‘He’s not going to give up one inch of Eretz Israel,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen quotes Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri as saying of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on February 15. And Cohen adds, by way of explanation, “Eretz Israel is a biblical term widely used to refer to the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, encompassing all of the West Bank.”
Technically speaking, there’s nothing incorrect about this. The Hebrew term eretz-yisra’el, “the land of Israel,” is indeed found in the Bible and is widely used by Jews. What, then, apart from the fact that Cohen has been far from friendly to Israel over the years, makes this sentence so aggravating?
Well, think of it this way. Although the Germans call their country Deutschland, the English word for it is Germany. Suppose, then, that Cohen had written a column using the word Deutschland while pointing out for the elucidation of his readers: “Deutschland is a medieval term widely used to refer to the area of Central Europe between the Rhein and Oder rivers, including all of East Germany.”
But of course, he would never say that. He would say: “Deutschland is the German word for Germany.”
Just as he should have said: “Eretz-Yisra’el [and not “Eretz Israel” — I’ll get back to this] is the Hebrew word for Palestine.”
This isn’t a quibble; it’s an observation regarding a tendency, of which Cohen is a good example, to belittle the deep, uninterrupted Jewish connection to Palestine over the centuries by attributing it to a distant biblical past alone — from which, after a lapse of thousands of years, modern Zionism, as it were, has resurrected it.
The fact is that although it occurs in the Bible, eretz-yisra’el is rare there. We find it once in the book of Samuel and twice in the book of Ezekiel; otherwise, the Bible speaks, in its earliest books, of eretz-k’na’an or eretz-ha-k’na’ani, “the land of Canaan” or “the land of the Canaanite,” and in its later ones, simply of ha-aretz, “the Land.”
Starting with early rabbinic literature, however, eretz-yisra’el is ubiquitous in Jewish discourse. It is not “widely used”; it is universally used, the standard way of referring to Palestine not only in Hebrew, but in Yiddish and other Jewish languages as well, and it has remained so to this day. Jews never thought of Palestine as anything but eretz-yisra’el, even if there were literary epithets, such as eretz-ha-kodesh, “the holy land,” or eretz-avot, “the land of the fathers,” that occasionally took its place.