Naming Palestine

I post frequently on matters of Biblical history, and on occasion I naturally have to give a geographical location, to suggest for instance that a given king ruled over the territory. I use the term “Palestine,” and that requires a word of explanation – not, you understand, apology.

In my usage, Palestine refers to the geographical area that is today covered by the state of Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the Gaza Strip. That is the area defined as Palestine during the British mandate that ended in 1948, and subsequently partitioned under United Nations auspices.

Some dislike the term because it was imposed by the Romans after the crushing of the Jewish revolt in 135, and they believe that the term deliberately and insultingly recalls the Philistines who were deadly enemies of the Jews.

So what other term might we use?

Depending on the period we are speaking of, “Israel,” for me, has three meanings, namely

(i) the Jewish people,

(ii) the state of that name founded in 1948, or

(iii) the Northern Kingdom during the ancient Hebrew period from roughly 900-600 BC.

None of those usages is helpful in supplying an accurate and objective geographical term. During the second and first centuries BC, for instance, there was indeed a Jewish kingdom but it was centered in the land we call Judea, rather than in the northern portions of the land.

Erez Israel, the Land of Israel, is a Jewish religious term that would not apply to other occupants of the land at other times. “Holy Land” is explicitly religious.

For those reasons, I think it is inappropriate to write (for instance) about “Prehistoric Israel.” (That is no criticism whatever of the content of any particular article or book).

For lack of an objective alternative, then, Palestine is the best available term.

Most tellingly, that term is the standard preference of most serious scholars, Jewish and others. Scholars speak of Palestinian Judaism, even the Palestinian Talmud. If Lawrence Schiffman – to use a venerated example – can speak of “Palestine in the Hellenistic Age,” then the term clearly cannot be criticized as in any sense disrespectful to Judaism.

Palestine, then, it is.


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  • davidsinger

    You state:

    “In my usage, Palestine refers to the geographical area that is today covered by the state of Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the Gaza Strip.”

    I disagree.

    Palestine is the area that was covered by the Mandate for Palestine. That area included what is today called Jordan,the state of Israel, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Gaza District.

  • philipjenkins

    I know the argument. Try and find a contemporary writer who describes Amman, say, as part of “Palestine” except in that League of Nations legalistic sense.

  • davidsinger

    The PLO considers Amman to be part of Palestine – as Article 2 of the PLO Covenant makes clear:

    “Palestine, with the boundaries it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit”

    I can give you some contemporary Arab politicians who have spoken and written similarly – like King Abdullah, King Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Crown Prince Hassan and King Bourghiba,

    Arafat even tried to take over Jordan in 1970.

    The 52 member States of the League of Nations unanimously endorsed this definition of Palestine. Seems the world had no problem with recognizing Palestine within these territorial boundaries.

    Demographically, geographically and legally Jordan comprises 78% of Mandatory Palestine.

    The provisions of the Mandate are still alive today by virtue of article 80 of the UN Charter.

    Don’t be duped into thinking otherwise.

  • philipjenkins

    I appreciate Mr. Singer’s courteous tone.

    I would however add that many countries claim territorial ambitions that may or may not correspond with historical reality. Before the current meltdown, for instance, the Syrian regime had long defined Palestine and Lebanon as part of Greater Syria.

    Hmm, Arafat trying to take over Jordan…. that’s a major
    over-simplification of the 1970 “Black September” affair, don’t you think?

    With respect, I am not going to continue this debate here, as Mr. Singer and I have both stated our positions clearly enough, and we could go on for ever.

  • philipjenkins

    Apologies, I did say something that was not clear. When I said “contemporary” writer referring to Amman, I meant in the era of the Mandate, the 1920s-30s, rather than meaning today.

  • davidsinger

    I respect your decision. However until everyone is agreed on the territorial location of “Palestine” – then people will continue to talk at cross purposes when looking for a solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict in “Palestine”..

    I don’;t think my claim regarding Black September was an “oversimplification” – when you read the following:

    “Between Sept. 6 and Sept. 9, Habash’s militants hijacked five planes, blew up one, and diverted three others to a desert strip in Jordan called Dawson field, where they blew up the planes on Sept. 12. Rather than receiving the support of King Hussein, the Palestinian hijackers were surrounded by units of the Jordanian military. Even though Arafat worked for the release of the hostages, he also turned his PLO militants loose on the Jordanian monarchy. A bloodbath ensued.

    Up to 15,000 Palestinian militants and civilians were killed, swaths of Palestinian towns and refugee camps, where the PLO had massed weapons, leveled, the PLO leadership decimated, and between 50,000 and 100,000 people were left homeless. Arab regimes criticized Hussein for what they called “overkill.”

    Before the war, Palestinians had run a state-within-a-state in Jordan headquartered in Amman. Their militias ruled the streets and imposed brutal and arbitrary discipline with impunity.

    Hussein ended the Palestinians’ reign.”