Essay Two of Zero-Sum Historiography: The Palestinian Assault upon History
What is “Palestine”?
The last edition we have of the Encyclopedia Britannica prior to the Balfour Declaration defines “Palestine” as follows:
PALESTINE: … conventionally used as a name for the territory which, in the Old Testament, is claimed as the inheritance of the pre-exilic Jews … We may describe Palestine as the strip of land extending along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea … Eastward there is no such definite border. The river Jordan, it is true, marks a delimitation between western and eastern Palestine; but it is practically impossible to say where the latter ends and theArabian desert begins.
In the record of all of the deliberations of the British and the French and the Americans leading to the Balfour Declaration it is taken for granted that what is being proposed is a homeland for the Jews in some part of what has always been defined as that part of the world where the Jews once had their inheritance. There was no other way of defining this area.
Back in the days when the United Nations General Assembly was debating the future of Britain’s Mandate of Palestine, the term “Palestinian” generally meant “Jewish resident of Palestine.” All over the political front during the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s, there were organizations like the Palestine League, the Pro-Palestine Federation, the Christian Council for Palestine, the American Christian Palestine Committee, and so on; all of them were lobbies on behalf of the Jews – on behalf of “Zionism”. The various opposing lobbies, like the “Arab Congress”, upheld “Arab rights in Palestine.”
Of course, anyone who has any respect for the history of that region knows that at the time of the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, Jews were a minority in Palestine as a whole – probably about 60,000 out of 700,000. [Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 (New York: Knopf, 1999), 83 and endnote #71.] In light of this circumstance, the Balfour Declaration clearly says that the parties must show respect for the claims of the many other communities resident in Palestine. In addition to Arabs, these included Armenians, Turks, Druze, Circassians (look that one up; you will find it interesting) and others. None of these ever identified themselves as “Palestinians.”
How Palestina became Palestine
The name Palestine is not an invention of the Arabs, nor of the Jews. It is an invention of the ancient Romans. In the second century of the “Common Era”, following the Bar Kokhba revolt, the names “Judaea” and “Samaria” were abolished by the Romans, and the name Palestina was substituted. The intention here was to insult the Jews and their history by memorializing the already long-vanished Philistines — a nation of sea-going conquerors (like the Vikings) who sailed across the Mediterranean from what is today Greece and its islands in the 12th cy BC and undertook a conquest of Egypt (unsuccessfully) and of the part of ancient Canaan called Gaza (successfully). In the Bible, they are thePhilistines. To Rome, it was important to obliterate memory of the Jewish nation from this place where their sovereign kingdom had once been, and where they had lived continuously as part of the subsequent empires of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Ptolemies, Seleucids, and Romans—lest their resistance to Rome’s tyranny become an inspiration for the other subject peoples. [Bernard Lewis, TheMiddle East (London: Phoenix, 1995), 31.]
This insult, and this policy, are perpetuated and given yet another cruel twist in our time by the appropriation of the name Palestine by the Arab population of the same region, and it is echoed and ratified by their anti-Zionist supporters elsewhere in the world. These newly-minted “Palestinians” have, of course, no more historical connection to the Philistines than do the Jews. Nowadays, the term “Palestinian nation” serves to give colour to a claim to aboriginal habitation of the vicinity — as the term “Arab”, obviously, does not.
Yet, there never was an Arab state of Palestine, or even an Arab province called Palestine. According to the best English-language historian of this theme, “from the end of the Jewish state in antiquity to the beginning of British rule, the area now designated by the name Palestine was not a country and had no frontiers, only administrative boundaries; it was a group of provincial subdivisions, by no means always the same, within a large entity. ” [Bernard Lewis, “The Palestinians and the PLO, “Commentary, January, 1975, 32-48.] The very name Palestine fell into disuse among the Arabs, only to be revived by the British. Thereafter, it was (unwisely as we now see) appropriated by one branch of Zionists. These secular Zionists believed that it would strengthen their proprietary claims to the land to employ the local term preferred by the British. Secular Zionists had another motive as well: a name which affirmed contemporary geographical associations would distinguish their vision of the past and the future of the Jewish people from that of religiously-inclined Zionists, to whom the record of the past and the hope of the future was conveyed by the term Eretz Israel. (Incidentally: for a while during the 1920s and 1930s the more zealous secularists took to calling themselves “Canaanites”; but that vogue passed.)
Bernard Lewis writes:
Thus up until the twentieth century, the name Palestine referred exclusively to the ancient land of the Jews – as did the names Judea, Judah, Zion, and Israel. It had never been argued that there existed a “Palestinian people,” other than the Jews…With the exception of the Jews, who called the land “Eretz Israel” (the Land of Israel) and viewed it as their national home, all of these groups considered themselves as living in “Southern Syria.” (Quoted in Benjamin Netanyahu, A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World ( New York: Bantam. p4 n.)
Prior to 1967, Arab leaders never talked of a Palestinian nation. In the Arab Covenant of 1919, proposed by the Arab Congress in Jerusalem in 1919, we read: “The Arab lands are a complete and indivisible whole, and the divisions of whatever nature to which they have been subjected are not approved or recognized by the Arab nation.” [Quoted in Joan Peters, From time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict (London: Michael Joseph,1985.)] Syria’s dictator, Hafiz al-Assad, despite his window-dressing support of liberated “Palestine”, maintained consistently that “Palestine is not only a part of our Arab homeland, but a basic part of southern Syria.” [Peters, 140.] Through the 1970s and 1980s, the King of Jordan bobbed and weaved between two definitions of “Palestine”. When the PLO was relatively strong and he was relatively weak, King Hussein acknowledged that to the PLO belonged the leadership of “the Palestinian people.” But when he was relatively strong and the PLO relatively weak, he took an entirely different view: “The truth is,” he said publicly in 1981, and repeated in so many words throughout the 1980s (but not throughout the 1990s), “that Jordan is Palestine, andPalestine is Jordan.” [As quoted in Bennett, 139.]
Sometime after Israel’s War of Independence, Arab rhetoric took a 180 degree turn. Now the local Arab-speaking people became “the Palestinian people,” the aboriginal inhabitants, the rightful owners of the land “since time immemorial.” This concept first appears with full clarity in the “Palestinian National Covenant” of 1964, which rejects the legitimacy of the concept “Jewish people/nation” and calls for Israel’s destruction. [The current edition of the Palestine National Covenant is to be found at here.] Arab politicians and anti-Zionists everywhere nodded agreement as Yasir Arafat explained that the “Palestinian people” were in place before the Jews arrived, that they are the autochthonous population of the region, the descendants of the Philistines, the Jebusites, various ancient immigrant communities, like the Hittites, and the Philistines.
Palestine in the mind of the PLO
It is not enough for Yasir Arafat to claim that “Palestine”, prior to the mischievous Mandate was “Arab land”; he wanted the world convinced that this land was the home of a civilization higher than any that has ever been seen anywhere else. This he described before the Assembly of the United Nations in 1983:
It pains our people greatly to witness the propagation of the myth that its homeland was a desert until it was made to bloom by the toil of foreign settlers, that it was a land without a people, and that the settler entity caused no harm to any human being. No, such lies must be exposed from this rostrum for the world must know that Palestine was the cradle of the most ancient cultures and civilizations. Its Arab people were engaged in farming and building, spreading culture throughout the land for thousands of years, setting an example in the practice of religious tolerance and freedom of worship, acting as faithful guardians of the holy places of all religions …. [R]eligious brotherhood … was the hall-mark of our Holy City before it succumbed to catastrophe. Our people continued to pursue this enlightened policy until the establishment of the state of Israel and their dispersion…. Our people cannot but maintain the heritage of their ancestors in resisting the invaders, in assuming the privileged task of defending their native land, their Arab nationhood, their culture and civilization, and in safeguarding the cradle of the monotheistic religions. [Speech to the United Nations General Assembly, November 13, 1973, as quoted in Bat Ye’or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam (London: Associated University Presses, 1985), 397-398.]
The Alice-in-Wonderland effect of this thinking appears everywhere when Arab leaders speak up for “Palestine.” A characteristically loony example is found in words of Anwar Sadat, whom we have been encouraged to accept as the sanest of the of the Arab leaders of our time – the one who shook hands with Menachem Begin over a Peace Treaty in 1979. Here is Anwar Sadat on the deeper historical significance of the present Palestinian struggle:
The assassination of Arab brethren like Goliath, by Jewish sheep-herders like David, is the sort of shameful ignominy that we must yet set aright in the domain of the occupied Palestinian homeland. [As quoted in Ramon Bennett, Philistine: the Great Deception (Jerusalem: Arm of Salvation, 1995), p. 137.]
Travelers’ accounts of the land dating to the period indicated by Arafat give a different picture. Alphonse Lamartine (1790-1869) described what he found in Jerusalem in 1835: ” We were seated the whole of the day before one of the principal gates. We walked round the walls; no one passed in or out … [W]e saw, indeed, no living object, heard no living sound; we found the same void, the same silence as we should have found before the entombed gates of Pompeii or Hercalaneum … [It is] the tomb of a whole people.” At that time, Jerusalem had a population of about 14,000. Eyewitnesses accounts by other distinguished authors of the Nineteenth Century bear out this impression of abandonment of the land and of poverty in the cities. (Linda Osband. Famous Travellers to the Holy Land (London: Multimedia/Prion, 1989.) The words of Lamartine are on pp. 71-2.)
Does the Holy Land belong to the Palestinians or to Islam?
An awkward reality with which Western anti-Zionist-pro-Palestinians ought to reckon but never do is that the argument from bogus-history that is engrossed in Palestinian propaganda and meant to defend “the Palestinian case” for possession of what the Jews call Eretz Israel is utterly incompatible with the claim to the same land that is proffered by the Islamists – a field that includes Hezbollah and Hamas. The “Palestinian” argument which purports to depend upon proofs about who was present in the Holy Land at various times and in various locations derives justification from everything that Islam is not. Moving the case for removing the Jews from the Land away from the Qur’an’s central assertions about the ubiquitous empire of Islam and making it stand on World History is precisely what has made ideologues of the PLO past and present, anathema in the much wider and broader circles where the claim for tossing the Jews back into the sea and reclaiming for Islam all of the Holy Land is based upon the Holy Qur’an and the Teaching of the Prophet.
I will turn to this theme in my next essay.
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