Naming Palestine

Naming Palestine October 5, 2014

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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