This is good. David Remnick at the New Yorker has used the Gingrich moment re Palestinian national identity to recall the controversy over From Time Immemorial, the Joan Peters fabrication of the 1980s. I imagine this is the first time Remnick has treated this important lie; so the piece is a worthy act of the Jewish recovery movement, our discovery of the Nakba 6 decades on. Remnick should have also credited Norman Finkelstein with his brave work on Peters. That was very tactical of Remnick–though he has spent some of his cultural capital by blaming Elie Wiesel, Martin Peretz, Saul Bellow and Lucy Dawidowicz for falling for the lie. Also note the use of the word “colonial.” Henry Siegman also used this word recently.
And, because Gingrich has a little learning and a darkly sophisticated memory for intellectual battle, he catered to his cause by employing the word “invented.” In this context, the word summons a 1984 bestseller that was once totemic on the Jewish right (and still is, for some): “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine,” by Joan Peters.
Peters, who was not a historian, put forward a purportedly scholarly construction based on the notion, as Golda Meir famously put it, that there is “no such thing as a Palestinian people.” The book, which is an ideological tract disguised as history, made the demographic argument that most people who call themselves Palestinians have short roots in the territory and are Arabs who came from elsewhere. It suggests that the territory that is now Israel was all but “uninhabited” before the Zionist movement began. It was a book that implicitly made the argument that Palestine was a tabula rasa waiting for its Jewish revival; or, as the old slogan had it: “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
The book was not only a commercial success; it also won plaudits from Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, Martin Peretz, Theodore H. White, Lucy Dawidowicz, Arthur Goldberg, and Elie Wiesel. For a time, it was wielded as a means to dismiss Palestinian claims on the land, and a means to be dismissive of Palestinians entirely. The book was thoroughly discredited by an Israeli historian, Yehoshua Porath, and many others who dismantled its pseudo-scholarship. Even some right-wing critics, like Daniel Pipes, who initially reviewed the book positively, later admitted that Peters’s work was shoddy and “ignores inconvenient facts.”
To this day, however, for some people who cannot accept, or even deal rationally with, the claims of Palestinians, “From Time Immemorial” and other such propaganda still have their place. Never mind that Peters fails to use Arab sources and that her work is full of distortions. Hers is a book with clear polemical purpose: to deny Palestinian Arabs an identity and any territorial claim; it makes the case that the Arabs in question should instead live in Jordan. (It should also go without saying that radical and bigoted polemicists on the other side of the Arab-Israeli dispute have their own pseudo-scholarship—their own numbing, often anti-Semitic, tracts—which make the case that Israel, and the Jewish people, are alien and have no claim on the land.)
Those who value books like “From Time Immemorial,” those who talk as Gingrich has, fail to ask how they, as Americans, can dismiss Palestinians as “an invented people” when national self-invention is a reality for Americans and countless others on the globe. Palestinian nationalism may be historically recent and, in some measure, a reaction to Zionism, but that does not discount its legitimacy, its cultural cohesion and meaning, or its claims. There are many recent nationalisms—many nationalisms that grew out of regional conflicts or colonial borders.
The full piece says that the Republicans are after Jewish voters. A synecdoche that is becoming more and more irresponsible.