Newt, the Jews and an “invented people”

At the New Yorker, David Remnick comments on Newt Gingrich’s incendiary claim that the Palestinians are an “invented people.”

Gingrich and his fellow Republicans have sensed a potential softening in the Jewish vote. In 2008, only African-Americans were more solidly behind Barack Obama, who, according to exit polls, won seventy-eight per cent of the Jewish vote. But the Republicans are hoping to woo at least the more conservative sector of Jewish Americans—those who feel that Obama has been too hard on Benjamin Netanyahu. And, because Gingrich has a little learning and a darkly sophisticated memory for intellectual battle, he catered to his cause by employing the word “invented.” In this context, the word summons a 1984 bestseller that was once totemic on the Jewish right (and still is, for some): “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine,” by Joan Peters.

Peters, who was not a historian, put forward a purportedly scholarly construction based on the notion, as Golda Meir famously put it, that there is “no such thing as a Palestinian people.” The book, which is an ideological tract disguised as history, made the demographic argument that most people who call themselves Palestinians have short roots in the territory and are Arabs who came from elsewhere. It suggests that the territory that is now Israel was all but “uninhabited” before the Zionist movement began. It was a book that implicitly made the argument that Palestine was a tabula rasa waiting for its Jewish revival; or, as the old slogan had it: “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

The book was not only a commercial success; it also won plaudits from Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, Martin Peretz, Theodore H. White, Lucy Dawidowicz, Arthur Goldberg, and Elie Wiesel. For a time, it was wielded as a means to dismiss Palestinian claims on the land, and a means to be dismissive of Palestinians entirely. The book was thoroughly discredited by an Israeli historian, Yehoshua Porath, and many others who dismantled its pseudo-scholarship. Even some right-wing critics, like Daniel Pipes, who initially reviewed the book positively, later admitted that Peters’s work was shoddy and “ignores inconvenient facts.”

Philip Weiss, following a point that many of his readers seized on after he praised Remnick’s commentary yesterday, notes:

Remnick left out Norman Finkelstein’s role in exposing the fraud; he gave credit to an Israeli:

The book was thoroughly discredited by an Israeli historian, Yehoshua Porath, and many others who dismantled its pseudo-scholarship.

Remnick’s link was to Porath’s 1986 review of the book, “From Time Immemorial,” in the New York Review of Books.

This is a misrepresentation of intellectual history. The story of Norman Finkelstein’s exposure of Joan Peters is one of the great intellectual whodunnits of the Israel-Palestine issue. Finkelstein’s career began with this undertaking, which long preceded Porath’s– in fact, Porath actually cites Finkelstein’s work in his footnotes.

Here’s some of what Finkelstein has written on Peters’ work:

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