Cerebral Decanting

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by Jason Gubbels

On Invented Peoples: Geoffrey Wheatcroft and Palestinian Nationhood

1.  ”George Orwell said that every national movement makes very free use of the begged question, in the correct sense (which seems to be going out of journalistic fashion) of petitio principii, the supposed demonstration in argument resting on an assumption that itself needs to be demonstrated. That’s true here, with advocacy on both sides turning into long lines of petitiones principii.

One central begged question in the Palestinian text is the very word “Palestinian” used to describe a nationality, as in the first chapter, which complains that the Balfour Declaration “made no mention of the inalienable political rights of the Palestinians”—and “inalienable political rights” is one more begged question. To be sure, few single sentences have ever been as potent, as ambiguous, and perhaps as hypocritical as that letter of November 2, 1917, to “Dear Lord Rothschild” from Arthur James Balfour, the foreign secretary, in which

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. 

2.  ”The words were written with care, or at least after long wrangling, and “civil and religious rights” are far from the same as political and national rights, which in fact nobody thought of, any more than they were aware of “the Palestinians” as a nation who might be entitled to such national rights.

Ever since, some Zionists have not only denied those rights but derided the very idea of “Palestine” or “the Palestinians.” A meeting that I attended in New York some thirty years ago, and which had been optimistically convened to discuss the matter in calm and detached fashion, was broken up by a group of young men in kippas shouting, “There is no Palestine!” That was much what Golda Meir had said in 1969: “There was no such thing as Palestinians…. It was not as though…we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” (She would also sometimes say, “I am a Palestinian.”) And we have it recently from no less an authority than Newt Gingrich himself that there is “an invented Palestinian people.”

3. “As it happens, and little as he knows about the matter, Gingrich has stumbled across something. Not so long ago, there was no Palestine, except as a geographical description, and there were no Palestinians. A hundred years ago if you had asked a man from Jaffa or Jenin what he was, you would have heard the hallowed age-old reply, “I am a Muslim from here.” You would have heard the same in Aleppo or Baghdad: each man barely knew that he was an Arab by nationality, let alone a Syrian or Iraqi (and “Iraq” really is an invented nation, the passing fancy of Winston Churchill as colonial secretary). Least of all did someone then know he was a Palestinian.

Bear in mind that if you had put the same question, not a century ago but two, to a man from a village near Bratislava or Ljubljana, he would have said, “I am a Christian from here.” That’s to say he didn’t know he was a Slovak or a Slovene.”

4.Such consciousness tends in truth to be a later-flowering growth than historians like to think, especially those who are using history to support nationalist ends, as is often the case. Nationalist historians almost invariably attribute the existence or mere idea of a nation far too early, sometimes preposterously so. E.J.Hobsbawm was amused to come across a book called 5000 Years of Pakistan—about a country that did not exist sixty-five years ago, and whose name was not coined eighty years ago.

This pattern is conspicuous in the case of Zionists and Arabs. One of the founding fathers of Palestinian nationalism was George Antonius, the title and date of whose 1938 book The Arab Awakening speak for themselves: an Arab nation—and specifically a Palestinian nation—that had slept unaware of itself was slowly awakening. That is effectively if unintentionally conceded in the Palestinian text of Side by Side:

During the 1920s, the Arabs in Palestine began forging a national identity. Initially, they saw themselves as belonging to the greater Muslim Arab nation that replaced the Ottoman Empire. [Emphasis added.]”

But “the 1920s” followed rather than preceded the Balfour Declaration of 1917, let alone Theodor Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, published in 1896. And the phrase “greater Muslim Arab nation” is misleading in a rather sinister way. Some of the best-known champions of the Palestinian cause, from Antonius to Edward Said, were Christian Arabs by origin. At one time that cause claimed to be nonsectarian, and its recent capture by radical Islam has unhappy consequences, for the diminishing number of Christian Palestinians most of all.”

5.  ”When all that is said, something must be added. The creation of Palestinian identity and of a Palestinian nation—of “Palestine” itself—has been one of the most signal achievements of Zionism. Over and again, from one place to another, nationalist actions have stimulated opposite reactions. Slovak nationalism was a product of Magyar triumphalism, and the attempt by the French republic, the great champion of the idea of la nation, to extinguish Breton or Provençal identity by subsuming them did not have the intended effect.

One other truth remains, and it’s incautious (as well as preeningly ignorant) of Gingrich to use the phrase he does in this context. Whatever else is said about it, whether it was for ill or for good, Zionism was itself a classic case of invented tradition. Herzl’s idea of political Zionism and a Jewish state had no roots at all in existing Jewish tradition, of which it was to the contrary a radical rejection. When the Israeli text says that “in the nineteenth century…the Jews began to see themselves as a nation, desiring and deserving of a country oftheir own”, it likewise echoes the Palestinian text in inadvertently acknowledging this truth.

And yet the fierce Jewish debate over Zionism, for and against, which simmered in the half-century from publication of The Jewish State until it was silenced by Hitler and the birth of such a state, turned largely on the question of whether the Jews were a nation. That word is all-important, and its meaning has been the subject of much learned debate. More to the point, quite apart from the theological objections to political Zionism held by most rabbis in Herzl’s day, very many proud and pious Jews—not mere “arrivistes”—entirely rejected the idea of the “nationalization” of the Jews. They were Jews by religion but English or French or Austrian by nationality—or American. It is curious that the angriest polemics on behalf of Jewish nationality and the Jewish state are made by people who have patently enjoyed the benefits of citizenship in a country founded not on a people but on a proposition.

Even after the state was born, David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues might well have borrowed Massimo d’Azeglio’s words about Italy in the previous century and said, “Israel has been made; now it remains to make Israelis.” And that was done, as anyone who has ever visited Israel must know. As for the other people sharing the land, the case is reversed: Mahmoud Abbas (or perhaps some more inspiring leader) could say today, “We have made Palestinians; now we must make Palestine.” 

— Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “Can They Ever Make A Deal?”  New York Review Of Books, April 5, 2012 issue


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