Deconstructing Myths: Between People and Nations

Published March 5, 2024

The Shoval Perspective

The Complex Tapestry of Palestinian Identity

People and nationalism are similar concepts, yet they differ significantly. The confusion between them leads to political madness in the Middle East.  

In 2016, the multimillion-dollar Palestinian Museum opened in Birzeit without any exhibits.

The reason is apparent. There is no Palestinian history. Assaf Voll created an Amazon bestseller with his empty book, “A History of the Palestinian People: From Ancient Times to the Modern Era.”

But this is not a funny story. If there is no Palestinian history, how can we talk about Palestinian people, Palestinian nationalism, and a Palestinian state?

Golda Meir’s tenure was defined by this fundamental argument, echoing persistently across the years:

There is no Palestinian people, for precisely the same reason that there is no Jordanian people. There are Arab people, there is an Arab language, there is an Arab culture, and a predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab religion. And, since there are no Palestinian people, a political solution based on the concept of a Palestinian state is wrong.

Q. In a famous interview with The Sunday Times of London in June, 1969, you were quoted as saying, “There is no such thing as Palestinians.” Do you still adhere to this view?

A. I said there never was a Palestinian nation. The people who formerly lived in Palestine then lived for 19 years as Jordanian citizens…

”A talk with Golda Meir” Aug 27, 1972, NYT

Has reality changed in such a drastic way since the days of PM Meir? Was a Palestinian born? Is there such a Palestinian nationality? Can we base our political solution for the Middle East upon them? In order to answer the question, we will examine the tools offered by the research.

Political philosophy presents two leading schools of thought on nationalism, addressing peoples’ determination and national identities. The Modernist school and the Primordial school. (The primordial approach branches into a third approach called ethno-symbolic, but we will omit it for the purpose of this discussion.) The main question these schools seek to find out is what is a people, what is it nationality, when did a national consciousness begin to arise? And what are the reasons for that?

The primordial (and ethno-symbolic) school assumes that man is a social being who participates in a cultural and ethnic community with a political pretension. So, people seek to realize themselves in different states. Among the researchers and thinkers of this approach are Johann Gottfried Herder, Anthony Smith, Adrian Hastings, Ernest Renan, Yoram Hazony, Steven Grosby, Assaf Malach, and Ezer Gat.

They argue that even if nation-states in Europe are a modern phenomenon, they are a continuation of cultural, symbolic, and ethnic baggage that preceded modernity. That is why, for example, it is possible to find distinct national patterns starting from the ninth century in the British Isles. Moreover, it is not a European phenomenon at all, so it is not related to modernity. Nationalism is a human tendency that repeats itself even in distinctly non-modern times. Needless to say, this claim does not assume that all current nations are necessarily a continuation of ancient nations or that it is some eternal metaphysical division. Nations are born and die in normal historical processes. They simply assume that nationalism is not a modern invention. This contrasts the modern school, whose deceptive name is now easy to understand.

This school of thought, whose leaders include Elie Kedourie, Ernst Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Hans Cohen, Eric Hobsbawm, and Shlomo Zand, holds that nationalism is a modern phenomenon. After all, the human being is indeed a social being, regardless of a political framework. Throughout history, the masses did not aspire to produce unity between ethnic and cultural identity and the political unit. The request for identity is a modern matter, which, according to those who are strict with the approach, was created in the second half of the 19th century out of various political interests. That is, when Giuseppe Garibaldi works for the unification of Italy in 1871, there really is no Italy. It is an invention of tradition, a misrepresentation. According to them, only in modern times did people begin to see themselves as part of a nation and claim political and national rights. There is no nation and no religion. It’s all political interest. A modern invention.

The correct school of thought depends on the case. There are clear cases of various post-colonial countries where a series of tribes and ethnic groups were annexed by the European colonialist rule to one country. On the other hand, there are clear cases where the primordial school has the upper hand. There are some clear examples of ancient peoples with an extended political consciousness: Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Persians, Hindus, Armenians, and Jews.

Let’s return to this subject: the Palestinians.

PM Golda was right: There are no Palestinian people. However, there is Palestinian nationalism, and it’s not good news.

To explain the argument, first we will repeat the difference between “people” and “nationalism”.

The terms “people” and “nationalism” describe different dimensions of collective identity and socio-political organization. A “people” is a group of people with common characteristics; for example, the Arab people have a language, culture, history, and ethnic and religious identity. On the other hand, “nationalism” is a political ideology that seeks, in principle, to order the world according to the countries with sovereignty for the peoples. Nations usually have national movements. The national movement of the Jewish people is called, for example, the Zionist movement.

National movements justify the existence of a nation-state in order to serve self-determination. This is a national-republican justification. This justification claims that in order for a nation to fully express itself, it needs sovereignty in an independent state, which will allow it to express itself freely. Moreover, a nation-state allows each individual to participate in a political framework that strengthens the sense of belonging between the individual and the whole. A national political order, then, is not moral, but it is also effective, since a nation-state makes it possible to generate identification, promote social justice and brotherhood, and even helps international stability.

Why wasn’t a Palestinian state established between 1948 and 1967? This is because there are no Palestinian people. The Palestinian nation was invented in the middle of the 20th century as a response to the establishment of the State of Israel and was established for one purpose – its elimination. This was explicitly expressed in the founding documents of the Palestinian treaty in 1964 (note before the 1967 “occupation”). Section 19 (1968 Version): ” The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of the state of Israel are entirely illegal…because they were contrary to the will of the Palestinian people…”

If so, the question arises: what justifies establishing a Palestinian state? Nothing.

The Palestinian case is unique. There are 21 Arab nation-states: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Mauritania, Comoros, Somalia, Djibouti. These countries allow the Arab people to express themselves fully. He does not need another nation-state to allow the Arab people to express themselves.

The thought that a Palestinian state will help produce regional stability or contribute to justice and brotherhood has been thoroughly tested in the last 30 years. We all saw the results of the experiment in the Simchat Torah massacre, also known as October 7th.

The Palestinian nation did not arise in order to serve itself, humanity, or justice. Its only primary purpose is the elimination of Zionism.

We are left with two excuses for granting a state to the Palestinian nationalist movement:

1.  The Western concept seeks to establish justice by granting civil rights to every person as part of a nation-state. However, if the demand is to grant civil rights, these should take place in other Arab nation-states and not at the expense of Jewish lives in the State of Israel. The Arab people express themselves well, and the Palestinian nationality has brought to the world, in accordance with the intention of its parents, only death, massacre, and terror.

2. The Muslim perspective –according to Islam is a doctrine developed in the 8th century by the Iraqi Imam Abu Hanifa the world is divided into two – Dar al-Islam – that is, a country under Muslim sovereignty, where Sharia laws are applied, and which shares borders with other Muslim countries. And Dar al-Harb – countries that Islam has not yet conquered, with which there is always war, even if there may be temporary respites. Redemption will come when the whole world will become Dar-al-Islam.

Israel, in these terms, is a theological problem. Since the Land of Israel is an area that was Dar-el-Islam, and became the Dar-el Harb, and therefore represents a regression in the Muslim concept of redemption, and as such, calls for a jihad to liberate the waqf land.

The tragedy is with appalling naivety (soaked in anti-Semitism), the Western perception cooperates with the Muslim ethos in the fight against the State of Israel for years, not only by funding the UNRWA refugee agency (as opposed to the UNHCR refugee agency) whose purpose is to preserve the refugee problem, so that they and their descendants will be A tool of constant pressure for the future demographic destruction of the State of Israel. But also in the repeated demand to establish a state for a nationalist movement without a distinct people. A state that has only one purpose – the elimination of Israel.

Dr. Ronen Shoval is a Visiting Fellow in Jewish and Political Thought at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His work focuses on the deep interplay between theology, politics, and society.

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