I find it interesting how whenever the topic of Israeli-Palestinian relations is broached, a whole lot of irrationality erupts from all sides of the debate. One statement is particularly common from the pro-Israel (or anti-Palestinian, or Zionist, or whatever you want to call it) camp: that there is no place called “Palestine” and there never was a place called “Palestine” and thus no people called “Palestinians”. Here are some examples:
From masada2000.org: “Did you know that there was never any country called Palestine? Did you know that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people?”
From danielpipes.org: “Various Western institutions list ‘Palestine’ as a country, although there obviously is no such place.”
Golda Meier, Jerusalem Post: “There is no such thing as a Palestinian Arab nation… Palestine is a name the Romans gave to Eretz Yisrael with the express purpose of infuriating the Jews… Why should we use the spiteful name meant to humiliate us?”
From ChristianActionForIsrael.com: “One of the myths of our time is that Israel… was an independent state called ‘Palestine'”.
From Betar (Zionist Youth): “Palestinian people do not exist.”
Mark Williams: “There is not, never has been, never will be a nation called ‘Palestine.’ It is a myth. Atlantis has more validity. ‘Palestine’ exists only as a vehicle for the extermination of an entire people and a major goal of Islamic Jihad in its war against civilization.”
It’s not just Zionists who question the validity of an historical Palestine, but occasionally some of the more virulent of anti-Zionists, as well, such as Zuheir Mohsein, a senior PLO member who said in 1977, “[T]he existence of a separate Palestinian identity is there only for tactical reasons. The establishment of a Palestinian state is a new expedient to continue the fight against Zionism and for Arab unity.” Mohsein’s statement, cited with vigor by thousands of pro-Zionist voices since the 70s, is meant, I think, to speak to modern Palestinian culture, ethnicity and political need, which are largely indistinct from other modern semitic peoples; it says nothing of the validity of historical Palestine.
I am no expert on the history of the Middle East, so may make many errors in the unfolding of this post. But I consider myself a student of historical trends in oppression. And one of the most common defining traits of a movement that is struggling to find its lapsing moral footing is its insistence on the historical non-existence of its erstwhile opponent. This fact causes me to view these statements with a fair degree of skeptical scrutiny.
The movement to deny the existence, whether historical or present, of a Palestine is, I think, motivated by one profound desire: to necessarily relegate the objects of one’s derision to immaterialness, and thus to inoculate oneself against the moral self-immolation necessary to systematically marginalize and possibly harm a people.
Acceptance of the existence, and therefore validity, of a people with whom one is at odds necessitates the introduction of a more complex moral framework. It’s the same impulse that compels a people to demonize and dehumanize their enemy during wartime, because to wage bloody violence against actual human beings would be a sin, whereas to do so against either inhuman animals or figments of historical imagination is harmful to no one. It’s more of a challenging intellectual step to say to oneself, “My enemy is a thinking, feeling, hurting human being who will suffer when I harm him. But I have reasoned that the greater good is to be had in doing harm to him, so that is what I agree to do.”
During and immediately after WWII, many among the German people insisted that the Nazi death camps did not exist, and thus their oppression of the Jewish people could not have occurred; was this a case of genuine ignorance or of the rationalization of evil done in one’s name? I suspect that the latter is in large part the truth.
A more apt analogy is the European conquest of the “nations” of aboriginal America. By denying the existence of such nations, as many European imperial descendants still do, the continued marginalization of aboriginal peoples can be rationalized, since Western peoples can then be said to have settled on “empty” lands, rather than to have displaced a viable extant culture. Yet, despite not being organized in a fashion directly analogous to contemporaneous European governments, Native Americans were nonetheless purveyors of a sweeping and advanced civilization, a fact that most educated people today accept.
So it is disappointing to read these desperate attempts to relegate the people who today call themselves Palestinians into the bin of fictitious entities. The goal of defending the sovereignty and existence of people who call themselves “Israeli” is worthy enough not to have to resort to such an ignoble tactic.
To be fair, a common rallying cry among anti-Zionist (or pro-Palestinian, or whatever you want to call them) forces has to do with the illegitimacy of the state of Israel, a position that has at its roots a similar motivation as that underlining the insistence of the immaterialness of Palestinian historical existence. Defense of the historic Israel is a common meme, however, taken up by voices and platforms far more influential than mine, while responses to challenges to the historic validity of Palestine remain quite few, at least in the West. Hence I choose to focus on the latter in this post, certain that others can be relied upon to explore the former.
Let us examine the veracity of claims of Palestinian “non-existence”.
Wikipedia suggests that the name “Palestine” originated from the word “Philistine”, and since ancient times has referred to the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Biblically, this is likely the land of “Caanan”. The word “Palestine” was used by Europeans to refer to the “Holy Lands” in varying degrees of popularity, once “Outremer” (“the land beyond the sea”) lost sway after the first Crusades. “Palestine” has been in common and official usage since at least the dawn of the British Empire.
The historical validity of a place understood to be, and called by name, as “Palestine” is clearly beyond question. The famous Balfour Declaration of 1917, which essentially kick-started the process of establishing the modern nation of Israel, stated that that the British government would “view with favour” the establishment in Palestine of “a national home for the Jewish people” on the conditions that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” or “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
Official recognition by the leading world power of the time of a place called “Palestine” is clearly well recorded and within living memory. So the deniers’ position must be based on a more bureaucratic insistence, that there is no state of Palestine.
As Caroline Glick puts it, “[The state of Palestine] was officially founded in the summer of 2005, when Israel removed its military forces and civilian population from the Gaza Strip and so established the first wholly independent Palestinian state in history.”
Glick was writing facetiously and attempting to denigrate (perhaps with reason) the administrative abilities of the Palestinian Authority. But in doing so she inadvertently produces the following possible truism: whether one existed historically or not, a Palestinian state arguably exists today. It may not be one with complete autonomy, but a state nonetheless. One may disagree politically with the cascade of events that lead to the establishment of a Palestinian Authority, but that establishment may be seen to be bureaucratically similar to the administrative process that gave rise to the modern state of Israel in 1948.
The qualification of a nation state is typically defined according to four criteria: a territory over which sovereignty is not seriously contested by any other state, a permanent population, the ability and willingness of the state to discharge international and treaty obligations, and effective control over the state’s territory and population. According to John Whitbeck, writing in the Independent, “Judged by these criteria, the state of Palestine is on at least as firm a legal footing as the state of Israel.”
Which brings me to the heart of the matter, as I see it. In the issue of state validity, events in ancient history are ultimately distracting. What matters is common consensus in the modern world. There was no state named Canada or people called Canadians prior to 1867, yet that historical fact in no way denudes from the validity of Canada as a nation state in the modern milieu. This is because the world has agreed to recognize this state and the history it has chosen to project.
Similarly, people calling themselves the nation of Israel probably existed in various incarnations in various times over the centuries, but all that is relevant is that in 1948 the modern world chose to formally recognize a state by that name. A place called Palestine has certainly existed in various times over the years, whether as a geographical delineation of as a country of sorts; but what is most relevant is that in modern day, there exists a people calling themselves Palestinians and an authority recognized by many acknowledged nation states as representing a cohesive embryonic state called Palestine.
In highlighting the words agreed, chose and recognized I submit that states and nations are only as viable as the rest of the world says they are, history be damned. Endless childish debates of historical validity of either Palestine or Israel serve only to distract from the present challenge of reconciling the mutual recognition of neighbouring, modern nations who have no choice but to co-exist.