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The Battle Over ‘Judea and Samaria’

One would expect someone as pro-Israel as The New York Times’ William Safire to know better. In his January 16 On Language column, he wrote:

“In wartime, words are weapons; we have seen how Israelis and Palestinians are highly sensitive to connotations in their conflict. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon preferred to refer to land in dispute west of the Jordan River by biblical names: Judea and Samaria, evoking Hebrew origins; Israeli diplomats long tried ‘administrative territories.’ Palestinians call it the West Bank and have won that terminological battle.”

I have touched on this matter before, yet I feel the need to say it again: Although William Safire is simply repeating what for years now has been the conventional wisdom of the American media, “Judea” and “Samaria,” the Hebrew “Yehuda” and “Shomron,” are not biblical words for the hill districts south and north of Jerusalem that were revived by Israeli nationalists after the 1967 war. That is, they are indeed biblical words, but they have been used by Jews through the ages and have been the standard Hebrew terms for these parts of Palestine since the beginnings of Zionist settlement in the late 19th century.

In front of me as I write these words is a large fold-out map of “Erez Israel/ Palestine” from the English edition of Zev Vilnay’s 1934 “Palestine Guide,” the most widely used Jewish guidebook to British Mandate Palestine. The mountainous country north of Jerusalem and south of the Valley of Jezreel is clearly marked on this map, in large capital letters: “Samaria.” The country south of Jerusalem is similarly marked “Midbar Yehuda” (“Wilderness of Judah”) in its eastern half. (In a smaller map in the text of the book, “Judah” appears as “Judea.”) Its western half is unnamed on the map, but Vilnay refers to it in his text as “the Judean hills.”

One could find no end of similar examples if one had the patience and bibliographic resources to look for them. And the irony is that if there is a geographical term for these areas that was invented and put into use for purely political purposes, it is none other than the “winner,” as Safire puts it, of “the terminological battle” — that is, “the West Bank.”

What, after all, is “the West Bank”? It is a translation of the Arabic term al-daf’a al-gharbiya — which is a rather odd term for Judea and Samaria when you consider that the “bank” in question is that of the Jordan River and that these territories are both separated from that river by the Jordan Valley and are not on its bank at all. And in fact, this was not a term ever used for them by their inhabitants or, for that matter, by anyone at all, until King Abdullah’s Arab Legion occupied them when it crossed the Jordan westward in its 1948 war against Israel.

In 1950 Abdullah annexed the “West Bank,” a move that was protested by the rest of the Arab world as a land grab over the heads of the Palestinians. Already, the previous year, he had changed the official name of his country from The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan to The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to indicate that it now comprised territory on both sides of the Jordan River rather than only on its eastern side. And to drive home this point, the Jordanians encouraged the use of the terms “East Bank” and “West Bank” as a way of stressing that theirs was a single country that straddled a river running through it. Eventually, “West Bank” became a term used by the “West Bankers” themselves, as well as by the rest of the world.

William Safire is right: In situations of conflict, words and names of places can be weapons. This was

precisely what the term “West Bank” was turned into — so successfully, indeed, that after the 1967 war it became bon ton among Israeli intellectuals on the anti-annexationist left to refer, too, to Judea and Samaria as “the West Bank,” as if these were areas devoid of Jewish historical associations and Jewish memories. And because it was the annexationist right that continued to use the traditional Hebrew words Yehuda and Shomron, it was assumed by the ignorant that these had been yanked crudely from the mothballs of a distant biblical past to justify expansionist policies.

This is simply not the case. Judea and Samaria are the proper Hebrew words for the central hill country of Palestine between the Galilee and the Negev no less than Connecticut is the proper English word for the area between New York and Massachusetts. And Hebrew speakers can and should use these words, regardless of what they think the future of the territories designated by them should be. Indeed, such is the tendency in Israel today, so that even Israelis on the left talk more and more about the need to leave “Judea and Samaria,” or to give the Palestinians a state in “Judea and Samaria” rather than “in the West Bank.” As far as the Hebrew language is concerned, the terminological battle has been won neither by the right nor by the left, but by itself.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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