Newt Gingrich, John Paul II and the Palestinians

[caption id="attachment_16260" align="alignleft" width="300" caption=" "] [/caption]Newt Gingrich co-produced and starred, with his wife, in the documentary Nine Days that Changed the World in praise of Pope John Paul II's 1979 pilgrimage to Poland and the pope's role in defeating communism. I don't think Gingrich Productions will do a similar documentary on John Paul's pilgrimage to the Middle East and his effort to make peace in that region, though. Gingrich's views on this are diametrically opposed to the late pope's.That was shown starkly in an interview he gave to The Jewish Channel. Raising doubts about the widely supported two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he said:

... remember there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that weve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs, and were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places. And for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and I think its tragic.

Compare this remark about the Palestinians as an "invented" people to what John Paul said when he visited Bethlehem in 2000. On his arrival, he said:

No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world. And it has gone on too long ... The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland. (His 1984 letter Redemptionis Anno put a finer point on it, referring to Palestinians' "natural right in justice to find once more a homeland.")

It is worth noting that John Paul said these things without alienating the people of Israel. In fact, he was greeted enthusiastically in Israel on the next stop of his pilgrimage. Immediately before going to Jerusalem, he visited the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, where he said:

"Through my pontificate, I have felt close to the Palestinian people in their sufferings. ... You have been deprived of many things which represent basic needs of the human person: proper housing, health care, education and work. ... Above all, you bear the sad memory of what you were forced to leave behind. Not just material possessions, but your freedom, the closeness of relatives, and the familiar surroundings and cultural traditions which nourished your personal and family life."

John Paul's reference to the Palestinians' culture is significant. As George Weigel has written, "He was convinced that culture drove history, over the long run ... and the most powerful component of culture was cult, or religion." What Gingrich has failed to recognize is that John Paul's recognition of the Palestinians as a people was rooted in his own experience as a Pole. Karol Wojtyla had first-hand experience with efforts by the Nazis and communists to wipe out the Poles' sense of nationhood by trying to destroy their culture. John Paul had an intimate sense of the Palestinians' loss (much as he was sensitive, through his experience in Poland, to the sufferings of the Jewish people).Palestinians naturally resent that a man who could be president of the United States would call them an "invented" people. If it's any consolation, I'd like to offer them these words from John Paul in Bethlehem:

Dear refugees, do not think that your present condition makes you any less important in God's eyes! Never forget your dignity as his children! Here at Bethlehem the Divine Child was laid in a manger in a stable; shepherds from the nearby fields were the first to receive the heavenly message of peace and hope for the world. God's design was fulfilled in the midst of humility and poverty.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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