This article was originally published in the January 2012 edition of The Kenyon Observer
In an interview with The Jewish Channel last month, Republican Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich described the Palestinian people as “invented.” When questioned during a presidential debate a few days later, Gingrich continued to make misleading remarks, including “The word ‘Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977,” insinuating that Palestinian schools foster terrorism.
These statements are untenable and reflect long-standing falsehoods propagated since the founding of the state of Israel. In the early twentieth century, approximately 93% of the land that makes up modern day Israel was inhabited by Palestinian Arabs. In fact, when a delegation of Viennese rabbis were sent to Palestine to investigate the possibility of establishing a Jewish state there, they wrote back to Theodore Herzl, saying, “the bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.” Since then, the bride has been involved in a dangerous affair with the United States failing in their self-appointed role as marriage counselor.
The distinction between Palestinians and other Arabs of the Levant region is demonstrable through several cultural mediums including food, dance, music, embroidery, jewelry, and more. The preservation and documentation of Palestinian identity, notably through photography collections, Traditional Palestinian Costume: Origins and Evolution by Hanan Karaman Munayyer, and the work of cultural organizations authenticate Palestinian claims to autonomy and identity. Legal documentation, including pre-Ottoman land deeds, further demonstrates this reality. The Balfour Declaration itself, a 1917 letter which paved the way for the formation of the modern-day state of Israel, acknowledges “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” However, since the late 19th century there has been consistent and indefensible rhetoric suggesting otherwise.
Gingrich is not alone in providing a bevy of antagonistic comments on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The day before the Iowa caucuses, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum echoed Gingrich, telling a young voter that “there is no ‘Palestinian,’” saying that the residents of the Occupied West Bank are in fact Israeli. Ironically, if this were true, it would reflect what is known as the one-state solution, in which the Occupied Territories are absorbed into the State of Israel and residents are given equal voting rights. Such an act would fundamentally restructure the Israeli “democracy,” almost certainly not in the way Santorum envisions. Texas Governor Rick Perry and House Resolution 1006 have argued that Jerusalem should be the sole capital of Israel. Front-runner Mitt Romney has threatened to end aid to Palestinians if they pursue statehood via the United Nations, similar to House Resolutions 2457, 1501, 2261 and 1475. Before withdrawing from the race, candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, made news for offensive comments about the Islamic faith and right of return (or lack thereof) for Palestinians, respectively.
The alignment of many current GOP candidates with such revisionist history dangerously damages perceptions of America abroad and inhibits its ability to negotiate for Middle East peace. Many in the international community already disregard the United States as an impartial arbiter of the conflict, and the 29 standing ovations Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu received during an address to the U.S. Congress last May leave little doubt as to why. In an “Arab Attitudes” poll conducted by the Arab American Institute in 2011, Arabs in Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Lebanon ranked “occupation of Palestinian lands” as one of their top two obstacles when asked to identify “the greatest [one] to peace and stability in the Middle East.” The Obama Administration’s cow-towing to Israeli demands likely contributed to overwhelming Arab dissatisfaction with their “handling of the Palestinian issue,” yet it ranked as the most important issue through which Americans could improve their relations with the Arab World. Continuous denial of Palestinian agency, as reflected in recent campaign remarks, damages the United States image and role in the international community, affecting our security and stability as a nation.
The effects of xenophobic, anti-Islamic, and blind pro-Israeli campaign messaging and legislation are felt domestically as well. In a December 16 Boston Globe editorial, former Senator John E. Sununu(R-NH) described Gingrich’s remarks: “His comments were a calculated — but demonstrably false — slander, designed to curry favor with a constituency for which he cares by insulting one for which he does not.” This theme is reflected in public outcry over the Park 51 project in Manhattan, (known in the media as “the Ground Zero mosque”) and more recently was demonstrated through major companies pulling their advertising, en masse, from TLC’s reality show “All American Muslim” in response to pressure from hate groups. To me, the most troubling conclusion one may draw from the flurry of misinformation propagated by politicians is this: the comments are not a reflection of candidates’ individual views, but rather are deliberate attempts to connect with voters. Pandering to constituencies is inevitable, but it is irresponsible when it coordinated bigotry of this ilk contributes to a climate of fear and suspicion of American citizens. Just last month, a University of Illinois law professor of Sri Lankan descent was brutally attacked in a bus station. His attacker mistakenly believed his victim was “Middle Eastern,” reportedly yelling, “this is my country” before jumping the victim and slashing his throat.
In a land built on religious freedom, tolerance, and plurality, GOP presidential candidates seem instead to be adopting a deeply un-American campaign strategy: discrimination and fear-mongering. Such a tactic will not lead to peace and security at home or in the Holy Land. Instead of embracing the status quo and digging heels into a process that continuously falters, GOP candidates and lawmakers alike should consider a wholly new approach: one that favors tolerance, relies on historical fact, and seeks to build trust, rather than sow fear.