A Google search (2023-03-22) for "Smotrich" occurring within the past week produces:

  • Bezalel Smotrich - Wikipedia
  • Top stories:
    • CNN - Israeli minister says there's 'no such thing as a Palestinian people,' inviting US rebuke
    • Al Jazeera - Palestinians ‘an invention’ of past century: Israel’s Smotrich
    • CBC -Ottawa condemns Israeli minister's 'shameful' remarks about Palestinian people
    • Times of Israel - US joins condemnations of Smotrich’s ‘concerning and dangerous’ Paris speech
    • AP News - Top Israeli minister: 'No such thing' as Palestinian people
    • Also in the news …
  • The Times of Israel - Smotrich says there's no Palestinian people, declares his ...
  • Haaretz - Far-right Minister Smotrich: There's No Such Thing as the ...
  • The Guardian - Israeli minister condemned for claiming 'no such thing' as a ...
  • Le Monde - Bezalel Smotrich, Israel's ultra-nationalist minister, delivers ...
  • Middle East Eye - Israel's Smotrich: 'There's no such thing as Palestinians'
  • Jerusalem Post - Israel's Smotrich: There is no such thing as a Palestinian people

Speaking in Paris on Sunday, Smotrich said there was “no such thing as a Palestinian” because “there is no such thing as the Palestinian people”.

“Do you know who are the Palestinians? I’m Palestinian,” Smotrich said, going on to describe his late grandfather, who he said was a “13th generation Jerusalemite” as “the true Palestinian”.

The Palestinian people is an invention that is less than 100 years old,” added Smotrich …

Palestinians ‘an invention’ of past century: Israel’s Smotrich | Al Jazeera

Clearly, that was a very controversial statement, which has been widely condemned by politicians around the world.

And the implication in these headlines is that the statement is blatantly false.

Does this implied notable claim that the statement is false have any merit?

Why I'm skeptical:

Until I saw the dismissive headlines, my understanding had always been that Smotrich's statement is fundamentally true and was never in doubt.

My Rand McNally Illustrated Atlas of Today's World, Volume 3, printed in 1962, doesn't mention the term, and its map shows Gaza as a part of Egypt and the West Bank as a part of Jordan. It does mention that many Arabs fled into Jordan after the founding of Israel, but does not call them Palestinians.

Google Ngram Viewer shows that, except for a blip in 1904, the term "Palestinians" was almost never used until the late 1960s, and I suspect that the earlier instances of the word included Jews, Turks, and other non-Arab residents.

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The people today called Palestinians are simply descendants of those Arabs that happened to be living in that area a century ago (when the Ottoman Empire was divided up by the WWI victors). There were also Jews, Turks, and other people living in the area, and all of them were referred to as Palestinians at the time because the geographic area was called Palestine, but today, only the Arabs are referred to as Palestinians.

Certainly they have developed a culture (or had one forced on them) over the last century, but historically, until recently they could not be considered a separate people. The Arabs living in Palestine (the land west of the Jordan River) are identical to Jordanians and other Arab neighbors. In fact, the aim of the Arab Revolt of 1916 was "to create a single unified and independent Arab state stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen.", with no suggestion that the Arabs living in Palestine were to be considered as a different people.

The concept of Palestinians as a separate people or race is a creation of 20th century politicians.
At least that has always been my understanding.

Is the media wrong?

Historical update:

I recently watched the 1960 movie Exodus about some of the events leading up to the 1948 founding of Israel.

Interestingly, The character played by Paul Newman introduced himself as a Palestinian freedom fighter (opposed to the British occupation). Obviously, Jews that lived in Palestine at that time considered themselves to be Palestinians, just as much as the Arabs, Turks, Europeans, etc. that lived there.

(Note that I'm not claiming that the movie was 100% accurate, but that as late as 1960, referring to a Jew as a Palestinian was an acceptable statement.)

The name referred to the area, not to any one people. It wasn't until much later that the Arab Palestinians claimed the name for themselves. Before that, the concept of a Palestinian "people" didn't exist.


2 Answers 2


Is this statement being condemned because it is false, or because it isn't considered politically correct to mention it, or for some other reason?

A: For some other reason.

This question focusses tightly on a particular proposition in a longer speech, says it is controversial, conjectures that some people must doubt the claim, and shows with evidence that the claim is true.

However, it is not the truth of this particular proposition that is controversial. Convincing everyone that this proposition is indeed true, with evidence, would not make the speech less controversial.

The linked Instagram reel of parts of the speech includes many hundreds of comments, demonstrating the reason for the controversy:

Here is a highly upvoted comment arguing that the speech has other motives rather than merely discussing the etymology of the word "Palestinian".

@neuro_Naturalist: Erasure of an entire culture in real time

Here is a highly upvoted comment showing that even if the claim is true, it is irrelevant:

@sulearzika: So is there any such thing as an Israeli? Isn’t Israel an invention that is barely 70 years old? So how does a 70 year old invention take precedence over a 100 year old even if we take this usurper at his word

My goal is not to pick a side in a long-term dispute. It is to demonstrate that the controversy is more about a person in authority othering his opposition rather than disagreeing with a linguistic analysis.

  • 1
    I think this answer could be improved by pointing out that in a fundamental sense, the notion that "Palestinians" or " Israelis" are groups that are pretty new is actually not indisputable. Palestine and Israel both existed as geopolitical entities at various points in history, and it is natural to refer to the people who lived there as Palestinians or Israelis, much as people talk about "Chinese" people from the Warring States period or "French" people from the Norman Conquest, even though these people would have had quite different languages, religious practices, and cultures in general.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 22 at 2:14
  • 7
    @RayButterworth: You are dragging us into a linguistics question that is irrelevant. Even if we accept your argument that Palestinian is a recent offshoot of Jordanian, that doesn't make Palestinian the same as Israeli, it doesn't address whether a Palestinian state should be established, it doesn't make a self-described Palestinian worth any less... and these are the issues that make the speech controversial, not Google n-grams results.
    – Oddthinking
    Mar 22 at 4:14
  • 2
    @RayButterworth A good skeptic looks at the facts, but they also look behind the curtain. They look for the misdirection and the con. Claims like in your question are made with a veiled purpose, and it's part of a skeptic's mission to uncover that purpose and put the claim in context. This is not "politics", but revealing the scam; what are they really saying? Not everyone here agrees with this view, but if we don't we're just fact checking pedants enabling the con. Like I've been saying, if you just want the historical facts, ask on History.SE.
    – Schwern
    Mar 25 at 0:11
  • 2
    @RayButterworth I still don't see the evidence in your question of these "many members of the media" making the same claim; only headlines challenging the much less defensible claim that the Palestinian people does not in the present tense exist.
    – IMSoP
    Mar 25 at 13:06
  • 2
    @RayButterworth The media, presumably, jumped on that because it's about erasing a people.
    – Schwern
    Mar 26 at 3:36

Smotrich's speech was hardly quoted in full by al-Jazeera, but was more extensively quoted by CNN

“Who was the first Palestinian king? What language do the Palestinians have? Was there ever a Palestinian currency? Is there a Palestinian history or culture? Nothing. There is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” Smotrich said at a speech in Paris.

So, it's rather silly to claim the controversy was primarily about that one sentence you've highlighted. The whole speech was a Gish gallop attack on another identity, from a checklist/historicist perspective. And that is controversial in modern politics and international relations.

"Who was the first USA king? What language does the USA have?" Arguably there's the dollar (and not the pound as their currency), but some equally crude arguments have been raised that the USA has "no culture" otherwise. To say nothing of applying those standards to a smaller country/region like Kosovo, which doesn't even have its own currency.

There's also the weird (but probably deliberate) aspect of the speech that if we concluded that self-identified Arab-Palestinians are something else that's necessarily "nothing", even though plenty of pan-Arabic movements/claims exist, based on some full extent of some Caliphates (and that kind of situation kinda extends to Kosovo, for example, vis-a-vis "Greater Albania".)

So, yeah, the claim you've highlighted is hardly why Smotrich's speech was [so] controversial. It's not like simply saying matter-of-factly that the "USA people" didn't exist as such 250 years ago.

I don't know much about what Smotrich may have said elsewhere about Arabs (he's not high-profile enough to have much of speeches translated into English), but in 2016, The Economist briefly noted that

Betzalel Smotrich, a right-wing lawmaker, caused uproar when he dismissed Arab Israelis as “illiterate”. [...] Though they may not be fluent in Hebrew, all Arab Israelis grow up speaking Arabic. But if Mr Smotrich’s intervention was especially crude, his outlook is not unique. Arabic has long been marginalised by Israeli society. [...] This tension is rooted in the centrality of Hebrew to the Zionist project. Before the 1880s, no one had spoken Hebrew colloquially for two thousand years.

And the Communist Party of Israel may be a rather obscure source, but assuming the quote is real:

MK Bezalel Smotrich, told Joint List lawmakers on Wednesday October 13 [2021], “You are here by mistake – because Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.”

So yeah, that rather fits with the grand narrative of the Israeli [far] right that the Arabs/Palestinians are simply [the descendants of] occupiers of ancient land that is rightfully Jewish, and that they should be expelled or at best given some 2nd rank status.

Regarding the edit adding a large number of headlines. "no such thing as Palestinians" in the present tense is clearly a different (and stronger) statement. And that's what went into the press headlines, mostly: CNN, AP, The Times of Israel, Haaretz, MEE, Jerusalem Post by your survey.

Whether the press is slightly misquoting him on that is debatable in my view, given the [rest of the] contents of the speech, to say nothing of his other/older statements. If you apply Smotrich's checklist (King/language/money/culture) you come to the same conclusion in the present tense, unless you're willing to concede something about culture, which he doesn't seem to be doing.

And yeah, he did say/conclude [seemingly in present tense] that

There is no such thing as Palestinians because there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.

Several Israeli newspapers (JP, ToI) have quoted that bit in the body of their articles, so there's probably not much room for mistranslation.

FWTW, as one article noted Smotrich's quip was hardly the first like that. Golda Meir having said something similar in 1969 ("There were Jews and Arabs [...] but I say there is no such thing as a distinct Palestinian people"), and then issued some (1972) clarifications, which pushed her argument more in the direction of [lack of] statehood/citizenship.

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