Newt Gingrich is Right about the Palestinians…

…and it doesn’t matter.

Thoughtful voices across the political spectrum and the world have rightfully been attacking Gingrich for calling the Palestinians an “invented people.” But let’s be clear on what Gingrich is wrong about.

You don’t need Gingrich to tell you that the idea of a “Palestinian people” is relatively new. All you need is the foremost historian of the idea, Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi, to confirm it. In his (very good) book Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, Khalidi puts the crystallization of the idea slightly after 1908, the year of the Young Turk revolt in Istanbul. That event, Khalidi argues, catalyzed the Arabs in what is now known as Palestine to reconsider their allegiance to Ottoman Sultan (also the holder of the Caliphate), and begin to think in more nationalistic terms. (For Khalidi, this timing is important because it allows him to argue that Palestinian Identity did not arise simply as a reaction to the Balfour Declaration and the beginnings of mass Jewish migration).

And you know what? It’s irrelevant as a political or a moral matter. Millions of Palestinians now sincerely and deeply see themselves as Palestinians. It genuinely forms part of their identity. It’s not a pose. To tell them that they are all living under some form of mass false consciousness and that thus they have no claim to national rights is profoundly unethical. Gingrich converted to Roman Catholicism just a few years ago, in order to marry his third wife. (Insert joke here). No one would dare say that Gingrich’s newfound religion is fake because it is new or because he “invented” it himself. (They might say that it is false because the man is a massive hypocrite and fraud, but that’s not about timing: that’s about Gingrich).

Before the middle of the 19th century, virtually no Jews were Zionists. No one seriously entertained the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, least of all Jews themselves. You can’t divorce Zionism from the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. One could easily argue that a majority of global Jewry before the Second World War were not Zionist. Does that mean that it is “invented”? Well, maybe, but the point is irrelevant: it is real. It is true. It is authentic, and it doesn’t matter when it arose.

In 1782, Thomas Jefferson could call Virginia his “country,” and only a few people in what were formerly the American colonies would have identified themselves nationally as Americans. So that’s invented, too. Are we happy now?

All identities are, as Benedict Anderson so clearly pointed out, “imagined.” These identities are all culturally constructed and none of them is in the least illegitimate because of that. To properly judge the legitimacy of someone’s identity, we might ask other questions, such as whether they accept others’ definitions of their own identities, how they see their identities developing in the political sphere (i.e. do they want to establish free and just societies — I know, that’s a longer discussion), what are the basic values underlying their collective conception. But enough of this.

What is really wrong with Gingrich’s position isn’t that he is wrong, or even that he is telling a partial truth, but that he arrogates to himself the right to invent his own identity as well as the right to tell others that their identities are false. He is, in short, a bigoted elitist. But you knew that.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff is a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.