Rowing Home to Haven In Sunny Palestine

On Language

By Philologos

Published November 10, 2010, issue of November 19, 2010.
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Jacob Wolf writes from Bet Shemesh, Israel:

“In your October 17 column about the phrase ‘making aliyah,’ you speak of the ‘mountains of Palestine’ and ‘the Palestinian coast.’ Since ‘Palestine’ was the name given the Land of Israel by the Romans after their destruction of the Temple, and remains a term used by those who wish to delegitimize our claim to this land, I ask why you would choose to use it.”

Lord Balfour: In his declaration he refers to Palestine as a geographical area to house a Jewish homeland.
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Lord Balfour: In his declaration he refers to Palestine as a geographical area to house a Jewish homeland.

It must be a sign that I’m getting old that I encounter fewer and fewer people who remember that, prior to the creation of the State of Israel, in 1948, “Palestine” was a perfectly respectable word among Jews and was used by them all the time. The Balfour Declaration, after all, one of the great Jewish diplomatic victories in history, called for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” and — going from the world-historical to the personal — my own fervently Zionist family kept in its kitchen in the 1940s a blue-and-white Jewish National Fund collection box with the words “Fight for a Free Palestine” displayed prominently on it. A “Free Palestine” meant, needless to say, a Jewish state in a Jewish country. It was only when the Jews of Palestine became Israelis that the word “Palestinian” ceased to refer to them, too, and began to denote only Palestinian Arabs.

Mr. Wolf, of course, can say:

“That’s all very well, but so what? Palestine, a name that originally comes from that of the Jews’ biblical enemies, the Philistines, may have been used for a while by modern Jews as a neutral geographical term for what was always known in internal Jewish discourse as Eretz-Yisra’el, the Land of Israel. And yet it has ceased to be such a term today and has reverted to being used in anti-Jewish contexts as it was in the time of the Romans. Why should Jews allow themselves to be associated with it?”

It’s a fair question, and one that contains its own answer. “Eretz-Yisra’el” (or “Eretz-Israel,” as English-writing Jews sometimes render it) belongs only to internal Jewish discourse. The world does not use it — nor would the world, for obvious reasons, agree to use it. How, then, when speaking to and with the world, shall Jews refer to the land between the Jordan River to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and between the mountains of Lebanon to the north and the Sinai desert to the south, a land that is divided today into the State of Israel, Gaza and the Israeli-occupied “West Bank” or “Judea and Samaria”?

This land does, after all, need a name. It is and always has been a geographical unity. If not Eretz-Yisra’el or Palestine, what shall we call it?

Well, what are the other possibilities?

The one that’s been resorted to most and has deep roots in both Judaism and Christianity (although not, as far as I know, in Islam) is “the Holy Land” — eretz ha-kodesh, in Hebrew. Although more commonplace in Hebrew, English and other languages prior to the 20th century, one still sometimes comes across it in a contemporary utterance. And yet, can it really be a practical substitute for Palestine in our own day and age? Can we feel comfortable with sentences like, “Alexander the Great conquered the Holy Land in 332 BCE” in a 21st-century history book, or “The Holy Land has a typical Mediterranean climate” in a geography text? The world has become far too secular for such a term to be acceptable in anything but an explicitly religious context. (“The pope plans to visit the Holy Land,” for example, would seem perfectly natural.)

What about “Cisjordan,” then? A word that is the opposite of “Transjordan” and that is formed from the Latin adverb cis, “on this [that is, the western] side of”? The French indeed use Cisjordanie quite a lot, although often to denote the “West Bank” rather than all of historical Palestine, but to English speakers this means nothing. The word’s chances of being introduced into English usage are nil.

“Canaan?” That’s more familiar, at least to anyone who knows the Bible, but precisely, this is the problem with it: In our minds, it’s associated entirely with the biblical period. “Alexander the Great conquered Canaan” would sound even stranger than his conquering the Holy Land.

That leaves “Palestine.” True, the word is problematic — and not only for Jews, because if a Palestinian state called Palestine is eventually established, “Palestine” will cease to be the English equivalent of the Land of Israel and will come to refer only to the territory of that state. Then we will have an even worse problem. Meanwhile, however, I would say to Mr. Wolf that if the Arabs stole “Palestine” from us Jews in 1948, this is no reason to let them get away with the theft. Whatever political boundaries run through it, there is indeed a single country bordered by the Jordan River, the Mediterranean Sea, the mountains of Lebanon and the Sinai Peninsula, and Jews writing and speaking English need a word for it.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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