Newt Gingrich raises interesting questions, but he doesn't always have the right answers.
Gingrich recently questioned the concept of a Palestinian nation, declaring it "invented." Is that true? Yes - just as true as it is that all nations are invented or imagined.
The concept of nation is relatively new in human history, having grown at least partly out of another kind of innovation: the movable-type printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440. To find buyers for their products, printers and booksellers found that it was good business to use a region's dominant language - say, the English spoken in London or the French spoken in Paris.
By concentrating on dominant languages in populous and prosperous areas, printer-capitalists did much to standardize languages, as Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin wrote in The Coming of the Book. They argued that the explosion of printing in the dominant languages of Western Europe led to regional histories, giving rise in turn to the notion of nationhood. As the literate population of regions increased and adopted these common histories, "national myths" arose.
Not only are nations invented or imagined; nationhood also is fluid. Our nation, the United States, was invented by a group of once-loyal British colonial subjects who, after unsuccessfully seeking representation, declared themselves "Americans" in 1776. Less than 100 years later, we Americans split into "Confederates" and "Unionists." Each camp had a different idea of what our nation was, and many members of each camp were very willing to die and kill for their beliefs. And shortly after the bloody war that ensued, we returned to being "Americans."
This pattern has appeared in many places and at many times, right up to the present. Many of us were confused in the 1990s, for example, when people who had considered themselves Yugoslavian since the mid-1940s began killing their erstwhile countrymen, who had become Bosnians, Croatians, or Serbs.
The concept of nation has been in constant flux in the Middle East, too. People living in what is now Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza became members of "nations" relatively recently. Modern Zionism - including the idea that Jews make up a nation and should have a state of their own - was "invented" in 1897 by Theodor Herzl with the publication of his Der Judenstaadt.
The Palestinian inhabitants of the same land also went through this process. In the late 19th century, the concept of "Arab nationalism" was invented. The authors of this invented nationalism were Christians, Jews, and Muslims who lived in parts of the crumbling Ottoman Empire and identified themselves as Arabs. Their grand vision was of an Arab state that would encompass lands from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, including what is now known as the Middle East.
The failure of Arab nationalism led the Arab peoples of what is now Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem to invent Palestinian nationalism. This invented nation is just as real and meaningful to the Palestinians as the invented Israel is to its inhabitants, irrespective of whether outside powers have sanctioned it.
In his recent comments about Palestinians, Gingrich seemed to be suggesting that Arabs are a nomadic people devoid of any identification with or attachment to a specific land, and thus they can be easily removed to any other part of the "Arab world." Any rudimentary understanding of the area and its varied peoples would reveal that such assumptions are ludicrous, especially by a man who prides himself on his knowledge of history.
History certainly tells us that all nations are invented or imagined, but at the same time that the belief in them can be very real, strong, and passionate. The sense of nationhood is one of the few ideologies besides religion that people are willing to kill and die for. Whether Gingrich believes it or not, the Palestinians are a nation because they believe they are a nation.