Palestinianism is more than a collection of political beliefs. It is a closed system of memes including a historical narrative, a Cause to which its believers aspire, and an idiosyncratic language in which familiar words have special meanings. In those ways, it is similar to Marxism – which is not surprising, considering its origin. Palestinianism is neutral on the religious-secular axis, although it has adopted elements of Islamic belief where they have proven helpful to advance the Palestinian Cause. Adherents of Palestinianism include those who self-identify as Palestinians, as well as many on the Western Left (especially in academia) who support the Cause.
Palestinianism had its origin in the 1960s, when it was created by the cognitive warriors of the Soviet KGB. The Soviets had had an interest for some time in opposing US and British influence in the Middle East, which they did by supporting Arab nationalists like Gamal Abdel Nasser. With the decline of pan-Arabism, Palestinianism provided a cause that the Soviets could use to unite all the Arabs of the Middle East against the West. It also provided a reason to oppose Israel. Although Stalin had initially hoped that Israel would join the socialist camp, it became clear to the Soviets by the mid-1950s that Israel was moving more and more in the direction of the West.
Until this time, most of the Arabs of “Palestine,” that area that had been part of the British Mandate, insofar as they had national feelings at all, had generally seen themselves as belonging to “southern Syria” (although a specifically Palestinian nationalism did exist to a small extent in the early part of the 20th century, particularly among Christian Arabs).
This was a time of worldwide decolonization, and the KGB incorporated the idea that the conflict between the Jews and Arabs for sovereignty in Palestine (or Eretz Yisrael, depending on your point of view), was actually a struggle of national liberation by an indigenous Palestinian people against European colonialists (the Jews!), despite the fact that about half of all Israelis came from the Middle Eastern and African diasporas.
The Soviets had always used race as a point of leverage in their psychological warfare against the US, correctly seeing the exacerbation of race-based resentments as highly effective in creating division and strife among the population. During the 1970s, they introduced the racial element into the Arab-Israeli conflict, as exemplified by the passage of the “Zionism Is Racism” resolution at the UN in 1975. The absurdity of this contention – both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs come in all colors – did not prevent the wide acceptance of the idea that the political and national conflict was basically racial. At the Durban Conference on Racism in 2001, NGOs funded by European governments and left-wing charities promoted the idea that Israel was guilty of apartheid. The fact that it proved necessary to invent a new meaning for the word before it was even possible to argue the question was apparently considered irrelevant for them.
The Palestinian Arabs suffered a severe blow to their honor when they lost the military struggle for sovereignty in 1948. The fact that most of them fled and were not allowed back after the war – a not uncommon result of warfare – was perceived and represented as a tragedy of historic dimensions. But unlike other groups who experienced similar tragedies, the Palestinian Arabs, with the help of the Eastern Bloc and the Arab nations, managed to establish a UN-sanctioned, permanent, steadily growing, reservoir of stateless “refugees.” Permanent institutions were put in place in the UN to ensure the growth of the “refugee” pool, to prevent their resettlement, and to promulgate the Palestinian narrative.
The pivotal event in the Palestinian historical narrative is the loss of the land they suffered in 1948, the Nakba. It is true that some Arabs were expelled from their homes by the IDF, but the majority left of their own accord, encouraged by both Arab and Jewish propaganda, fearing the imminent violence, and following the example of wealthy Arabs, who chose to sit out the destruction of the new Jewish state in their comfortable summer homes. It is also true that most of those that fled were not allowed to return or to claim their property. But what happened to the Arabs of Palestine is common for a losing side in war. After WWII, at least 12 million ethnic Germans fled or were expelled from Central and Eastern Europe. Jordan completely ethnically cleansed Judea, Samaria, and eastern Jerusalem of Jews after 1948. Some 800-900 thousand Jews fled or were expelled from Arab countries at that time as well. Had the Arabs won the war, the Jews of Israel would certainly have faced a similar fate.
But unlike the ethnic Germans or the Jews of the Middle East, the Palestinian Arabs did not accept – or more precisely, their own leaders and the Arab nations did not allow them to accept – resettlement or almost any amelioration of their condition. And so the reversal of the Nakba, the “return to their homes” of the more than 5 million descendants of the original 600,000 refugees became a fundamental part of the Palestinian Cause.
The Palestinian Narrative also extends into the past. It insists that a Palestinian people has inhabited the land for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Some Palestinians, like the late diplomat Saeb Erekat, claim that they had been in the land from the time of the Canaanites or Philistines. The Jews, on the other hand, are said to be recent European immigrants who displaced them by guile and by force. In reality, while some Arab families have a history in the land of more than several hundred years, most go back no farther than about 1830, when Muhammad Ali invaded what were then Ottoman provinces on behalf of Egypt. And a large number of them only migrated from neighboring countries after the Zionist and British development of the land in the early 20th century made it economically attractive. After the war, Palestinian refugee status was granted to anyone that could show that they had lived in Palestine for as little as two years prior to 1948.
Along with the arrogation of aboriginal status to Arabs, the Narrative denies it to Jews. It denies the historical provenance of Jews in the land, sometimes claiming that there was no Jewish temple in Jerusalem, or that today’s Jews are Khazars that have no connection with the Middle East (an antisemitic canard which is easily refuted by genetic evidence). Palestinian Arabs have destroyed archaeological evidence of ancient Jewish presence in the land, even on the Temple Mount.
The Principles of Palestinianism
To the Palestinians, the Nakba is the most important event in their history, as important as the exodus from Egypt is to the Jews. Palestinians (and Barack Obama) sometimes compare it to the Holocaust. Much is derived from it. It is a wrong that cannot be righted in any way other than by its reversal, that is, the “return” of the “refugees” and the repossession of all of the land. And because the narrative says that the refugees were expelled violently, then violence is justified to reverse it. Palestinian honor cannot be regained by diplomacy or compromise. Palestinianism only accepts the two-state idea as a temporary expedient toward its ultimate objective of reversing the Nakba. And even then, it rejects the idea of “two states for two peoples,” insisting that the “return” of the descendants of the 1948 refugees “to their homes” must accompany the re-partitioning of the land.
Postcolonial ideology has also found its way into Palestinianism, in particular in connection with violence. The doctrine that it is moral, indeed praiseworthy, for a colonized people to resist colonization by any means necessary, is used as a justification for terrorism against Israeli civilians. Indeed, involvement in terrorism and support for it is a sine qua non for success in Palestinian politics. For this reason, Mahmoud Abbas is praised for saying that he will never stop paying imprisoned terrorists and the families of “martyrs,” even if there is no money left for anything else.
Another consequence of the Nakba is that by virtue of their infinite victimization, nothing negative about Palestinian culture, or anything bad that happens to them, can be construed as their fault. So the rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority is explained as a consequence of Israel’s influence. The prevalence of domestic abuse of Palestinian women is said to be because the men are traumatized by “the occupation.” The collapse of a waste treatment pond in the Gaza strip, which inundated nearby areas with human excrement and resulted in several deaths, was blamed on Israel’s “blockade” of Gaza (rather than the embezzlement of international donations intended for sanitary facilities by Hamas), and so on.
Like Marxists, Palestinianists believe that history is on their side. They point to the various regimes that have controlled the land over the centuries, Romans, Crusaders, Turks, British, and say that it is a matter of time before Israel, too, collapses.
Before the 1960s, the Palestinian Arabs could be described as a mixed population of Arabic-speakers, mostly Muslims, and mostly non-indigenous (although again, some Palestinian Arab families did have long histories in the land). But although it makes me unpopular among my right-wing friends, I would say that since that time, the experience of their struggle with Israel and their self-definition as “Palestinians” has made them a people. It’s extremely important to understand the fundamental role of the conflict in the development of a specifically Palestinian identity. To be Palestinian is to oppose Israel and to resist – by any means necessary – the occupation of “Palestinian land,” from the river to the sea. This has important consequences for the future of the conflict.
The Cult-like Nature of Palestinianism
Palestinianism as an ideology is in a certain way like Marxism or Scientology. When Palestinianists are confronted with clear-cut facts (like the historical and archaeological evidence of the presence of Jews in the land for thousands of years), they nevertheless find it possible to deny or ignore them. Palestinian film director Mohammed Bakri made a documentary about the “Jenin Massacre” in 2002, which accused Israel of destroying buildings that didn’t exist, murdering hundreds of Palestinian civilians (in fact, about 50 Arabs, almost all of them terrorists, were killed), and so on. Bakri was sued for slander by Israeli reservists whom he had accused of war crimes. When confronted with the facts, he claimed that he was an artist and not a historian, and that his film expressed the deeper truth about the events. The narrative always trumps the facts.
Like Marxism, Palestinianism has a special language. For example, in ordinary English one can occupy a house or a country. But in Palestinianism, Israel “occupies the “Palestinian people.” The implication is that Israel can “occupy” Gaza without having a single soldier or settler there. There is the word “resistance,” which has connotations of French partisans blowing up Nazi ammunition trains, but in Palispeak means bombing a pizza restaurant in Jerusalem or a disco in Tel Aviv. Another one is “nonviolent popular resistance” which means murdering random Jews with knives or automobiles rather than guns or bombs.
The Psychological Function of Palestinianism for the Western Left
One can more or less understand why Palestinian Arabs find Palestinianism useful in their struggle against Israel. But what do left-leaning students and academics get out of it? There are several things that I can see. One, especially in Europe, is that it is an outlet for antisemitic impulses that have been repressed when they are directed at individual Jews. It’s tacky to hate Jews, but hating Israel is considered virtuous. Another is the intersectionalist Left’s adoption of “Palestine” as one of its causes. In order to be accepted by the crowd – and in universities especially, the crowd leans left – one must espouse all of its causes, including Palestinianism. It’s easy for an American student, far from the action, to virtue-signal by adopting the Palestinian cause as his or her own.
Palestinianism is an internally consistent system, which is disconnected from both historical and current reality. Originally created by the Soviet KGB as an weapon of cognitive warfare, it has morphed with the times, like the antisemitism to which it is closely related. The objective of Palestinianism, the Palestinian Cause, is the replacement of Israel by an Arab state, the violent expulsion of the Jews, and their replacement by the descendants of the Arab refugees of 1948. The adoption of Palestinianism as an essential part of the identity of the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael, means that there can be no compromise solution to the conflict. It implies that the Palestinian people is the enemy of the Jewish people in the land, making the conflict a zero-sum game. Ultimately, it means that the conflict will continue until one or the other of the two peoples will remain in the land, and the other will disappear.
A version of this article appeared in White Rose Magazine.