Invented Peoples

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Doubling down on his remark that that Palestinians are “an invented people” at Saturday’s ABC-Yahoo debate, Newt Gingrich declared (as is his wont), “I spoke as a historian who’s looked at the world stage for a very long time.”

Ah, that good old world stage. I presume it comprises the Congolese, a people invented by Belgian colonization about whose history Gingrich did his 1971 doctoral dissertation. And the Belgians, a Francophone-Dutchophone hybrid barely holding together today. And the Italians and the Germans, whose national identities were forged in the 19th century. And, for that matter, the Americans themselves, whose quest for peoplehood took the Civil War to consummate.

Ethnogenesis” is what historians call the process by which a group of people come to consider themselves a people. Gingrich’s original comments seem to suggest that he thinks such a process illegitimate if it involves claims to territory with a status previously determined by international treaty.

Well, I believe that the Jewish people have the right to have a state,
and I believe that the commitments that were made at a time…remember
there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire.
And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in
fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community. And they
had a chance to go many places. And for a variety of political reasons
we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940’s, and I
think it’s tragic.

Is Newt a pan-Arabist who believes that only the “Arab community” has a right to make national claims? Or does he think that the national claims of recently invented post-Ottoman Arabs like Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Iraqis are less meritorious than those of the Jews or the Kurds, whose self-invention is lost in the mists of time? And how would he distinguish the national claims of that ethno-religious community known as the Jewish people from those of the Israeli people, which includes a significant number of Arab Christians and Muslims?

These are deep waters, and were Gingrich the historian he claims to be, he’d have recognized that national identity is all about the vagaries of invention, war, and diplomacy–and kept his mouth shut.