. Gingrich, who studied history at two outstanding American universities and even taught history, could make such a misguided comment, solely for the sake of political pandering.” NPR 12/12/11
Dimitri Diliani, a member of Abbas’ Fatah Party, described Gingrich’s remarks as “reflective of the ignorant, provocative and racist nature of Mr. Gingrich.” He warned that statements like these “jeopardize peace and stability in the region.” Chicago Tribune 12/11/11
Arab League official Mohammad Sobeih denounced the Gingrich statement as “irresponsible and dangerous.” According to the Daily Star: “Sobeih told reporters at the league’s Cairo headquarters that Gingrich is sacrificing U.S. interests for votes, and that the comments run counter to democratic values and international agreements.” Daily Star 12/12/11
Former U.S. Senator John Sununu wrote: “When bigots speak, their words have purpose. They intentionally choose phrases that inflame, denigrate, and marginalize other races, religions, or nationalities.” Boston Globe 12/16/11
Few of the irate critics addressed the first part of Gingrich’s statement to “remember, there was no Palestine as a state,” no doubt preferring to avoid the difficulty of countering this manifestly accurate observation. Sununu did take a swing at the topic, citing references in the 1930’s and 40’s to “Palestinian Arabs” as though this meant there was a state and referring vaguely to discussions of a “potential state,” as though this too bolstered his case. But like the other angry critics, having no argument, he primarily used the opportunity to vent at Gingrich.
Sununu and other defenders of the Palestinian Arabs are clearly apprehensive that general awareness of the nonexistence of a Palestinian state historically jeopardizes their case for creating one in the present. Whether or not that’s true, the lack of a distinctive Palestinian national identity apart from the wider Arab identity has been argued by many Arabs themselves. As the late author and scholar Marie Syrkin (a Labor Zionist and sometime endorser of Peace Now positions) wrote in a 1970’s essay:
The characterization of Palestinian nationalism as ‘artificial’ does not come from Zionist adversaries but from classic Arab sources. In the period before and after the issuance of the Balfour Declaration Arab nationalists consistently protested the use of the name ‘Palestine’ or the adjective ‘Palestinian’ to demark them from other Arabs in the region. All the declarations for the nascent Arab nationalist movement from 1880 on concentrated on ‘the unity of Syria’ with no references to Palestine as other than ‘south Syria.’ Nothing could be more explicit than the statement of the General Syrian Congress in 1919: ‘We ask that there should be no separation of the southern part of Syria, known as Palestine, nor of the littoral western zone which includes Lebanon, from the Syrian country. We desire that the unity of the country should be guaranteed against partition under whatever circumstances….
George Antonius, the Arab historian, makes sure that there will be no misunderstanding on this score. In The Arab Awakening (1939), he writes: ‘Except where otherwise specified the term Syria will be used to denote the whole of the country of that name which is now split up into mandated territories of (French) Syria and the Lebanon, and (British) Palestine and Transjordan.’
The extremist Mufti of Jerusalem originally opposed the Palestine Mandate on the grounds that it separated Palestine from Syria; he emphasized that there was no difference between Palestinian and Syrian Arabs in national characteristics or group life. As late as May, 1947, Arab representatives reminded the United Nations in a formal statement that ‘Palestine was … part of the Province of Syria …Politically, the Arabs of Palestine were not independent in the sense of forming a separate political entity. … (The Palestinians People, History, Politics; edited by Curtis, Neyer, Waxman and Pollack; 1975, p. 200)
Many other Arab leaders and scholars have also argued the non-existence of a distinct Palestinian nation historically. One of the most famously quoted is Arab-American historian and Princeton University Professor, Philip Hitti, (at right) who testified against partition before the Anglo-American Committee in 1946. He said:
There is no such thing as ‘Palestine’ in history, absolutely not…[It is but] a very small tiny spot there on the southern part of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by a vast territory of Arab Muslim lands, beginning with Morocco, continuing through Tunis, Tripoli and Egypt, and going down to Arabia proper, then going up to Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq — one solid Arab-speaking bloc — 50,000,000 people.
(Efraim Karsh, Palestine Betrayed, pp. 39-40 citing Abu Khaldun Sati al-Husri, al-Uruba Awalan (Beirut: Dar al-Ilm li-I-Malain, 1955) pp. 11-13; Hearing before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Washington D.C., State Department, Jan. 11, 1946, Central Zionist Archives (CZA), V/9960/g, pp. 10-11.)
Ahmed Shukeiry was another. Later founding head of the PLO, he told the General Assembly in 1956: “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but Southern Syria.” (Syrkin) Azmi Bishara
Perhaps most dramatic of all was the televised statement of Azmi Bishara, (at left) former Israeli Arab Knesset Member who fled the country in 2007 in the course of official questioning about his passing information to the enemy during war time. In a televised interview in 2009 he bluntly stated:
Well, I don’t think there is a Palestinian Nation at all. I think there is an Arab Nation, I always thought so and I didn’t change my mind.I don’t think there is a Palestinian Nation, I think it’s a Colonial invention Palestinian Nation. When were there any Palestinians? Where did it come from? What I think — there is an Arab Nation. I never turned to be a  Palestinian Nationalist, despite my decisive struggle against the Occupation. I think that until the end of the 19TH century, Palestine was the South of Great Syria.

The uproar over Gingrich’s treading where polite commentators are expected never to go did not prompt most journalists and pundits to follow up with any real exploration of the factual content of the former Speaker’s observations. The focus remained on Palestinian outrage. Interesting questions weren’t explored. Why the striking Palestinian sensitivity to an obvious truth? Why not shrug off Gingrich’s provocative assertion of “an invented Palestinian people,” acknowledging the facts of the past and arguing changed circumstances in the present?
Where too, in light of the outraged Arab allegations of racism and bigotry by a single individual, was journalistic curiosity about the ubiquitous and clearly bigoted campaigns in Arab media, mosques, schools and political culture that deny ancient Jewish religious and historic ties to the land of Israel? An entire propaganda campaign attempts, for instance, to erase Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, a campaign accompanied at times by physical destruction of revealing and important archeological artifacts. Rare is media interest in the often bizarre claims seeking to obscure Jewish roots in Israel. 
Speaker Gingrich may have unwittingly provided a “teachable moment” for the public, but few in the mainstream media took the opportunity to educate either themselves or the news consumers they serve.                                                              

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