The Common Good

Newt Gingrich’s Middle East Blunder (Expect More)

Ridiculous. Ignorant. Racist. Dangerous. 

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These are just a few of the terms that flew out of the Middle East this weekend following Newt Gingrich’s unwelcome remarks about Israel and the Palestinians on Friday.

As the Republican front-runner, Gingrich was speaking to the cable TV Jewish Channel and hoping to curry favor with its conservative pro-Israel constituency. 

What did he do? He described the Palestinians as an “invented people” and lumped every Palestinian under the terrorist umbrella. There is no difference between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, he said.

On Saturday night during the ABC Republican debate, Gingrich doubled-down: “They [the Palestinians] are all terrorists.”

A few of the other candidates looked, well, alarmed.

Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority – a brilliant and sensible man with a PhD from the University of Texas in economics (I’ve met him more than once) – was typically calm as he looked on from the Middle East: He recognized foolishness when he saw it and asked for an apology.

Another more heated PA leader noted: If someone had said something like this about Jews or Israelis, the remarks would have been condemned immediately.

The Republican field of candidates immediately distanced themselves. So did conservative columnists such as George Will. So did spokespersons from the Israeli government. Even one of Gingrich’s former campaign strategists spoke on CNN’s Saturday Morning News and described the affront as an effort to “attract Jewish money to his campaign.” 

But Gingrich wasn’t backing down. This is what he believes about Palestinians.

What in the world is this perspective? 

Both the Israeli government and our own government (Republican and Democrat alike) have recognized that a two-state solution is the best solution for this struggle. And with that commitment the Palestinians are seen as legitimate negotiating partners. Real people with legitimate national aspirations. 

As one expert put it, Gingrich simply showed how little he knows about the Middle East. 

But this sort of comment about the Palestinians isn’t new. Such remarks generally take this form: There never was a Palestinian state (or people) and so, there is no legitimate place for them today. 

Astute observers of this little debate with a bit of historical savvy have been quick to answer. The entire Middle East was “invented” after the Ottoman era. But this historical dynamic is common in history. Many pundits have enjoyed reminding us that there wasn’t any such thing as an American or America before 1776. 

But history changes things and peoples and nations emerge. Others have said the same about Israelis before 1948. But that does not delegitimize Israel. Today the Palestinians make up almost half of the people living in the Holy Land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. They’re not an invention.

But we should brace ourselves for things like this. Gingrich has a penchant for self-inflicted political wounds. The more disturbing development is that he is now surging in the polls despite comments like this. When he repeated the remarks at the weekend Republican debate in Des Moines, the audience applauded. 

I’m not sure what is more disconcerting: That a contender for the White House would have such inflammatory views or that an American audience would relish it.

Gary M. Burge is a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and author of several books, including Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to "Holy Land" Theology.

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