I just returned from speaking in the Detroit area of the US. While there, I heard a pastor share his shock at Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s inflammatory comments about the Palestinian people this past December. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time in the Holy Land and who has become closely acquainted with both the Israeli and Palestinian communities, this pastor was dumbfounded that a prominent leader could make such a claim without any significant reaction from his peers.
This pastor was referring to Newt Gingrich’s December interview with The Jewish Channel. When asked whether he considered himself a Zionist, Gingrich stated “I believe that the Jewish people have the right to have a state,” and he continued “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.” When challenged by his political rivals on his statements regarding the “invented” Palestinian people, he stood his ground stating “It’s fundamentally the time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Enough lying about the Middle East.’”
There are several problems with Gingrich’s statement. Not only does it further misinformation and misunderstanding regarding nationalism and ethnicity, it defames Palestinians and aids in the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nationalism was born in the 18th and 19th centuries as people’s concepts of community and solidarity spread beyond their family, religion, or city. For example, Italy only became a country in the mid-19th century with the unification of the Italian peninsula, and changed from a monarchy to a republic in the mid-20th century. Ethnic identity has to do with people “who are born into and experience their childhood within a well-defined peoplehood with a shared socio-cultural history,” or can be defined based on membership to a subgroup that “claims a common ancestry and shares one or more of the following elements: culture, race, religion, language, kinship, and place of origin.” Both the Palestinian people and the Jewish people meet these definitions of ethnic identity. Historians see the beginnings of the Palestinian national movement in the early 19th century, and references to Palestinian national identity appear in newspapers in the early 20th century. As for Gingrich’s allegation that Palestinians are like any other Arabs who could have gone to many places, he gravely misunderstands Middle Eastern history. While it is true that there was an Arabization and Islamization of the Middle East with the rise of Islam and the Muslim empires, many Palestinians are of Jewish, Aramaic, Samaritan and Phoenician descent. With the rise of Christendom, some of the local population adopted Christianity, and with the subsequent spread of the Arab and Muslim conquerors, many local populations converted to Islam and adopted Arabic over the years. Gingrich’s words are dangerous because of their ramifications. He not only insulted the Palestinian people by disparaging them and disregarding their right to self-determination, his words fuel radical segments of Israeli society to continue in their delegitimization of the Palestinian people. His statements will only increase polarization and radicalization at a time when a calm and clear voice of leadership is needed. Furthermore, he proves to the Palestinian people that, if he is elected, under his administration America will not be an arbiter of freedom and democracy; in effect, he is saying to Palestinian segments of society that negotiation and arguments for the legitimization of their cause will go unheard. Gingrich is viewed as a Christian leader, and his statements will surely increase tension between Muslims and Christians.
While Gingrich’s incendiary comments sparked a measure of outrage, no major leader was courageous enough to stand up and speak out against the statement. One can only imagine the indignation and condemnation that would have resulted if someone had stated that the Jewish people do not exist. While anti-Semitism and disregard for the Jewish people have a much longer history than anti-Palestinian sentiments, the affront is the same. Gingrich’s comments are illustrative of a common phenomenon in conflict situations: denying the legitimacy of the other. For a long time, Israel refused to recognize the existence of a Palestinian people. Likewise, for a long time, Palestinians argued that Jews are part of a religion, not a people. Lack of recognition of another’s existence leads to dehumanization, hatred, and violence. Our troubled part of the world exemplifies this sad lesson very clearly.
We combat delegitimization through reconciliation encounters and education. Often when people meet one another their misperceptions begin to crumble. As they build relationships and learn more about each other through interpersonal and intergroup activities, they are less suspicious of and defensive around one another. Each side hears stories of their new friends’ lives, stories that recount their individual suffering in the conflict, as well as recall their collective identity that is deeply rooted in the land of Israel-Palestine. We discuss zero-sum mentalities, which assume that there must be winners and there must be losers – that is either all ‘us’ or all ‘them.’ We discuss the nuances, and encourage others to begin to see our conflict in terms of ‘us and them’ as opposed to ‘us’ or ‘them.’ We examine our histories and narratives together, encouraging both sides to see their own shortcomings, and through role-playing activities we encourage participants to see the situation from the other perspective. Delegitimization perpetuates the conflict, but mutual understanding, respect, and education can reduce its damage.
We encourage you to listen to your politicians and our politicians with attentive ears. When we hear things that encourage us to stray from seeking peace and instead tear down one another’s image, we should challenge it! We should not allow people to speak ill of each other! Our politicians are our elected representatives, and we would do well to offer critique and criticism when it is due. Our words have ramifications, and all the more so when a person in power speaks words that harm. As Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Likewise, Psalms 34:12-14 say, “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” We ask you to continue to pray for us and with us, seek peace alongside us, and pray for your and our leaders who need much wisdom during these difficult times.
By Salim J. Munayer