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Benny Morris on Palestinian Peoplehood

Israeli historian weighs in on Newt Gingrich’s ‘invented’ remark

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Benny Morris.(Wikipedia)

I and everyone else have had the chance to opine on Newt Gingrich’s comment that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Still, I felt that Benny Morris could provide a unique perspective. Morris is one of the leading lights of the so-called New Historians, a group of Israelis who a couple of decades ago radically revised the understanding of the Israeli War of Independence, uncovering the full extent of the Palestinians’ plight, including the Jewish expulsion of Palestinians living in what is now Israel (Morris’ seminal book is The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem). A man of the left (he says; some would disagree), he supports a two-state solution but more recently Morris has blamed the failure of the peace process largely on Arab intransigence. I spoke with him yesterday over the phone (he lives in Israel) about the historical basis and political uses of Gingrich’s rhetoric.

Here’s what Newt Gingrich said last week: “Remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places.” How do you respond to that?
There’s something to it historically, and there’s a problem with it politically and contemporaneously. Groups of people change. Before 1920, the Arabs in Palestine didn’t call themselves Palestinians, and didn’t consider themselves a separate people. They were Muslims. They were inhabitants of Jerusalem, or Hebron. They were Arabs.

Beginning in the 1920s, they took on an additional identity, which became their primary identity. By the late 1930s, they saw themselves as being Palestinians—historians may disagree on the exact point. But from the early 1920s on, they began thinking of themselves as an Arab people separate from the Arab people of Transjordan or Syria.

Today, a group of people define themselves as a people, and that’s really what counts. If ten million say, “We are Palestinians,” that’s the major definition of a people, in addition to language, common culture, common history. Who is Newt Gingrich to really argue about it?

But he has a certain truth historically. For a long time, even after the beginning of the struggle with the Zionists, they were just Arabs. There was no province called Palestine in the Ottoman Empire. Palestine was cut up into a number of sub-districts which belonged to Damascus or Beirut. There was never a separate administrative entity.

Did they, as Gingrich alleges, have a chance to go many places? I think he is referring to the Palestinian refugees of 1947-48.
I don’t know what that means, I don’t want to speculate. Could they have gone to the Arab states and settled there? They could have, but the Arab states didn’t treat them as equals. Syria didn’t. Jordan didn’t in relation to the Bedouins who had always been there. If he’s talking about that, yes, the Arab states could have absorbed them, but they didn’t, and the Palestinians didn’t want to be absorbed, and Israel didn’t want to take them back, so they ended up in a limbo called refugeedom.

Some pointed to the historian Joan Peters as the source of Gingrich’s history.
She wrote a book, From Time Immemorial, but it was actually panned by most critics, most historians thought it wasn’t solid history. It was written with a political bent. It’s not based on good archival work, good analysis. It’s not taken seriously by most historians.

Look, there were Arabs who migrated into Palestine (this is part of her argument). Palestine became more habitable, and Arabs immigrated in certain numbers. But I think the numbers are negligible. I don’t think any serious demographer thinks most of the Palestinians were recent comers.

Given the validity of Palestinian peoplehood, do the Palestinians have a greater right to the land than the Israelis do? A lesser one? An equal one?
People who live on the land—and nobody questions that many of them lived on the land—have a right to live there. And usually that right is followed by the right of sovereignty—that’s how the world is built. And the Jews have the right as well of being here—historical reasons. And the Jews also live here, which gives them the same right. Right of presence.

What do you make of the Republicans’ discourse on the issue, and the Americans’ generally?
I’m don’t know much about the discourse. Look, George Bush said it’s right that there should be a Palestinian state. Obama’s adopted that. Clinton implied it. It makes sense that the land should be divided into two sovereign states. My belief is that Arabs don’t want that, and that’s why it hasn’t happened.

Have you ever met any of the Republican presidential candidates, or President Obama?
I haven’t met any of them. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting any of these characters.

Earlier: The Gingrich Invention

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Marc-Check what Golda Meir said. Nobody screamed as she was a Socialist (labor) Prime Minister. That makes everything OK. Let’s be honest- you prefer a leftist anti_Israel, anti Jew to a rightist who is pro-Israel and Pro Jew. How do we deal with that?

Let’s put it this way; if there was no Zionist movement there would be no such thing as Palestinians. Two facts prove this: a)Jordan is made up of 3/4 of the original mandate and is 80% Palestinian and no one calls it Palestine. b) Jordan and Egypt occupied the land that was supposed to be for the Palestinian state in the years 1948-67 and didn’t make any move to set up a state for them. It only became a real issue after the 67 war.

Vladimir Minkov says:

Benny Morris said: “Today, a group of people define themselves as a people, and that’s really what counts. If ten million say, “We are Palestinians,” that’s the major definition of a people, in addition to language, common culture, common history.”
If we agree with this logic we have to agree with the following: “Today a group of Jewish people living in Judea and Samaria define themselves as a people with the name of “settlers”, and that’s really what counts”!

MethanP says:

Newt is correct. But that doesn’t really matter. Millions of Arabs identify themselves as Palestinians and that creates its own reality. The problem as I see it: The Arabs have never reconciled themselves to the reality of Israel. And the hatred they teach of Jews, not just Israelis, combined with an underlying anti-semitism makes peace unlikely. The fact that Israel is not a real problem, but an excuse must be ackmowleged before peace is possible. If you doubt that: Queary, How many Arabs have the Israelis killed, en toto since 1947. You’ll find that the Arabs have killed 10 times that number in that time. Indeed, if Israel disapeared tomorrow, the Arabs inparticular and Muslims in general woud have nothing to bind them together. They would soon desend
into what we are seeing in Syria & Yemen.
And illiterate societies don’t, can’t fprm democracies. Tragecly, I see only more violence ahead.

For a deeper academic examination of Palestinian nationhood than Gingrich’s (and more detailed than historian Morris’s and better than Joan Peter’s – this one taken from an interdisciplinary perspective, see this book chapter- part of a larger work “Negotiating Over Quicksand”:

Far more important – for a realistic (albeit pessimistic) survey (in the same work) that discusses Palestinian political culture since the 1920, see the book chapter on Rejectionism that systematically traces chronologically all compromises offered since the 1920s and Palestinian responses – revealing a repeated pattern that combines rejectionism and use of political violence (that has nothing to do with ‘the occupation’) at

Food for thought.

You guys aren’t getting it.

The existence of Israel disproves Mohammed’s divinity. If Israel exists then Mohammed was not god. Its that simple.

A Jewish child living in Jerusalem or Chevron or Tel Aviv is a spit in the face of EVERY Mohammedan. Each of the 1.5 billion Mohammed-worshippers has her belief system disproved every day. That is the SOLE source of the “conflict”.

Shalom Freedman says:

These answers seem to fair answers. The interviewer does not however mention the great irony of Benny Morris’ life and work. He did more for the promotion of the Palestinian Arab cause in the world than almost anyone else. He did more for their propaganda and making them seem the abused party in the conflict. But in recent years he has come to recognize that it is the Arab side which does not want Peace, does not want compromise. And he sees too the great threat to Israel, to his own family. So he without wishing it promoted the cause of those whose aim is to destroy what he most cares about.
I might add that all his work since then in arguing that Israel has sought Peace while the Palestinians have refused it, amounts to nothing before the contribution he made to the other side.

Pauline Coffman says:

Morris conveniently ignores the presence of Palestinian Christians. Why? They have been present since the time of Jesus, and are part of the semitic population that includes Jews, Christians, and Muslims. If it were not for Israel’s aggressive behavior, all could live together in peace, which is what I hear Palestinians saying they are ready to accept. Every time peace negotiations are scheduled, Israel does something to stop it…like announcing a new settlement, or expansion of an existing one. Go figure.

Rebecca says:

Barry – Muslims do not worship Muhammad, they worship God. I suggest you read a good introduction to Islam before spouting off ignorantly.

Vulcan Alex says:

So from a historical point of view Palestine and the palestinians were created at some time in the near past. That is all that Newt was talking about, now he probably should have been quiet.

Stan Alekman says:

If Benny Morris is the eminent historian on the subject, he presents precious few facts and is not very convincing. He offers homilies and little in the way of history and international agreements on the subject. He has always been vacillating between positions. That is not the characteristic of an eminent historian.

Nonetheless the problem remains the absence of a negotiated agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.

The Palestinian Arabs are unready to compromise in a negotiated agreement and there is no one forcing them to. No Arab country is making it clear that they have to.

Whether any negotiated agreement can be honored by the Palestinians is dubious, given the existence of two governing entities, one against a negotiated agreement with Israel.

That being said, all the talk about Palestinian Arabs is just talk. It does not, will not change things.

There must be a negotiating process and an agreement. If the Palestinian Arabs do not come to the table, Israel is not bound the strictures of a contemplated Palestinian Arab state.

Beatrix says:

The settlements didn’t stop the peace talks. In fact, the Israelis and Palestinians had an informal agreement in 2008 about settlements. The Israelis would get the two largest settlements contiguous to Israel, and would give the Palestinians an equal amount of Israeli land in compensation. The other settlements would go to Palestine.

Israel cleared settlers out to the Sinai in return for peace with Egypt, and Sharon voluntarily walked out of Gaza, forcefully evicting settlers in return for what he hoped would be peace with Palestine. In fact, he was going to walk out of the West Bank (taking the settlers with him for their own safety) until Hamas took over Gaza and threatened Israel with annihilation.

Gingrich believes in a two state solution. Given that the Romans named Israel Palestine after beating her in war, the truth is that for the last 2,000 years both Jews and Arabs have lived on the land. Of course both have a right to a nation.

Gingrich’s statement was not nearly as inflammatory as Obama’s statement making settlements the issue was.

Hershl says:

Well, Marc, you actually were able to do an interview without making a total fool of yourself.

Mazel tov.

Okay, a distinct “Palestinian” People now exists, but that does not mean that such a People objectively existed before 1948 as alleged by Benny Morris. Objective evidence: 20th-century Arab leaders were amazingly reluctant to recognize the existence of a distinct Palestinian People! At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, Prince Feisal specifically accepted the plan to create “a national home for the Jewish People” in Palestine. His father, the Hashemite King of the Hedjaz was party to the 1920 Sevres Treaty that stipulated that there would be “a national home for the Jewish People” in Palestine. Nor was an independent State for a distinct Palestinian People the preference of the most famous local Arab of the first half of the 20th century. Jerusalem Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1941 promised close cooperation with Germany and Italy in return for Axis creation of a united, fascist Arab State that was expected to cover all of Iraq; Syria; and Palestine, east and west of the Jordan River. After WW2, Egypt and Jordan had little regard for the existence of a distinct Palestinian People. Those two governments rejected the 1947 United Nations General Assembly resolution recommending that the land between the Sea and the Jordan River be partitioned into two new countries — “the Jewish State” and “the Arab State.” Second, no Palestinian State was created between 1948 and 1967, when Egypt held the Gaza Strip and Jordan had East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Loss of those lands in the Six-Day War strongly encouraged an existing tendency of local Arabs to see themselves as distinct from the Arabs of Egypt and Jordan. Now more clearly spearheading their own irredentist struggle, local Arabs had added incentive to self-identify as “Palestinian.” All the more so since the new identification effectively expressed their stubborn determination to eventually master all the territory that in 1922 had been internationally recognized as “national home for the Jewish People.”


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Benny Morris on Palestinian Peoplehood

Israeli historian weighs in on Newt Gingrich’s ‘invented’ remark

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