Human rights for invented peoples: Tamimi vs. Gingrich

Israel/Palestine
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Geronimo
Geronimo

In the second paragraph of the Palestine Center for Human Rights’ (PCHR’s) Dec. 10th press release, the few who saw it read the following words:

[This day] also marks the end of one of the worst years in the history of the Palestinian people since the Nakba. The civilian population of Palestine has been reduced to demanding the right to life, food, medical treatment, movement, and freedom of expression. Fundamental human rights are systematically denied, to the point where victims are reduced to simply demanding the right to exist.

In the national politics section of the news that same week, Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich reopened a controversy on his campaign trail by declaring the Palestinians an ‘invented’ people who are all “terrorists” anyway. The cheap, intrusive insertion of these lines into Gingrich’s grab for support succeeded at once in placing him in the spotlight where he has tried to open up an old wound. He knows the issues that will grab media attention and reignite controversy, especially one that has little to do with foreign affairs and a lot to do with scoring points for the Gingrich team.

Even Canada’s biggest talk radio show sought an “expert’s” comment though listeners hoping for an animated attack or defense of Gingrich’s words may have been caught off guard when the guest responded that Americans are an even more “invented” people than Palestinians. At least Palestinian Arabs lived on the same land for two millennia before being chased away, expelled, or slaughtered by the group of people then in the process of inventing themselves.

The talk show host might have had a more interesting segment by requesting the comments of a few Native Americans – a Cherokee, an Apache, or a Navajo ‘Indian,’ for example. What would a Native American have to say to Newt Gingrich had he claimed that the indigenous people of North America are “invented”? 

What would Geronimo have said had he been given the chance to comment on a statement made by a ‘patriotic’ white US general, that he (Geronimo) and his tribe were “invented” – and that the “American” Army was simply shooing them off the land God had intended white Europeans to settle? (Never mind that the Europeans had vastly bigger guns.) Geronimo could rightly have claimed these people were barking mad, or that they were engaged in a cynical and self-delusional attempt to invert reality in order to try to “justify” violently criminal and expansionist aims that would remain unfinished until the indigenous inhabitants of the land were eliminated.

(American public knowledge of Geronimo ought to be the subject of another paper: one that explains why it was so deeply offensive, to say nothing of ignorant, bigoted, and disgraceful for the US military to name its mission to kill Usama Bin Laden “Operation Geronimo.”)

Gingrich might have taken exception to the analogy of his comment about the Palestinians with the history of the Native Americans. He could have become indignant that his professed knowledge of history lacks any supporting evidence; but the damage has already been done. A more successful antidote to Gingrich’s latest vote-grabbing gig would have been for a fellow contender to turn Newt’s statement around and claim that the Jews are an “invented” people. The public could then have watched two pit-bull candidates rip each other’s shirts off as an audience stood by and applauded. Not only would we have had two numbskulls providing mud-slinging entertainment to a frightfully insular audience, those who actually make policy could claim another victory for keeping both the election and real, serious information away from the American people. Again. 

Sure enough, as Newt Gingrich was readying for another round of his boxing champ’s politics, the 63rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came and went on December 10th without a peep from our mainstream media. In places where human rights violations really are a grave concern to people, people who plead daily for the international community to enforce international law and treaties and protect it from the abuses of illegitimate authority and military occupation, the luxury of indifference is absent.

The anniversary of this solemn occasion may have passed without notice for most of the educated public in the United States. Elsewhere, however, this was not necessarily the case. Most of major national and international human rights organizations around the world paid tribute to the day with at least some commemorative words. The somber realization that human rights are almost as much a privilege of first world elites today as they were in 1948 was not far in the background, however. For Palestinians 1948 is an anniversary that marks a significant decline in their rights and recognition as human beings.

This did not prevent the PCHR from marking the importance of December 10th, 1948. Indeed, the PCHR’s opening statement in its press release from Gaza City that day read:

Today, the world celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Paris 63 years ago, Member States of the United Nations General Assembly “pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms”.

As staff members of the PCHR typed out these words in Gaza, a young man named Mustafa Tamimi from the small village of Nabi Saleh on the West Bank lay dying from his wounds. An Israeli soldier had shot Tamimi in the face with a tear gas canister at close range earlier that morning for taking part in a non-violent protest against Israel’s on-going theft of Palestinian land. At least half a dozen human rights had already been violated in the limited context of the shooting, and it would take another article to detail the full extent of the violations of international law, international humanitarian law, and universal human rights going on at the time by Israel against the Palestinians and financed by the United States.

I had to wonder how many others noted the irony of the incident: 63 years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Israel is a signatory; and 63 years after the creation of the state of Israel at the expense of the Palestinians – at least 750,000 of them expelled from their land and transformed into refugees – the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the Zionist armies were out in their IDF uniforms on the Jewish Sabbath threatening to shoot, tear-gas, or imprison the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those Palestinians who remained in Palestine and continue to resist. Neither occasion would make the evening news on Saturday night in the US because, for most Americans they were non-events: reality systematically and institutionally denied. 

Rereading the second paragraph of the PCHR’s press release (quoted at the beginning of this article) I could not help but reflect on the lament that the Palestinians have been reduced to “simply demanding the right to exist.” Nowhere would these words have more resonance than in the US where Newt Gingrich informed the news-watching public that Palestinians are an “invented” people. How easily it would be to fall into despair at this giant step backwards in the attempt to influence public perceptions.

Fortunately – or not – (as the case may be) reality doesn’t go away when you shut it out. We can deny it for only so long. Then, memories we hoped to bury resurface. The history we choose to deny returns to replay itself on the familiar stage of violence, suffering, and bloodshed. Neither nation states nor individuals can escape the realities they have created and actively participated in but refuse to acknowledge or confront. The sooner they do that, the less lethal the outcome for all involved.

About Jennifer Loewenstein

Jennifer Loewenstein is faculty associate of Middle East Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; LEAP project administrator (http://www.leapsummerprogram.org); freelance journalist; and founder of the Carol Chomsky Memorial Fund (www.chomskyfund.org) Currently on leave in Washington DC, Jennifer’s email is [email protected]

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