When I heard reports of Newt Gingrich calling the Palestinians an ‘invented people,’ I had a flashback to 1991, when I first came to Israel – before the Oslo accords of 1993, when there was a different dynamic to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Finishing my graduate studies on a fellowship at the Hebrew University, I spent about half a year in the West Bank settlement of Efrat. Gingrich’s comments reminded me of the kinds of things that I used to hear at afternoon Sabbath tables back then, endless assertions of the centrality of the Israeli narrative, and denials that there even is a Palestinian narrative.
In graduate school at Columbia University, I studied with Edward Said — who was not only the respectable public face of Palestinian nationalism, but a literary and cultural critic of serious standing, who had argued that all nation states in the modern world are invented. Though Said never failed to use such arguments to discredit the Jewish State, on principle, he is right: from some perspective the modern State of Israel, the vision of a future Palestinian State and the United States of America are all inventions. The ongoing arguments appearing in the press now about the provenance of modern Israel and Palestine – the invocations of the Ottoman Empire, the Balfour Declaration, Theodor Herzl’s 1896 book
The Jewish State
, not to mention the Bible – are all beside the point, sidebar attempts to delegitimize the story of the other side.
In a version of this on a talkback on an Israeli news site, one reader wrote, ‘the Jews are the real Palestinians,’ referring to the pre-1948 status of Jews in the territory administered under the British Mandate, as ‘Palestinians.’ And on the other side, much of the language of contemporary Palestinian nationalism is inflected by appropriations of the precedent Jewish narrative of exile and return to the Land, such that the Palestinians become the real Jews. These assertions insist not only on the primacy of one perspective, but the exclusivity of that perspective, that there is only one authentic story. None of this, of course, is helpful in dealing with the contemporary situation: there is another perspective – people on the other side of the checkpoint – with their own story and claims that follow from it.
Gingrich’s comments re-instate, even assume, a narrative which may play to his Christian base in America, and an extreme (as well as currently empowered) but dwindling minority of people here. Most Israelis – aside from embracing democratic principles – are, these days, tired of the competition between stories and sides, not only for what it costs on the ground, but for its cost to the national psyche. They would be happy to assert the primacy of those stories in their homes and synagogues, and live in a geo-political reality with a negotiated settlement between the parties.
So I share convictions about a Jewish homeland as elaborated in the Bible, and was moved when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu mentioned the signet ring discovered in Jerusalem, dating back to the Kingdom of Hezikiah. Such findings resonate with my religious sensibility and deepen my sense of the historical Jewish connection to the place where I live. But I do not expect Palestinians to celebrate my story, nor is it relevant to contemporary politics. The reciprocal acknowledgment of our different stories — not their veracity, but that we have them — is the prerequisite for the political conversations that need to be happening now.
Perhaps most disturbing about Gingrich’s comments are recent reports of Bibi’s long-standing ties with him, dating back to the mid-nineties, as well as the latter’s stated desire to shape a foreign policy in the image of the current Israeli prime minister’s, raising suggestions of a common agenda to return to that retrograde, no longer helpful, worldview. Before the UN speeches of Netanyahu and Abbas earlier this fall – both partaking, regrettably, in the game of de-legitimization – President Obama said that acknowledging ‘different histories’ means that ‘peace is hard.’ If Bibi and his allies in Israel use Gingrich’s comment to support Israel’s exclusive claims to legitimacy – and to insulate themselves from the complexity of the situation here with its ‘different histories’ – it will be to all of our detriment.
In the Middle East, these days, where most of us acknowledge that everything is invented, we need a different kind of invention: one that leads to peace.
William Kolbrener, a professor of English Literature in Israel, is the author of Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum, 2011).