Last week, Newt Gingrich said the following about Palestinian nationalism:
Remember, there was no Palestine as a state — (it was) part of the Ottoman Empire. I think we have an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and historically part of the Arab community and they had the chance to go many places.
For this, Gingrich has been roundly criticized from a variety of angles. The thing to note, however, is that strictly speaking, he is right — if by “invented” we mean “socially and politically constructed”. The fact of the matter is that all “nations” are invented. It’s just a question of when and how.
The point to be made is that nationalism, as a general political force, arose out of discrete events and processes in the post-medieval age. The invention of the printing press, the spread of vernaculars, the rise of commercial capitalism, the imposition of administrative boundaries by colonial states, the rise of centralizing state — each of these meant that national identities congealed in ways that were simply absent before.
That last word is crucial: before. Whichever national identity you care to choose — French or Filipino, whatever — I can find a point in time when that national identity did not exist, either at all or in particularly stark terms. Creating nations takes effort. Some of it is by accident. Some of it is deliberate — by changing school textbooks, by changing what students read, by changing which languages of instruction are employed, by changing which language is deemed to be “official” or the court’s language, by imposing conscription, by creating flags and national anthems, by ethnically cleansing certain territories to purify them, and so on.
The problem with Gingrich’s statement was not his assertion of the contingency of Palestinian national identity. Hell, even Rashid Khalidi would agree with him on that. No, the problem with his statement was the implicit supposition that there exist other national identities that are more primordial in nature. That is, while the Palestinians were invented, the French or the Americans or the Arabs were not. I’m afraid that belief is simply incorrect. They were just “invented” at different times in different ways.
As Eugen Weber says in reference to nationalism in late nineteenth-century France, “A lot of Frenchmen did not know they belonged together until the long didactic campaigns of the later nineteenth century told them they did, and their own experience as conditions changed told them that this made sense…France is a deliberate political construction for whose creation the central power has never ceased to fight.” Indeed, we see manifestations of that very same process ongoing today; to wit, the fact that the census in France, unlike most Western democracies, has no provision for marking one’s race or ethnicity. Is the French nation any less “invented” than the Palestinians?
Moreover, when one sees that Gingrich’s “defense” of his original statement is “Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists. It’s fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Enough lying about the Middle East,'” it becomes clear that discovering the antecedent institutional conditions that gave rise to Palestinian group identity is probably not the object of his grand historicizing.