From the Editor

What Gingrich and Adelson and Santorum Really Mean When They Say the Palestinian People are "Invented"

Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP / Getty Images

I’ve been wondering about something lately. In recent months we’ve been reminded, yet again, that many on the political right don’t think the Palestinians are a real people. They are, in the words of Newt Gingrich and his former backer Sheldon Adelson, “invented.” Even Mitt Romney managed to give an entire speech in Jerusalem last month without uttering the P word.

Now it’s easy to fish out the old Benedict Anderson from college and claim that all nationalism is “invented” or, in Anderson’s words, “imagined.” If by “invented” you mean that the people living in a given place didn’t always call themselves the name they do now, then the Italians and French are an invented people too. It’s also easy to argue that most nationalist movements in Asia, Africa and the Middle East arose in response to colonialism and are, thus, roughly as old as the Palestinian version. If the Palestinians aren’t a real people because people didn’t call themselves Palestinian in the 19th century, then the same goes for Nigerians, Indonesians, Iraqis and dozens of other peoples who now enjoy states of their own.

But that’s not the interesting part. More interesting than proving Gingrich and Adelson wrong is asking what it would mean if they were right. Let’s assume there are no Palestinians. Let’s assume they’re just Arabs. Or let’s go even further: let’s assume they have no legitimate national identity at all. They are nothing but plain old human beings.

Why do Gingrich and Adelson think it matters? Presumably because if there’s no such thing as a Palestinian, then there’s no basis for a Palestinian state. But American conservatives, of all people, surely know that our most basic rights don’t stem from our membership in a group. They stem from our existence as individuals endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. Which is to say: if you deny Palestinians in the West Bank the right to vote, the right to citizenship, the right to free movement and the right to due process, telling them they’re not members of something called the Palestinian people doesn’t let Israel off the hook. To the contrary, it leaves Israel very much on the hook.

If Israel accepts that Palestinians are a people entitled to a state, then it leaves open the possibility of fobbing off the problem of Palestinian individual rights (at least in the West Bank and Gaza) onto someone else. The day after a Palestinian state is created, responsibility for protecting the rights of the human beings under its jurisdiction will be Mahmoud Abbas’ problem, or Ismail Haniya’s, or someone other than Israel’s. But if you deny that there is such a thing as the Palestinian people but you still believe that folks who misguidedly call themselves Palestinian in the Occupied Territories have rights as individual human beings, then their lack of those rights is, and always will be, Israel’s problem. If you deny Palestinian peoplehood but accept Palestinian humanity, you’re embracing the logic of one democratic state between the river and the sea.

But that’s not what Adelson and Gingrich mean. When they say there’s no such thing as the Palestinian people, they’re making a statement about both group and individual rights. They’re not just saying that the Palestinians are not a real people; they’re saying that the Palestinians aren’t real people. Look at Rick Santorum’s version of the “invented” people argument. “All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis,” Santorum declared last November. “They’re not Palestinian. There is no Palestinian.” Notice the ambiguity in his formulation. You could interpret Santorum’s statement as meaning that the people who call themselves Palestinian are actually Israeli. But that would imply that they have the rights of Israelis, which Santorum clearly does not believe. The other interpretation is that what Santorum really means when he says all the people in the West Bank are Israeli is that the people who aren’t Israeli—the ones who call themselves Palestinian—aren’t people.

Why does this matter? Because it shows that thinking only in terms of group identities and rights is a trap. Even if you believe in a Jewish and Palestinian state living side by side, talking solely in national terms allows the opponents of two states to believe that if they can discredit the argument for Palestinian nationhood they can evade the question of Palestinian humanity. And regardless of what kind of political entity you’d like to see ruling the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that’s a very frightening thing.