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Kinsley: Middle East states of mind

Are the Palestinians an invented people? Sure, but so are the Israelis.

December 13, 2011|Michael Kinsley
(The Jewish Channel )

In November 1947, shortly after the United Nations voted for partition of the Holy Land into separate Arab and Jewish states, Chaim Weizmann was cited by the New York Times as saying that "the most important work now was to build Palestine."

What? To build Palestine? Yes, in 1947 the word "Palestinian" — if it meant anything at all — referred to Jews living in Palestine. The Palestine Post (now the Jerusalem Post) was the Jewish English-language newspaper. The Palestine Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic) was a Jewish orchestra, filled to overflowing with Holocaust survivors. The United Palestine Appeal, an American charity, raised money to resettle homeless Jews from Europe in Palestine — one of the things Arabs objected to the most. They were not large donors.

Arabs living in the territory of Palestine were called Arabs — or, very occasionally, Palestinian Arabs. This was in keeping with a philosophy known as pan-Arabism, which held that all places where Arabs ruled were part of one big Arab nation.

This history is probably what Newt Gingrich had in mind when he commented last week that the Palestinians were "an invented people."

For two decades before they lost the 1967 Six-Day War, Arabs controlled the entire West Bank, the Gaza Strip and half of Jerusalem. They could have established a Palestinian state any time they wanted. They never tried. The famous U.N. Resolution 242, which ended the Six-Day War, makes no reference to Palestinians, but just refers to refugees.

In short, Gingrich is right, up to a point. Until the 1970s, Palestinian nationalism was not much of a factor. The PLO was formed in 1964, but the idea of "liberating" Palestine from Israeli control didn't really take hold until after the 1967 war. But it did take hold, and now must be taken into account. Today, acknowledging the Palestinians' right, at least in theory, to a state of their own is the price of admission to any serious discussion of the Middle East. Even Israel's right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, feels obliged to give it lip service.

And it doesn't really matter that Palestinian nationalism is a recent confection. People who want a state should have a state. That seems to be the rule. In an era when the former Soviet Union continues to break apart like a cookie, with each crumb claiming sovereignty over a piece of territory and the claimed territories often overlapping, it's hard to argue for a higher standard.

In the 1980s and 1990s I worked at the New Republic, a fervently pro-Zionist publication. Many's the night I worked late editing articles I wasn't sure I agreed with offering yet one more reason why a Palestinian state was unthinkable. These days the position of Jews in America and in Israel seems to be something like a resigned shrug. The Palestinians want a state? So OK, let them have a state, if we can settle other issues like borders and refugees. See how they like it.

Gingrich also is not completely off the wall in describing the situation as a struggle "between a civilian democracy that obeys the rule of law and a group of terrorists that are firing missiles every day." On reflection, Gingrich might have wanted to distinguish between the Palestinian Authority, which rules in the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza. Hamas is the one firing missiles. But even regarding the Palestinian Authority, it's incredible that all it has taken for the PLO (which conducted the slaughter at the Munich Olympics, among other atrocities) to become an acceptable future Palestinian government is to have found a leader who wears a suit and tie and knows how to shave. Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is considered the grownup, the trustworthy negotiating partner, the one you complain to when Hamas misbehaves.

You can get in great trouble if you say that Israel also has its terrorist past. And, to be sure, there are big differences. But there are also similarities. If you peruse the New York Times coverage of the Middle East in the weeks before and after the 1947 U.N. vote (hey — a guy's got to have a hobby), you'll see offhand references to the Irgun and the Stern Gang (two Jewish guerrilla groups) as "Jewish terrorists" — even in its news pages. The label was considered obvious and beyond controversy.

Gingrich said that Palestine had to be invented, and this is true. It is also true of Israel, which didn't even have a name as it declared its independence in May 1947. President Truman's typewritten message recognizing the new state has "Jewish state" crossed out and "State of Israel" scrawled in with what looks like pencil.

Modern Jewish nationalism only goes back to 1896, when Theodor Herzl published his book, "Der Judenstaat" ("The Jewish State"), which put the question back in the public debate for the first time in centuries. From 1896 to 1948 is 52 years. That's how long it took for the Jewish state to go from an idea to a reality. Even if Palestinian nationalism started as late as 1967, 52 years later would be 2019. Eight years from now. I doubt it will take that long.

Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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