[This article is part of a bouquet developed by the Jadaliyya Palestine Page Editors to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba (15 May 1948), the day that marks the beginning of an ongoing struggle for Palestinian liberation and self-determination in the face of the violent establishment of the state of Israel on the land of historic Palestine. This day would mark the displacement 750,000 Palestinians, the razing of over 500 Palestinian villages, the murder and internal displacement of countless more, and 75 years of settler-colonial rule. Read the rest of the articles featured in this bouquet at the bottom of this page.]
“A Land Without a People, For a People Without a Land”.
-Early twentieth-century Zionist slogan popularized by Israel Zangwill
“There were no such things as Palestinians ... It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
-Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, 1969 (Sunday Times, 1969; Washington Post, 1969)
In a remarkable apologia published in Middle Eastern Studies in 1991, Adam Garfinkle writes that Golda Meir, in her above statement, was “speaking politically rather than literally” and doing so not from the vantage point of 1969 but rather 1921, the year she emigrated from the United States to Palestine. Blithely ignoring the motives and objectives behind Meir’s casual dismissal of the rights, history, and very existence of those her movement had spent the better part of a century dispossessing, and similarly eliding available scholarship that roundly debunks Meir’s political and literal deceptions, Garfinkle (p. 541) concludes the Israeli prime minister was in fact “entirely correct”. It may or may not be relevant that Garfinkle is a conservative activist who has worked for Henry M. Jackson, Alexander Haig, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice, or that Middle Eastern Studies is the house organ of the Kedourie family whose scion, Elie, has engaged in his own share of falsification regarding the history of Palestine (Smith, 1993).
It is particularly interesting that in Zionist historiography it is taken as a given that nineteenth-century Jews, who shared neither a common geography, nor language, nor political, administrative, or religious authority, and had substantially divergent cultural traditions to boot, constituted a people in Garfinkle’s “political” sense of the term, while it is simultaneously “entirely correct” to disparage the Palestinians, who had inhabited the same land, vernacular, political authority, administrative bureaucracy, and culture for the better part of two millenia, as an inchoate collection of transient individuals. Ineligible for a national identity, the clear implication is that they must make way for those who have possessed it since time immemorial and that in this contest they are unqualified to assert any collective, communal, or individual rights within or to their homeland.
Zionist leaders and their proxies in the academy and commentariat may claim they are merely engaging in disinterested political analysis or dispassionate scholarly disputations about the emergence of nationalism in the contemporary Middle East, rather than a concerted campaign to deny the very existence of those they have dispossessed. But this is complicated by several attendant factors. Most prominently, as a few keystrokes on any search engine readily demonstrates, they have done virtually nothing to discourage their apologists from claiming that even today Palestinians remain a political as well as literal illusion, and done rather too much to achieve their removal from not only Palestine but also the historical record. And it is hardly a far-fetched conspiracy theory to surmise that those who deny anything untoward transpired in 1948 or since, and insist there was no nakba, there is no occupation, and cannot be what the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem (2021) terms “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” are heavily invested in efforts to prove the victim does not exist and therefore that no crime could have been perpetrated (Foster, 2017; Finkelstein, 2003: Paul, 1985).
The denial that Palestinians constitute a people has often been instrumentalized to promote the corollary that Palestinians simply do not exist, and leveraged to negate the proposition that they have any individual or collective rights in or to their homeland. More than in the Middle East, this sordid opera is in the twenty-first century routinely performed in the US political arena. Auditioning for the Republican presidential nomination in 2011, self-styled philosopher king and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich blithely asserted that the Palestinians – presumably in sharp contrast to Israelis or Americans – are an “invented” people: “I think that we’ve ... invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab community” (Montopoli, 2011). Defending his comments a week later, and never one to leave a racist trope unattended, he for good measure added, “These people are terrorists” (Hechtkopf, 2011). The crux of Gingrich’s argument is that Palestinians are Arabs and should therefore leave for Arabia. If they instead sail to Georgia and expel its inhabitants to the United States on the principle that Americans have 49 other states while Palestinians would be left with only one, or seize his ancestral Scotland and remove its “invented people” to the lands of their fellow Brits, Gingrich would presumably be similarly enthused.
Determined not to be outdone in reciting Zionist propaganda, Mike Huckabee in 2015 informed a Washington Post correspondent reporting on his USD 5,250 a head 10-day indoctrination tour of the Holy Land: “The idea that they [Palestinians] have a long history, dating back hundreds or thousands of years, is not true” (Booth, 2015). Given that he had solemnly informed his audience in 2008 that “There’s really no such thing as a Palestinian” (Brinker, 2015) how could it be otherwise? In Washington and for that matter any number of European capitals one gets ahead with this kind of drivel. The mere assertion that Palestinians have rights – and in some contexts simply uttering the forbidden words “Palestine” or “Palestinian” – is by contrast sufficient to derail a promising career.
The Zionist claim that Jews have constituted a self-conscious nation and people throughout their history, but that Palestinians have even today yet to attain this status, and for all intents and purposes have no history and literally do not exist, are two sides of the same counterfeit coin. One designed to serve an avowedly ideological and political agenda that apportions and usurps collective as well as individual rights on the basis of racial hierarchy. Indeed, there is a direct relationship between the slogan “A land without a people, for a people without a land” – however one cares to interpret it, and the nakba, the occupation, and ultimately the regime of Jewish supremacy that exists between the river and the sea and all it entails.
Booth, W (2015) Mike Huckabee, Tour Guide in The Holy Land In Washington Post (23 February)
Brinker, L (2015) Mike Huckabee: There’s no Such Thing as The Palestinians In Salon.com (24 February). Available at https://www.salon.com/2015/02/24/mike_huckabee_theres_no_such_thing_as_the_palestinians/
B’Tselem (2021) A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid (12 January). Available at https://www.btselem.org/publications/fulltext/202101_this_is_apartheid
Finkelstein, N G (2003) A Land Without a People: Joan Peters’s ‘Wilderness Years’ In Finkelstein N G (2003) Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, second edition (London: Verso), pp. 113-171
Foster, Z J (2017) The Invention of Palestine (PhD diss., Princeton University)
Garfinkle, A (1991) On The Origin, Meaning and Abuse of a Phrase In Middle Eastern Studies 27:4
Hechtkopf, K (2011) Gingrich Sticks By Statement Calling Palestinians ‘Invented People’ In cbsnews.com (11 December). Available at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/gingrich-sticks-by-comment-calling-palestinians-invented-people/
Montopoli, B (2011) Newt Gingrich: Palestinians Are ‘Invented People’ In cbsnews.com (9 December). Available at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/newt-gingrich-palestinians-are-invented-people/
Paul, J (1985) The Scope of This Fraud was Huge In Middle East Report 136/137 (October-December)
Smith, C D (1993) The Invention of a Tradition: The Question of Arab Acceptance of the Zionist Right to Palestine During World War I In Journal of Palestine Studies 22:2 (Winter), pp. 48-61.
[Forthcoming, Critical Sociology, September 2023]