WHEN BIGOTS speak, their words have purpose. They intentionally choose phrases that inflame, denigrate, and marginalize other races, religions, or nationalities. They employ distortions and stereotypes to bolster false arguments. Which brings us to Newt Gingrich, who in an interview last week derided “an invented Palestinian people.’’ His comments were a calculated — but demonstrably false — slander, designed to curry favor with a constituency for which he cares by insulting one for which he does not.
With one callous statement he dismissed the plight of 4 million people and their desire for self-determination. Questioned about the controversial statement during a debate on Monday, he piled falsehood upon falsehood. The word “Palestinian,’’ he asserted, “did not become a common term until after 1977.’’ In denying the legitimacy of Palestinians’ identity, Gingrich’s only purpose was to deny any justification for a two-state solution for Middle East peace. If Palestinians are invented, the implication goes, so too must be their objection to the status quo.
During the debate, Gingrich claimed to “stand for the truth,’’ but that apparently does not require telling the truth. His statements are a complete fabrication. Documents prepared by the Arab Office in Jerusalem during the 1930s and ’40s refer frequently to “Palestinian Arabs,’’ “Palestinian Citizens,’’ and the potential formation of a “Palestinian State.’’ The 1973 CIA Atlas of Middle East Issues speaks of “Palestinians’’ and “Palestinian Refugees.’’
Contrary to Gingrich’s insinuation, Palestine is a real place found on maps of all kinds, created by people of all races, for hundreds of years; and the people living there have long been identified with it. The Official 1931 Census of Palestine, conducted under British auspices, counted 850,000 Palestinian Arabs - both Muslim and Christian - and 175,000 Jews. Gingrich noted that the Ottomans once ruled the region, as if that justified his statements. But the Ottoman Empire included Syria and much of the Balkans. Are they invented people too?
The egregiousness of Gingrich’s statement isn’t simply in its inaccuracy, but in its objective. It implies that the claims of Palestinians must also be invented — rights to land, to sovereignty, to self-governance. On Monday he asserted, “A right to return is based on a historically false story.’’ Although the right to reclaim or receive compensation for lost property is a question for Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, the historical facts are quite simple. And again, Gingrich has them wrong.
According to the CIA Atlas, the fighting that followed Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948 displaced 750,000 Palestinian Arabs. Several hundred thousand more were displaced in 1967. Israelis and Palestinians have struggled to find a path to a peaceful resolution since. My point here is not to litigate this struggle, but to recognize that the conflict is real, the people are real, and the grievances are real on both sides: Israel’s unquestionable right to security, and Palestinians’ right to self-rule.
My grandfather was born in Boston, but grew up in Jerusalem as a happy, well-educated Palestinian. As a Christian, he attended the French School and frequented the city’s historic YMCA. He returned to America in the 1930s and settled in New York. In 1948 the fighting forced his parents and cousins to leave their Jerusalem homes. They were never able to return; their houses were on the “wrong’’ side of the armistice line. Their property was taken, though today my cousins’ home looks the same as it did in photos from the 1930s. My great-grandparents lived out their lives in Lebanon. Does Gingrich consider the Lebanese an invented people too?
Gingrich is intelligent, which makes his bigotry all the more dangerous. He employs it not for self-satisfaction, but for political ends. His statements are wrong in fact — and contradict more than 40 years of bipartisan US policy. They reflect a cavalier attitude toward diplomacy, and send the message to allies in Europe and the Middle East that we are inconsistent and unreliable. They were designed to marginalize, not explain; and will be used by extremists on both sides to discourage reconciliation and compromise.
Language can be a wonderful and powerful tool — all the more reason for political leaders to use it thoughtfully and with care. Gingrich’s disgraceful behavior addressing such a difficult and sensitive issue demonstrates that he cannot be trusted to use words carefully. Why should anyone trust him with more?
John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire. He has not endorsed a presidential candidate. His father, the former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, has endorsed Mitt Romney.