Some substantive reflections on the song we hear everywhere on New Year’s Eve can help us welcome 2007 with a fresh perspective on one of the world’s most frequently distorted conflicts.
Hundreds of millions of celebrants sing “Auld Lang Syne” at the stroke of midnight without comprehending the meaning of the words or even recognizing the language of the lyrics. How many people could define the “auld lang syne” they are so enthusiastically toasting? The lines of the song sound lovely (especially after a long evening of liquid refreshment) but few revelers ever make it to the third stanza and fewer still could provide a working translation:
“We twa hae run about the braes
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.” *
Obviously, the 1780’s poem by Robert Burns wasn’t written (and isn’t sung) in standard English but rather provides the world’s most famous lines in “Scots” (or “Braid”) – which is either a distinctive regional dialect or an authentic, independent language—depending on your cultural and political perspective. Today’s British government recognizes Scots as a “regional language” under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.
Of course, the current Scottish Nationalist Movement honors, and even exalts, the lilting vernacular that’s part of their ancient heritage, as well as the Gaelic dialects still spoken in various pockets of the Scottish Highlands. The Scots have lovingly nurtured and sustained their separate nationality and, amazingly enough, recent surveys show clear majorities in both Scotland and England favoring full, final Scottish independence – severing the 1707 union that brought the two nations together to form the “United Kingdom.” In 1999, the nationalists won the right to elect a separate Scottish Parliament --- “reconvened,” as they put it, “after a 300 year hiatus.” Alex Salmond, a member of the British Parliament and leader of the Scottish National Party, recently pointed out in a letter to the Wall Street Journal: “The 20th century saw several new independent countries in Europe, including Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland, to name just a few. For now, Scotland remains an anomaly – a stateless nation. But this may soon change.”
Whether it changes or not, and whether or not the nationalists succeed in their determined drive for independence and sovereignty, no one can argue against the authenticity of a Scottish national identity. The history of the Scots goes back some 10,000 years and they established a vigorous, powerful, independent kingdom that played a prominent role in European affairs for nearly 400 years (from the victory of Robert the Bruce in the Battle of Banockburn in 1314, to the Union with England in 1707). The Scots have produced world-famous poets and musicians and economists and theologians and research scientists and monarchs, with folk music and distinctive styles of dress that are recognized around the world.
Compare the rich history and unique culture of the Scottish people with another contemporary nationalistic movement that hopes to create an independent state in 2007, or very shortly thereafter: the Palestinians. In fact, even the briefest examination of the contrast between Scottish and Palestinian nationalism highlights the fraudulence in current claims (honored by enlightened souls like Jimmy Carter, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and even the America-hating Scot, George Galloway) that Palestinians mean to “restore their ancient homeland.”
What ancient homeland, exactly?
Scottish monarchs like Mary, Queen of Scots and Macbeth have been celebrated in story and poetry and song around the world. Palestinian nationalists can hardly point to comparably famous “Kings of Palestine” for one obvious reason: no Kingdom of Palestine ever existed, other than the ancient Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judea, or the short-lived, Christian Crusader kingdom based in Jerusalem. From the time that Kingdom fell to the great Kurdish leader Saladin in 1187 (less than 100 years after its founding) no independent governmental entity existed in the area of Israel and the Palestinian territories until the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. For that reason, history records no kings or princes of Palestine, nor even governors and viceroys, who were associated with a nationality identified as “Palestinian.”
And what about other famous Palestinians through the millennia—the architects and scientists and writers and spiritual leaders? Among proud Scots, the world has recognized the likes of Alexander Graham Bell, Adam Smith, John Knox, David Hume, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, James Watt, Alexander Fleming, Andrew Carnegie and many, many more.
If even the most devoted supporters of Palestinian nationalism were asked to identify a famous representative of that nationality who had gained notoriety prior, say, to 1950, who could they name?
If a people who claim that their origins stretch back into “the mists of time” can’t identify a single famous figure as one of their own – no, not one -- what does it say about the authenticity of their historic nationality?
The absence of any notable figures in the arts and sciences, religion or politics, who were known to history as “Palestinian” isn’t just a reflection of the fact that the Arab villages like Al Quds (Jerusalem), Hebron and Yaffo represented under-populated, destitute backwaters in the larger (and culturally dynamic) Arab world. It’s also an indication that the people who grew up in those dusty settlements in the ancient Holy Land of the Bible never identified themselves as “Palestinian.” They were content to see themselves as Arabs, part of larger Islamic empires like those of the Caliphate, the Mamluks, and the Ottoman Sultanate. The ethnic identity “Palestinian” didn’t exist – and the term “Southern Syrians” continued to characterize the inhabitants of the Holy Land up through the early twentieth century.
In terms of identifying famous (or notorious) Palestinians through the long march of recorded time, the one name that inevitably emerges is the late Yasser Arafat—despite the fact that he was born and raised in Egypt and educated in Kuwait, and his “Palestinian roots” have always looked questionable. Serious challenges as to his origins also surround the late Edward Said, an Arab-American scholar who spent nearly all his life in New York City but chose to identify as a Palestinian.But both of these famous figures achieved their notoriety, and sought to label themselves as “Palestinian” after the deliberate creation of the synthetic Palestinian identity, confirmed with the official launch of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1965. Prior to that time, the leaders of the populous, local Arab communities in Gaza and the West Bank (which had been annexed by Egypt and Jordan, respectively, in 1949) made few demands of their Arab overlords for a separate state to express their distinctive national aspirations. The insistence on an independent Palestinian Arab state (offered explicitly as part of the UN Partition in 1947, but peremptorily turned down by all Arab leaders) only became a fixation on the world scene after Israel’s victory in 1967 gave the Jewish State control of the Arab communities in the West Bank and Gaza.
During the first Arab-Israeli war, even as hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees fled from their homes to escape the raging conflict, these “Palestinians” hardly viewed an independent state and an expression of local nationalism as a necessary element in solving their problems. In the summer of 1948, after Israel’s declaration of Independence, the UN dispatched the Swedish nobleman Count Folke Bernadotte to the region to try to negotiate a truce. During his visit, he wrote in his diary: “The Palestinian Arabs had at the present no will of their own. Neither have they ever developed any specifically Palestinian nationalism. The demand for a separate Arab state in Palestine is consequently relatively weak. It would seem as though in existing circumstances most of the Palestinian Arabs would be quite content to be incorporated in Transjordan.”
These incontrovertible facts about the fraudulent nature of Palestinian nationalism help to explain its frenzied and fanatical characteristics. Ambrose Bierce defined a fanatic as “one who, when unsure of his argument, redoubles his intensity.” With no distinctive history to fuel their pride, no great achievements or figures from the past who connect with their group or to lend dignity to their claims, today’s self-defined “Palestinians” rely on crazed extremism – suicide bombing, training children to slaughter, and an utter refusal to compromise –as a means to forge their identity.
By contrast, the modern Scottish nationalists have never resorted to murderous violence or extreme demands of any kind in their drive for independence. In a sense, their peaceful determination to re-establish their own state reflects the secure, organic, authentic nature of their national identity. On the other hand, the Palestinian predilection for bloodshed and self-destruction stems from the flimsy, dishonest basis of their claims to nationhood.
This doesn’t prevent some American admirers of the Palestinian cause (often motivated by raw, undisguised anti-Semitism) from making the most outlandish assertions in their behalf. A caller to my radio show, asked to come up with names of famous Palestinians over the centuries, suggested “Goliath” of the Bible – the giant brought down by little David with his slingshot. Since Goliath was a Philistine, and the term “Palestine” (originally coined by the Romans as a deliberate insult to the exiled Jewish inhabitants of Judea) is based on the word “Philistine,” is it ridiculous to see today’s Palestinians as descendants of those ancient compatriots of the Great Goliath?
Yes, it is ridiculous – despite laughable efforts by some Palestinian propagandists to make the connection. Everything about the current day inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza (including considerable DNA research) identifies them as Arab—virtually indistinguishable from the nearby residents of Syria and Jordan and Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Like most inhabitants of that corner of the globe, they descend from the religiously inspired Islamic invaders who swarmed out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th Century AD and overwhelmed or obliterated the thriving Christian communities that had become dominant in the Holy Land, Syria, Egypt and most other regions of the Middle East. There is no record of any kind—none--suggesting that the invading Arabs found an indigenous population that identified themselves with the long-vanished Philistines.
In fact, the Philistines had disappeared from history – preserving no language, culture, or distinctive identity – more than a thousand years before the Romans coined the term “Palestine.” According to one typical reference book (Webster’s New Universal Encyclopedia, 1997) the Philistines were “a sea-faring, warlike people of non-Semitic origin who founded city states on the Palestinian coastal plane in the 12th Century B.C…They were largely absorbed into the kingdom of Israel under King David in 1000 B.C.” Another reference work (the famous Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia, 1953) from an earlier generation flatly declares “Philistines later paid tribute to Assyria; were assimilated by various Semitic races.” The idea that today’s Palestinians (who speak Arabic, a language altogether unknown to the region at the time of David and Goliath) can claim to somehow reaffirm some long-forgotten Philistine identity is ludicrous: with what symbols? What cultural inheritance? What points of connection to the sea-faring, fish-worshipping, inhabitants of Biblical Philistia?
With this obsessive desire to connect with a significant past (all Jewish holidays serve to emphasize that connection) Jews should particularly welcome and cherish the emotions invoked on New Year’s Eve by “Auld Lang Syne”—best translated as “Old Times Past” or “Times Long Ago.”
Why sing of the past just as you’re crossing over into the New Year, and letting the old year go? Because it’s the process of connecting past and future that makes the present fully alive—as in the now-realized Scottish nationalist dream of reconvening their parliament after a 300 year interruption, or the vibrant Jewish dream of rebuilding a homeland after 2000 years of exile. The question that begins “Auld Lang Syne” – “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” – is answered definitively in the negative by the remaining four stanzas of the song. No, old acquaintance and experience and national history must not be forgotten or ignored, but they shouldn’t be distorted or falsified either. The past matters, but we poison the present if we look back through a clouded lens of dishonesty and delusion.
Candor requires a straightforward recognition that 2007 won’t see the Palestinians realizing their cherished dream of re-establishing their beautiful, noble, once flourishing homeland since that homeland never existed as a nation state and most certainly never flourished. No, they do not qualify a “stateless nation” like the Scots, since they are not a nation at all, but rather a group of 4 million Arabs in a sea of Arabs (compared to the 5 million Scots) who yearn for autonomy and self-government and international recognition. Actually, they’ve already achieved that autonomy in Gaza (from which Israel has entirely withdrawn) but use it only to elect terrorists and to fire rockets at their neighbors (more than sixty attacks in December alone). Even if the Palestinians get their own flag and UN seat (they already possess both, for all practical purposes) they may never manage to function as a stand-alone, fully independent, functioning political entity. Some form of confederation with their Arab brothers (and former rulers) in Egypt and Jordan may be necessary to make a future “Palestine” viable in any sense, but the differences between Palestinians on the one hand and Egyptians and Jordanians on the other are far less pronounced than the distinctions between Scots and English ---who nonetheless managed to confederate with conspicuous success for 300 years. Moreover, these particular Arabs never conducted centuries of warfare against one another as the Scots and English did so the uncompromising, impassioned insistence on a totally separate Palestinian nation (among 22 other Arab nations in the region with the same language and religion) doesn’t deserve the automatic endorsement it regularly receives.
So as we “tak a cup of kindness” to 2007, may we toast a New Year that brings progress toward an independent Scotland (with enthusiastic English approval), and brings a fresh, clear-eyed approach of informed realism to outlandish Palestinian claims that make it far more difficult to resolve the long-standing conflict in the Middle East.
* For the record, the translation of the cited verse is “We two have run about the hills/and pulled the daisies fine/But we’ve wandered many a weary foot/ since auld lang syne.