Over the weekend TPM reported on an interview that soon to be also-ran Herman Cain gave on foreign policy. He was asked about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and this is what he had to say:
I think that the so-called Palestinian people have this urge for unilateral recognition because they see this president as weak.
Never mind the ridiculous notion that people halfway around the world are solely motivated by the supposed weakness of President Obama. Cain chose to refer to a "so-called Palestinian people." So called because they aren't real, you see. They are nothing more than an undifferentiated mass of Arabs like Egyptians, Syrians, and Iraqis.
Now, I don't think it's unfair to say that Cain is an intellectually uncurious individual. After all this is a man, who when asked whether he was prepared for foreign policy matters, replied that he doesn't care who the president of "Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan" is. So based on what knowledge does this man deny the very existence of a Palestinian people?
In fact, this denial of Palestinian identity has a long history and is very rooted in right-wing (and not-so-right-wing) discourse about the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The underlying basis for this denial is some perverted attempt to strengthen Israeli claims because if the Palestinians aren't a real people, then their cause is without merit.
One of the most prominent examples in America, and almost assuredly the source of Cain's stated view, is a 1984 book From Time Immemorial by one Joan Peters, which argued that Palestinians are in large part nothing more than the descendants of Arabs from neighboring regions who migrated to Palestine in the 19th century. Such a false argument ignores the existence of distinctive Palestinian dialects, cuisine, culture, economy, and history. Yet it received positive reviews from such publications as the Atlantic Monthly, the LA Times, the New York Times, and the New Republic.
Thankfully enough experts were horrified by its popularity that they were able to correct the record, including one Israeli historian who took to the pages of the New York Review of Books to disprove Peters' false claims. Nevertheless, her thesis is far from having been rejected. As recently as 2002, a documentary was produced based on Peters' account called Myth (apologies for the link to WND).
But that's just in America, and I would argue the erasing of Palestinian identity and culture that is being done in their indigenous homeland is much worse. The most recent example is the destruction of a Muslim cemetery just west of the walls of Old City of Jerusalem. The Mamilla cemetery has been destroyed because a Jewish organization known as the Simon Wiesenthal Center wants to build a "Museum of Tolerance" there.
Yes, a museum dedicated to "tolerance" built on the ruins of a Muslim cemetery and against the wishes of the local Muslim population. What is more tolerant than that? Mamilla is a historic location that was the cite of a church during the Byzantine era and was converted into a cemetery after the Islamic conquests. It's supposedly the burial ground for some of the Sahaba, the companions of the prophet Muhammad and his first converts. The destruction of Mamilla has been so careless that it's drawn protest from archeologists around the world. For Palestinians this "museum of tolerance" is nothing more than an attempt to erase their cultural presence in their homeland and more importantly in the capital and holiest city of their nation.
In 2009 Jerusalem was named the Arab Capital of Culture, which is a designation jointly awarded every year by the Arab League and UNESCO. A whole series of activities and events (such as a literature festival and plays) were planned. The Israeli municipal authorities moved quickly to disrupt and shut down anything remotely associated with the ACC designation because as far as Israel is concerned, East Jerusalem belongs to it and it alone. Any Palestinian claims to the city, cultural or otherwise, are a "threat" to its sovereignty.
Omar Rahman, a journalist living in Ramallah, recently discovered that in response to this repression, Palestinian cultural activity in the city has gone underground.
Celebrating their culture and patrimony—it seemed for Palestinians—had become illegal in a city that they increasingly felt was being taken from them. It was in that moment that a Dutch composer named Merlijn Twaalfhoven, who had been working in the country for years, decided to take the initiative...
“I felt it must carry on,” he says, thinking back to first days. “I said, let’s go underground. Let’s go to private spaces, hidden spots and safe places for people to express their identity.”
Venues were organized in people’s homes, anywhere they could get away from the prying hand of the authorities. Publicity for the event was circulated by word of mouth only.
On the one hand, as a Palestinian I'm happy to see my people coming up with new and ingenious ways to keep our culture alive despite attempts to erase it out of existence. On the other, it's shocking and saddening to see that they must go underground, as if they live in a totalitarian regime, in order to accomplish this.
It's instances such as this that instill within me the understanding of how important yesterday's UNESCO vote is. Palestine, as a member state of this organization, will now have the ability to designate Palestinian cities such as Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus, and other religious and historic places as "World Heritage Sites." Palestine will be able to have a say in a world body that deals with other issues of importance as well, such as providing clean water to the poor and developing educational curricula, that are also vital to the maintenance of cultural vitality.
As a result of particularly bad American legislation, we are required to withdraw funding from all organizations that recognize a Palestinian state. This means that UNESCO will lose approximately $80 million in funding. Now there isn't much that we as ordinary citizens can do. However, we can contact our senators and representatives in Washington and let them know that we don't approve of this law or punishing the Palestinians for seeking self-determination.
The administration has indicated it is willing to try to find a way around the short-sighted law, particularly through a waiver. We can contact the president to let him know that we would support him in an effort to do just that.
Lastly, UNESCO accepts donations. If it's within your means, please consider donating to the organization to show support not only for its acceptance of a Palestinian state, which would better equip its people to preserve their own culture, but for everything else they do.