Philosophers sometimes adopt an alien perspective as a useful way to try to take an objective view of human affairs. It is a thought experiment that I sometimes like to apply to the Palestinian question.
Imagine an alien collecting intelligence on planet Earth in order to determine whether humans are intelligent enough to successfully defend their world from an invasion. Among other barometers, the alien would take into consideration the manner in which humans handle their disagreements. Do the earthlings argue according to universal, inviolable laws of logic?
Now, when I hear people object to Palestinian rights by expressing the common refrain that the Palestinians don’t really exist as a nation, I imagine the alien instinct would reach a quick conclusion: “Oh, we can totally invade.”
For readers who aren’t very familiar with the Palestine issue, this is actually a thing. Several American commentators have adopted this idea, once expressed by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who remarked that “there’s really no such thing as a Palestinian.” (Those Americans who adopt this inane argument tend to be the same faux patriots who chant “America first!” and yet are the first to subordinate national interests to those of foreign countries. But this particular bit of irony is not my focus here.)
Their argument rests on the fact that national consciousness among the Arab peoples evolved differently than it did among the Europeans before them. Unlike their European counterparts, the argument goes, “Arab states are not grounded in preexisting national identities, but on borders drawn by the victorious European powers following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.”
Just like modernization theorists, “Palestinian deniers” – to coin a phrase – commit the common error of assuming that earlier paths to desired outcomes (e.g. democracy or a high GDP) are, precisely because they unfolded earlier, the only available paths to follow in order for these outcomes to be authentic. In other words, they confuse sufficient and necessary conditions, ascribing a law-like status to earlier paths. As it turns out, not all countries have developed economically or politically in the same manner that Western countries have – or are at least believed to have – developed.
For instance, it was once believed, owing to the European experience, that democratization is preceded by economic “modernization.” Yet one finds countries that seem to have followed a very different trajectory, democratizing in spite of their relative poverty, or indeed not democratizing after economic modernization. Palestinians are no less a nation than Benin is a democracy, however poor, or China is an economic powerhouse, however undemocratic.
Palestinian deniers also believe that the supposed newness of Palestinian national identity is somehow relevant. The logic they put forth essentially amounts to this:
Premise 1: A nation is a body of people who have always been conscious of themselves as a distinct nation.
Premise 2: Palestinians haven’t always been conscious of themselves as a distinct people. Conclusion: Therefore, Palestinians don’t exist as a nation.
(One might wish to append the additional premise that fake nations may be brutally oppressed, as some Palestinian deniers appear to believe that this corollary follows from the conclusion.)
Let’s assume the novelty of Palestinian identity merely for the sake of argument (for a scholarly work that counters this view, see Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness). This logic begs the obvious question: what nation, therefore, does exist? No nation is primordial. Some nations are older, some are newer, but ultimately all nations are, according to this flawed logic, fake. Nations that we take for granted, like the French, German, or Italians, were to a large degree constructed by political entrepreneurs who sought to create an emotional attachment among otherwise diverse peoples to one another and to the state.
As historian Eugen Weber put it in the case of the French, the goal was to transform “peasants into Frenchmen.” If there’s no such thing as a Palestinian, then Germans are, likewise, a figment of our imagination. Perhaps our Palestine-denying friends should argue, instead, for a minimum age at which a people are magically transformed into a nation.
To my knowledge, there’s no movement among the people of Wyoming’s Washakie County for greater autonomy or independence. Yet suppose the state and federal governments decided to neglect or abuse the people of this county. We would expect this mistreatment to birth a new Washakie identity, although no one who is genuinely interested in human rights would be distracted by the irrelevant historical fact that “Washakies” were, until recently, never conscious of themselves as a people distinct from other Wyomingites or Americans.
Likewise, let’s not be distracted by foolish arguments concerning the history and development of Palestinian identity.
Let’s instead prove to our belligerent alien that we are not distracted by the manifestly absurd argument that Palestinians don’t exist. The evident popularity of this claim exposes an embarrassing vulnerability on our part; one that speaks to a contemptibly low aptitude for rational discourse.
Amir Azarvan is assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College.