Gingrich has opened an important door

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The Palestinians are an invented people, noted historian Newt Gingrich tells us. Newt is trying to pander to that part of the Republican electorate closely attuned to who can display the most hatred for Muslims. The national press seems to have forgotten that Newt spent the greater part of 2010 warning against the imminent threat of imposition of Sharia law on the United States by immigrants and liberal judges. Even many neocons thought that was crazy, and he stopped, but here he has re-focused the campaign, choosing a new target to tap into the same animosity. 

Palestinian nationalism is a generation or two behind Zionism. Zionism was in great part a Jewish reaction to European ethnonationalism, whose extremes eventually made it seem both plausible and necessary. Palestinian nationalism is a response to Zionism, growing more urgent as the Zionist presence in Palestine grew more threatening. But perhaps even Newt can acknowledge that if all nationalisms don’t begin to germinate at the same time, the late starters don’t have to be suppressed in perpetuity. 

I’ve been thinking about Ireland. My ancestors (both Catholics and Protestant settlers) are mostly from there; surfing channels recently, I got stuck on the docudrama “Bloody Sunday” (Derry, 1972, 13 killed and dozens wounded by British paras suppressing a disorderly but not especially violent civil rights march.) It’s reasonably calm and peaceful now. I read recently that almost no one knows and few care whether Rory McIlroy, the greatest young golfer in the world and Northern Ireland’s most beloved person, is Catholic or Protestant.  Nationalisms, and the sentiments which surround them, can change enormously in the space of a generation. 

Not so long ago no one in Britain could conceive of a self-governed Ireland. The topic would incite torrents of racist invective, a reiteration of the supposed barbarisms of Irish political culture. When the desirability of limited Irish autonomy was first raised in the 1840’s by Count Cavour, during a visit to England, he was told by the “most humane” and “most liberal” Lord Spencer that a “war of extermination” was preferable to Irish self-rule.

Of course the Irish had access to Westminster, which is far more political representation than the Palestinians have. By the end of the 19th century they were able to effectively use that lever to send a nationalist rump to Parliament. They used every other tool at their disposal as well, including, of course, terrorism. Eventually they prevailed—most of Ireland is today an independent European country (beholden only to the global bond market) , and even the seemingly insoluble situation in the northern six counties has been largely drained of its hatreds, the nationalistic firebrands of both sides having been bought off by holding office. Rory McIlroy, Rory McIlroy… The socio/economic/education gap between Ireland and England, once vast, has largely vanished. 

It shouldn’t surprise that Ireland appears to be the most pro-Palestinian country in western Europe. It is the European nation in which the experience of occupation and humiliation loom largest in historic memory. But Ireland’s relative calm is a result which would have seemed impossible a century ago. Political equality and economic growth eventually made the hatreds seem outdated, then irrelevant. Some variant of that formula could, of course, be made to work in Israel/Palestine as well. 

Newt Gingrich is not much of a historian or truth teller, as he styles himself. But his claim that Palestinian nationalism is “invented” might as well be taken as an opportunity. Its relatively recent provenance does not it make it different from other nationalisms. Truthful talk, more of it, a lot of it, about the history of Jews and Arabs in Palestine would be a welcome addition to American discourse. I hope we haven’t heard the end of the subject.

About Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of the American Conservative. The former editorial page editor of The New York Post, he has written for Fortune, The New Criterion, National Review, Commentary and many other publications.

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