Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is wrong on the Palestine-Israel issue.
His recent use of the word “terrorist” to define Palestinians is, frankly, insulting; furthermore, his use of the term “invented people” when referring to the Palestinian people is equally derogatory. He is perpetuating, to win votes, a beloved myth of hard-line supporters of Israel. This is a distortion of history; a historical and cultural misappropriation of a nation’s past and future for political gain. It strikes as an example of demagoguery-for-hire, the cheap selling out of moral complexity for short-term political gain.
Why, you might ask, is this important? The answer is simple: Because it sets the stage for a debate on this most important of Middle Eastern issues to be one about historical fallacies rather than about current facts, perverting and polluting a broader, much needed discussion geared towards producing a peaceful and prosperous future for both Israelis and Palestinians.
I have long supported the right of Israel to exist. I firmly believe Israeli citizens have a fundamental right to be able to live their lives in peace and security, free from the loud bang, the searing heat and explosion of a random car bomb or suicide bomber. However, Palestinians have this right also, for they are people dispossessed, a people whose only desire is a homeland where they too can live with their families, free from fear of the helicopter gunship and night-time raids, free from the cloud of phosphorous gas that burns their children’s throats and lungs. Indeed, both sides have victims; in many ways both sides are victims. They are victims of circumstance, of geopolitics, and, most importantly, they are victims of politicians like Gingrich, who use them both as political capital. Yet, despite Gingrich’s oversimplification of this most complex issue, no one side in this long conflict holds the moral high ground, nor can one claim at this stage that the other has no right to exist or is in any way “invented.”
U.S. politicians who have little to no understanding of the conflict or, as is evident in Gingrich’s case, desire to use the Israel-Palestine issue to garner votes, are intellectually dangerous. They are dangerous in the same way that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is dangerous to the memory of the Holocaust through his outright denial and continued denigration of it, or in the same way that Turkey is dangerous to the truth about the Armenian Genocide it perpetuated during and immediately after the World War I through its increased belligerent nationalist rhetoricc pertaining to it. The distortion of history for political purposes is therefore not unknown, yet what makes Gingrich’s statements more shocking is that they come at a time when the Arab world, after eight long years of anger and disappointment, is listening once again to the United States with optimism and not necessarily cynicism, as we have witnessed during the events of the Arab Spring. Gingrich will be one of the reasons many in the region may cease to listen sooner than expected.
Soon the storm will die down, Gingrich will likely not succeed in his bid to become the Republican nominee and the memory of this controversy will fade from view. But the ease with which Gingrich made these remarks, together with the ease with which they were accepted by a significant segment of the American media and population hint a longer term issue. For Israelis and Palestinians to build, under a U.S. brokered partnership, a lasting peace in a region dominated by the legacy of war, there has to be total trust and respect. The comments made by Gingrich underscore the fact that, in reality, the U.S. political establishment has a long way to go before it completely ditches the vote-winning demagoguery and adopts a conciliatory approach to a complex issue.
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