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Gingrich on Palestine: Small Truths In A Big Lie

If Newt had really said what the headlines claimed:  “Gingrich Calls Palestinians an ‘Invented’ People,” I would have shrugged and said, So what? Americans are an invented people too. So are British, Chinese, and every other national group. We’ve been teaching that in our college classrooms for twenty years or more as an obvious no-brainer.

But that’s not what Gingrich said.  He said “We,” apparently meaning the United States, “have invented the Palestinian people.” Wrong! The Palestinians invented themselves, at least as early as the first Palestinian National Congress in 1919. So it’s the “we,” not the “invented,” that should get headlines and stir angry reactions.

Gingrich got another small piece of the truth right when he said that the Palestinians “are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people.” the dream of one big pan-Arab nation was a powerful idea before World War I. But it died for all practical purposes after that war when Britain and France divvied up the Middle East between them and started creating new nations.

Those smaller mistakes by Newt and the mass media pale, though, before their big ones. Read the whole transcript.

Newt blandly asserted that the Palestinians -- both the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas -- are “a group of terrorists who are firing missiles everyday” because of their “enormous desire to destroy Israel.” In fact, missiles aren’t often fired at Israel any more. And when they are, it’s in response to Israeli provocation.

Fatah has renounced violence and shown itself eager to negotiate a two-state solution once Israel stops eating up Palestinian land with its settlements. And Hamas has consistently offered a long-term truce along with de facto acceptance of a two-state solution.

Yet Gingrich said that negotiating with these Palestinians would be like putting your child into the lion’s cage at the zoo, where your child would surely be eaten. Such distortions are not surprising, coming from a politician desperately courting the extreme far right. Do we really expect honesty from him anyway?

No, the really important story here is what the journalists left out of the story. They seized on that word “invented” and totally ignored Newt’s Big Lie: his outrageous caricature of current Palestinian actions and policies.

Well, the news has to be new. It’s long been out of fashion to try to discredit the Palestinians by calling them an invented people. Even Elliot Abrams, long the U.S. government’s in-house lackey for Israel’s hawks, rejected Gingrich on that point, noting that “there was no Jordan or Syria or Iraq, either, [before World War I] so perhaps he would say they are all invented people as well and also have no right to statehood.”

But to charge the Palestinians with constant rocket attacks aimed at destroying Israel? To ignore the Palestinians’ eagerness for a just two-state solution? That Big Lie is still perfectly acceptable in the U.S. mass media. Indeed it’s the assumption that frames most of the U.S. public conversation about the Israel-Palestine conflict.  Maybe it’s eroding very gradually when it comes to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

When it comes to Hamas, though, the Big Lie rules virtually unchallenged. Even the New York Times, which claims to be our most respected news source, still tells us that  “Hamas rejects Israel’s existence” as if it were an obvious fact that needed no evidence or justification. Never mind that the Times itself published an interview with the head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, two and a half years ago, in which he clearly stated his acceptance of a two-state solution. For journalists as for politicians, facts too often give way to the power of the Big Lie.

The United States government still has plenty of leverage over the Israeli government, very possibly enough to force the Israelis to stop expanding settlements and start negotiating seriously. Israel’s President Shimon Peres bluntly explained why: "Israel must forge good relations with other countries, primarily the United States, so as to guarantee political support in a time of need." But as long as the Big Lie prevails here, no U.S. president will have the political courage to use that leverage.

One more journalistic gaffe worth noting: The usually reliable Christian Science Monitor headlined, “With an eye toward the Jewish vote, Newt Gingrich disses Palestinians.” The Republican Jewish vote in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina -- the states Gingrich must focus on now -- is miniscule. No serious campaign would give it much attention.

The intense spotlight that most GOP candidates are shining on Israel reflects the power of the Big Lie among their non-Jewish voters, who see Israel as (in Mitt Romney’s words) “the embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization. ... the sole nation that truly shares our values.” if Israel is civilized and under violent attack, its foes are presumably savages. And brown-skinned, to boot. Calling the Palestinians “invented” is a coded way of endorsing and promoting that ethnic prejudice. no candidate has dispensed with code and voiced the prejudice openly -- yet.

Here’s hoping that Newt Gingrich, always eager to boost his reputation as a loose-lipped maverick, will eventually take that step. Then the real root of U.S. Mideast policy -- the persistent bias that allows the Big Lie to pass as ordinary truth -- will be out in the open.

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Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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