No, Newt and JPost, there is no Santa Claus: how national identities are really formed

What's most interesting about the brouhaha regarding Newt Gingrich's outrageous comments about Palestinians being “an invented people” — which he then augmented by describing them in general as “terrorists" — isn't the rebuttals or defenses of these comments. Almost every responsible, sane and rational actor has dismissed Gingrich's remarks as preposterous, not because the Palestinians are not in some sense “invented” but because all modern national identities plainly are, in the same ways. This is not only obvious at first glance, it's also been thoroughly dissected and documented by a host of academics in multiple disciplines over the past 30 years. Over the summer, I wrote two lengthy essays (read them here and here) about how this process works in both Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms, both of which can draw in ancient sources, but both of which are of course entirely modern and essentially 20th-century phenomena. So the problem with what Gingrich had to say — apart from dismissing all Palestinians as "terrorists" which is simply a repulsive and racist remark — is that he was implying that there is something especially artificial or inauthentic about Palestinian nationalism or identity. The rebuttals to this have been overwhelming, crushing and virtually unanimous. There is no need really to recite them here.
The defenses of Gingrich's remarks aren't really very interesting either. They are mostly simply a recitation of very outmoded and anachronistic Israeli propaganda, last seen in Joan Peters' 1984 hoax “From Time Immemorial,” which was totally debunked at the time even by Israeli historians and was regarded as an embarrassment 25 years ago. A further quarter century of mold has made these notions even more putrid than ever. In a nutshell, this hoax claims that Palestine was virtually uninhabited when the Zionist colonization project began in earnest after the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 and that the Arabs who came to call themselves Palestinians almost all immigrated into mandatory Palestine during the 20th century and therefore have no deep history or roots in the land. Of course the historical record is quite clear and unimpeachable and this fraudulent argument is rejected by every single self-respecting academic, including very ardent Zionists, with any real knowledge of the history of the region.
What has been quite instructive, and in some senses (at least to me) new, in the fallout from Gingrich's remarks is the nature of some of the counterattacks against his critics which do not simply repeat bigoted and racist arguments denigrating Palestinian nationalism and identity but rather chauvinistic and fetishistic ones valorizing Jewish and Israeli nationalism, not only at the expense of Palestinians, but almost all other forms of nationalism as well. If there's anything new in this witches' brew that this ignorant, hateful and irresponsible political hack has stirred up it's the degree of neurotic fetishism that some supporters of Israel attach to their own nationalism at everyone's expense, not just that of the Palestinians. Just to be clear about what I mean, fetishism in practice means, "my car is better than your car because it is my car," and, "my nationalism is better than your nationalism because it is my nationalism," etc. In "The Sublime Object of Ideology” Slavoj ?i?ek convincingly argued that in describing the processes of commodity fetishism, Marx anticipated Freud by describing exactly how neurotic symptoms operate in practice, and nationalism is a perfect example of what all three have in different ways dissected as fetishes. In some quarters, this Jewish nationalist chauvinist fetishism runs absolutely amok.
The Jerusalem Post, no less, in an editorial betrayed some hint of an awareness of what scholarship has established about how contemporary nationalisms form hegemonic narratives that create modern nationalist identities and legitimate modern nation-states:
After all, scholars of nationalism such as Benedict Anderson have referred to modern nation states – particularly those created at the beginning of the 20th century, such as Arab states in the region, and even European states such as Italy – as 'imagined communities.' People socially construct the idea of a nation in order to bring together a diverse people and foster a feeling of common purpose. 
So far, so good, one would think. Think again. The Post continues:
The Jewish people, in contrast, can hardly be called an 'invented people.' Even before they settled in the Land of Israel nearly four millennia ago, they saw themselves as a nation. And even after they were exiled from their land nearly two thousand years ago, they continued to pray and occasionally make physical attempts, to return. Indeed, if there ever was a nation that was not invented, it was Israel.
So, almost all nations of the world, if not all, are “invented” with one exception: Israel. If this isn't neurotic fetishism and primal chauvinism at its purist, I don't know what is. It boils down to this argument: everyone else's nationalism is phony except ours or, at least, there's something uniquely authentic about ours that no one else really shares.
I'm used to reading Israeli and pro-Israel attacks on Palestinian nationalism, and even Arab nationalism, but this sense of unique authenticity and legitimacy for the State of Israel as opposed to virtually all, if not all, other modern nation-states is a new one to me. If it's standard fare in Zionist literature in Israel, I don't think it's been translated very much into English because I really haven't encountered it in any sustained way before Mr. Gingrich unleashed his disgusting tirades. But look at what the Post is doing. I described precisely in my blog posting on "Mr. Mileikowsky and the 'seal of Netanyahu'" the insidious process by which modern nationalisms, in this case the Israeli one, appropriate ancient myths, traditions, legends and history in the service of contemporary national needs and agendas. That doesn't make contemporary nationalism, including the Israeli or the Palestinian one (which often does the same kind of thing), illegitimate, but it makes their rhetoric intellectually treacherous and philosophically invalid. As I explained at length last summer, the only appropriate reaction is to respect national narratives that are reflective of the beliefs, wills, needs and desires of millions of people as legitimate political realities but not confuse them with historical facts or the inevitable outcomes of a linear trajectory of certain strands of human history.
My point here is that the Post's argument, which has been repeated or reiterated in many other places on the Internet and in print in recent days by passionate Jewish nationalists, assumes there is a kind of metaphysical quality to the Zionist project. It ascribes to it an unbroken chain of belief over thousands of years with the implication that its realization in the modern State of Israel, founded a mere 63 years ago in 1948, is both a logical and inevitable consequence of an ineluctable historical teleology. This is, of course, completely ridiculous. Obviously both Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms base their claims on many ancient traditions, history, myths and legends, but in both cases, as with all other modern nationalisms and other contemporary political phenomena, they are actually the product of the combination of a series of historical contingencies and choices, causes and effects, that were anything but inevitable and are easily traceable and understood without any recourse to this kind of fairytale mythology or quasi-religious gobbledygook.
Modern Jewish nationalism, or the program to establish a Jewish nation-state in the Middle East, is quite obviously not 4,000 years old or 400 years old or even 200 years old. As a practical project it is slightly more than 100 years old, and it is really quite pointless as a matter of political and intellectual history to even try to trace its origins as a robust and really existing political movement to before the first Zionist Congress in 1897. So if it doesn't arise inevitably from the great sweep of Jewish history and religious yearnings, where did it come from? This is, of course, no mystery whatsoever. By the arguments, explanations and rationalizations for this political program articulated by its founders, led by Theodor Herzl, Zionism was a reaction to political Anti-Semitism that plagued Europe and beset European Jewry throughout the 19th century and culminated in the Holocaust during World War II. It was the Dreyfus Affair, by all accounts including his own, that convinced Herzl that assimilation in Western, Christian societies was not possible and that Jews needed to "normalize" themselves by having a modern, ethno-national state of their own, preferably in Palestine (more on that "preferably" later).
So Zionism was a direct reaction to political Anti-Semitism. It's also worth noting how that anti-Jewish racist political movement gained ground in 19th century Christian Europe. It too was the result of an immediate social cause that produced a malignant political effect. The emancipation of the Jews of Europe towards the end of the 18th and through the middle of the 19th centuries transformed the role and indeed the nature of Jewish communities in Christian-majority European societies. The ending or relaxing of all kinds of bigoted restrictions against Jews, confinement to ghettos, exclusion from professions, and any number of other outrageous forms of discrimination that had been practiced for centuries withered away or were dispensed with in most European societies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As a consequence, there was, quite naturally, a flowering of Jewish cultural, economic, social and in some cases even political influence in many societies in which they had previously been systematically marginalized and abused. Political Anti-Semitism was an organized racist response and attempt to curtail this growing Jewish presence in the mainstream of European societies and to restore old forms of discrimination or enact new ones that would “protect” Christian European societies from some sort of imaginary “Jewish menace” of the anti-Semitic paranoid imagination.
Political Anti-Semites practiced Anti-Semitism of a systematic, programmatic variety, complete with racist racial theories and other pseudoscientific and quasi-modern ideas that reached their apex with the astonishing evil of Nazism. Of course they built on a tradition of folkloric and religious anti-Semitism (note the use of the lower case “a," by which I mean to denote a set of ideas that are no doubt poisonous but are not programmatic in the way that modern Anti-Semitism as a political project indeed was). Sadly, in mid-19th-century Europe, Anti-Semitism was an ideological orientation that requires an uppercase "A" in the same way that Socialism, Communism, Fascism, Fabianism, Conservatism and other programmatic political agendas also require for proper identification.
Here is where it becomes slightly complicated, insofar as political Zionism drew on traditional religious and folkloric Jewish yearnings about the lands of the Bible as the basis for a systematic political program, it was a direct and specific reaction to the way in which Anti-Semites had used traditional religious and folkloric anti-Jewish prejudices as the basis for their campaign of systematic and modern political persecution against newly emancipated and empowered European Jewish communities. So, both Anti-Semitism, which was a racist reaction to the emancipation of the Jews, and Zionism, which itself was a defensive reaction to the new political Anti-Semitism drew on traditional and folkloric bases — as indeed do Palestinian nationalism and most nationalist or other modern political projects.
But the crucial point is to understand the contingent chain of events that produced these modern political movements that responded to the needs, crises and requirements of communities and constituencies that were a direct product of, and  response to, immediate social and political developments in the societies that produced them and not an ineluctable chain of historical inevitabilities. It was not inevitable that some right-wing and paranoid Christian Europeans would react to the emancipation of European Jewry with a systematic campaign of persecution. It is also not inevitable that the Jewish reaction to this campaign of persecution would be a nationalist movement of their own, and not inevitable that it would focus on Palestine either. In its earliest iterations, the Zionist movement considered many options for the “normalization” of the Jewish people, which it held to be mainly centered around achieving statehood as such, rather than achieving a return to the holy land. There was serious consideration given to trying to develop a Jewish state in Argentina and Uganda among other places, although for numerous reasons these options were ultimately rejected. But it wasn't dismissed out of hand and had historical events proceeded differently Israel or a Jewish state of some other name might be presently in one of those places or indeed somewhere else. No doubt there was an overwhelming preference for a "return" to Palestine and it also corresponded to the European Christian imagination.
Here's another profound and important historical irony: there was a good deal of enthusiasm among Anti-Semitic Christian Europeans for Zionism as a way of getting rid of the Jews of Europe, and a great deal of resistance from many if not most Jewish Europeans to the Zionist project in its earliest stages based on both political and religious objections. The political objections held that Jewish Europeans had been working more or less successfully to assimilate in their European societies and that this new form of Jewish nationalism created a dangerous aura of “dual loyalty” and did not serve the interests of the communities, particularly the well established, and assimilated elites in Western Europe. The most powerful opposition to the Balfour Declaration, for example, came from much of the Jewish political elite of Britain who regarded the idea of British recognition of Jewish nationalism as a direct threat to their own status as loyal British subjects of the Jewish faith. It seemed to them to confirm the worst claims of the Anti-Semites. They were hardly alone in this opinion, and Zionism did not achieve a hegemonic status or consensus among Jewish Europeans until the rise of Nazism. Meanwhile, the most ardent proponents of the Balfour Declaration in the British cabinet at the time were notable "anti-Semites" (lower case), if not full-blown "Anti-Semites."
So, the idea that the Jews of the world for the past 4,000 years have always considered themselves “a nation” is historically incorrect both because modern conceptions of nationality and nationhood simply have no ancient historical corollary and, even more strikingly, that during the modern era there was a very sizable contingent of Jewish Europeans who considered themselves nationals of the countries in which they lived but of the Jewish religious faith. Indeed, there continue to be large numbers of Jewish Americans and other Jews who live outside of Israel who perceive themselves in that manner. There were also powerful religious objections, some of which continue to the present day. So the ideas that Jewish nationalism is ancient, unbroken, inevitable, uncontested or unanimous are all demonstrably false. Of course, with the rise of fascism and particularly Nazism in the 1930s, the overwhelming majority of world Jewry was won over to the Zionist cause in one sense or another and it became a hegemonic narrative. And now, in some eyes, it is such a hegemonic narrative that it is seen as metaphysical and transhistorical and rooted in 4,000 years of tradition rather than the series of historical contingencies I have just sketched out in their roughest form that all could have turned out extremely differently in many different ways.
It's of at least passing interest in a discussion of modern political inventions that the leaders of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Palestine did not decide on the name "Israel" for their new Jewish state until very shortly before the Declaration of Independence of Israel on May 14, 1948. "Medinat Yisrael" was chosen over other possibilities including "Eretz Israel," "Zion," and "Judea." So, we now might just as easily be confronted with an argument that if there is one nation in the world that has not been invented it is Judea, or some such. It's also worth pointing out that by citing Anderson, the Post failed to note that he placed heavy emphasis in his analysis of "invented" modern nationalisms on the power of what he called "national print-languages," and that one of the most concerted efforts to create one was the Zionist project of resurrecting the all-but-dead and almost entirely liturgical Hebrew language, as initiated by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, based mainly on the need for a common language for the diverse Jews of the world to be "ingathered" and recreated as, it turns out, Israelis (though it might have been Judeans or Zionites or some other name, apparently). It's a perfect example of the process Anderson describes and more conscious and deliberate than most, to be frank. The Post editors have heard of his book, but not, it seems read it. Or if they did, they lack any ability to apply its lessons to their own history, which it fits so perfectly.
Obviously the same historical process applies to Palestinian nationalism, which has its earliest origins in the 1920s and was a reaction to British colonialism, the Zionist movement, and the collapse of the only really potentially viable pan-Arab nationalist project with the fall of Prince Faisal in Syria in 1920. When Faisal fell to the French, the Palestinians quickly realized they were on their own and began to develop their own nationalism based on this concatenation of circumstances that in at least one strand begins with the emancipation of the Jews of Europe in the late 18th century. There's nothing transhistorical or metaphysical about Palestinian nationalism, any more than there is about Zionism, or any other nationalism. This is so blindingly obvious even small children should have no difficulty grasping that whatever aspects of history, traditions, myths or legends a contemporary political movement wishes to privilege, foreground, highlight or deploy in order to legitimate it's agenda, what it is responding to is not anything ancient, transhistorical, metaphysical or inevitable, but rather the contemporary, immediate needs of constituencies that are themselves modern, and indeed "imagined," and the products of recent developments, not ancient history.
So the next time someone tries to justify their contemporary political agenda by telling you about the Palestinis of Herodotus, the biblical Hebrews, the Canaanites, the Philistines, King David, Rama, Mohammed, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, the Buddha, Charlemagne, Alfred the great, Tamerlane the great, Cyrus the great, Alexander the great, Akbar the great (or any of the other "greats" for that matter), Ashoka, Cuauhtemoc, the battle of Karbala, the battle of Thermopoli, the battle of Poitiers, the battle of Kosovo, the Crusades, Qin Shi Huang, or any other such tomfoolery, tell them to put it back in their pocket and try it on the next guy because you're just not that stupid. If you have the patience, you can try walking them through the actual historical contingencies that produced present day political identities, constituencies, nationalisms and agendas that draw on these ancient histories, myths, legends and traditions for legitimation. But in most cases you're probably wasting your breath because, like the editors of the Jerusalem Post, most people never really grow out of believing in adult versions of Santa Claus.