Newt the Historian

Posted: Dec 16, 2011 12:01 AM

Newt Gingrich is a fat target for everyone. So easy to hit. He makes the others in the race jump up, down and sometimes leap sideways, like it or not. He shakes things up. He forces voters to look differently at things they thought they already understood, lulled by habit rather than thought. That may not be the ultimate role for a leader of the Western world, but for now he's the pause that refreshes.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in his relationship to the Jews. When he said the Palestinians are "an invented people," he was speaking not as a politician but as a historian, drawing a strong contrast with the Israelis, whose 3,000-year-old culture ties them to each other and to the land they inhabit.

There's room to argue about how most of the nations of the Middle East (and elsewhere) established their national boundaries. But in his offhand remark about the Palestinians, Newt by implication put in historic perspective the call for a Palestinian state. This was also a call to look again at Israel, to remind the world of its history and the outrageous and destructive behavior of its Arab neighbors who refuse to recognize Israel's long history and its links to the land -- and its right to exist there.

In contrast, "Palestine" was a region, like New England, neither a state nor a people in a fixed place. Until recently, no one talked about a Palestinian state. That came in 1964 with the creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which was, as David Horowitz reminds us in FrontPage magazine, "engineered by the KGB and the Jew-hating dictator of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser."

Newt reinforced the accuracy of his observation at the recent Republican debate in Iowa, putting it in a contemporary political perspective.

"We are in a situation where every day rockets are fired into Israel while the United States -- the current administration -- tries to pressure the Israelis into a peace process," he said. "It's fundamentally the time for somebody to have the guts to say, 'Enough lying about the Middle East.'"

Newt's appreciative understanding of the plight of Israel forces reflection. While Mitt Romney says he agrees with this perception of the terrorism that Israel confronts, he considers Newt's words "incendiary" in a part of the world that is already a "boiling pot." Newt's robust language stands in stark contrast to President Obama's sluggish rhetoric in support of Israel, and will likely rally the religious evangelicals in Iowa, who are among Israel's best friends and strongest supporters.

It's not that Newt is against a negotiated peace settlement, but as one of his spokesmen says, "You have to understand decades of complex history." That's exactly what the Obama administration lacks.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, which established the enduring English-speaking biblical link with Western culture. Newt's history lesson is a challenge to look again at the way the country of the Israelites (as the King James Bible poetically calls the Jews) is significant to our own past in a way that Palestine is not.

A new book about the Jews cuts through the current fads of multiculturalism to demonstrate the important contributions of an inherited culture. In "The People of the Book," Gertrude Himmelfarb shows how the foundation of modern English culture is rooted in the Bible, the largest part of which, the Old Testament, is holy to the Jews, and that it was the King James Version that created a Renaissance in England that was as profound as the revival of classical learning on the continent.

While the author's intention is partially to examine English "philosemitism," which runs counter to the strain of anti-Semitism in contemporary England, she identifies the cultural antecedents in the Jewish religion. These antecedents sharply contrast to the Middle Eastern culture, which is so dependent on the Quran, a book fundamentally at odds with the message in both the Old and New Testament.

History, as Newt knows, is rich with many lessons. Himmelfarb recalls that Arthur Balfour, David Lloyd George's foreign secretary and the man responsible for the declaration on which Israeli independence is based, looked to his "Old Testament training" to justify his Zionist leanings as moral, buttressing the intellectual and political arguments. He was convinced that he could not ignore history and that the Jewish people, who were homeless, should be restored to their Old Testament home. This was no recent invention.