Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ottomans, Zionists, Britons, Arabs, And The Tangled History Of The Levant.


“Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire" until the early 20th century,

"I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community” Newt Gingrich.

Oh my stars and garters, how can a self-described history professor get this so wrong? Outside the deluded musings of the ultra bigot, and ultra Likudnik Avigdor Lieberman, no one with any intelligence would unleash such nonsense on an unwary public. What Newt spewed out was not history, it was propaganda, and bad propaganda at that. The Palestinians are a people, they exist, they have a history, and they have a national myth. It’s long story that begins in a dead and gone empire. Settle in gentle reader, this is going to take a while.

Like almost every other people in the Levant, the Palestinians are not sui generis, they are people with tangled roots. To call them “Arabs” misses the point. They speak the language, they are part of the Arab peoples, but there is a lot more. The Levant is one of the great border regions of the world. It is admixture of many races, many faiths, may cultures. Lurking in the DNA are long gone people from long gone empires. The Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Phoenicians all chipped in with their contributions. Crack the DNA code and you might still find some of the old tribes mentioned in the Bible; a dash of Edomite perhaps, maybe quite a bit more for all we know. Rather than trying to figure out the ratios, let’s just flash forward to where the real business begins, the British Mandate.

It was Britannia that gave the area its modern name and its modern outline. The map of Levant and the broader Near East was created out of the prostate form of the Ottoman Empire. The victors, France and the UK, parceled out the Ottoman properties between them: France got Syria and Lebanon, the UK got everything else. Out of this last gasp of Imperial misadventure were created Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Palestine. Most of this was done from whole cloth, and in total ignorance of the facts on the ground. 

If throwing disparate local power centers into larger political units was not bad enough, hello Iraq, Britain then decided to add fuel to the fire by setting up a Jewish Homeland in the newly formed Palestine. It was the imposition of this irritant that really began the awakening of a Palestinian identity. Unfortunately, for all concerned, that identity became more and more fixed on an anti-jewish mentality.

The British unintentionally rewarded that mentality. They kept trying to square the circle by successive reductions of Jewish immigration. This made exactly no one happy. The Zionist rightly saw this as British welching on the Balfour Declaration, and the Arabs were still displeased because the Jews kept coming. The British kept muddling through as only they could, finding new and inventive ways to further muck up the situation.

One of the odder bits of this history was the appointment of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. What drove the British to nominate Haj Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini to the position is one of the deeper, darker, mysteries of history. He was virulently anti-Zionist, and lead a revolt against the British from 1936-1939. His hatred of all things Jewish lead him to find common cause with Hitler, he even raised troops for the Nazis.

One of more important parts of his tenure was the creation of a Palestinian nationalism in response, and in opposition to Zionism. From the very beginning Palestinian Nationalism has been informed by a toxic, extreme, anti-Jewish agenda. The movement has never left its Nazi-sympathizing baggage behind. The Palestinians are one of the last people on earth where a majority take “The Protocols Of The Elders Zion” seriously. 

I do wonder how the Palestinian cause would have played out if it had not taken this dark and utterly pointless road. I wonder where the nations of the Levant would be if the British had not let there own anti-Jewish attitudes warp their behaviors. Those anti-Jewish feelings made the pro-Arabist tilt of the foreign office so much easier to contemplate. It made it so much easier to ignore the toxic ravings of the Gand Mufti of Jerusalem.

But the Mufti was cashiered as soon as the British had to get serious about defending their empire. Notice that the Palestinian revolt ended in same year as World War Two began. The mess the UK made in Palestine would have to wait; there was a life or death struggle against Nazi Germany.

That struggle left the British Empire exhausted, shattered, and broke. Britain began shedding its empire, the first to go was the Near East possessions.  Aiding and abetting the unseemly departure of the UK were the Zionist freedom fighters of the post war era. Oddly enough, these freedom fighters look a lot more like terrorists today. They were not above a little murder and mayhem, not by a long shot. The already war weary Britons had no stomach for reigning in the bombings and shootings and wanted out, as soon as possible. Bowing to the inevitable, the UK tossed the whole mess to the UN to sort out. The UN set up a partition that was promptly ignored.

It is here that the history gets really murky. The question of who did what to whom and when becomes hopelessly obscured in the fog of war. Did the Palestinians leave of their own accord? Were they evicted? Perhaps a little bit of both? It does not help to get granular, because even in the smaller villages, who did what to whom and when is hopelessly muddled. No one covered themselves with glory, and both parties were knee deep in innocent blood. The Israelis did clean out whole villages, at times they were brutal. Other times the Palestinians left of their own accord. Often, they stayed. 

The end result though was a disaster for the Palestinians. The tiny sliver of land given for the Jewish state was expanded, while all the departed Palestinians got was generations spent in refugee camps. 
It was this penultimate disaster that forged the modern Palestinian identity. Palestine is a place, it is a nation, it is a myth--forged in what the Palestinians call the “Nekba.”

There is a precedent for this, there is another nation founded and forged in the myth of epic defeat, a nation that rose, fell, rose again and fell once more. That nation is Serbia, and for a century, it was every bit as problematic as Palestine.  The core myth of Serbia was the defeat of Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds. It is a long, complicated story, and beyond our discussion here. Just know that a national identity, and a national myth, can be born out of a catastrophic defeat. Also know that the people forged by such a myth can hold a grudge for a very, very, very long time.

Going back to the initial quote by Mr. Gingrich, I doubt he believes a word of it. If he was still ensconced in the ivy halls of academia, he might toss that idea to stir debate in class, but no way would he publish such nonsense. Nationalism and national identity are such core concepts to understanding any history past the French Revolution, that there is no way any serious student of history would get these ideas so wrong. 

To claim that the Palestinians are not a nation is to be utterly ahistorical. It is to deny the evolution of these people from subjects of the Ottomans, to a nation forged in trauma and loss. That the Palestinians made that last step at the same time that the nation of Israel did, that the creation of Israel was instrumental in forming its bet noir of Palestine, that both Israel and Palestine share irredentist dreams and claims over the same patch of land, is the crux of the conflict in the Levant. Leave it to a blow-hard, cynical, pandering fool like Gingrich to muddy the issue for political gain.
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