Wednesday, July 20, 2005

When the Jews were the "Palestinians"

I often wonder whether the Israelis would have been better off naming their country "Palestine" instead of Israel. This might have weakened the efforts of anti-Zionists to delegitimize Israel's very existence and put a dent into the belated emergence of an Arab-oriented Palestinian nationalism.
Until the UN partition of Britain's mandated territory into separate Jewish and Arab nations, the name Palestine was probably associated as much, if not more, with Jews, who had no independent country of their own, as it was with Arabs, who inhabited nearly 20 nearby Arab countries.
In eastern Europe, anti-Semites would traditionally taunt Jews: "Go back to Palestine where you belong!" On a more empathetic note, pre-1948 Zionist projects were invariably linked to the name Palestine. In 1939, the Nazi nightmare inspired the organization of the American Friends of a Jewish Palestine, followed by the Committee for an Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, and the American League for a Free Palestine.
In the United Kingdom, the British League for a Free Palestine was created. In France, local Jews organized the Ligue Francaise pour une Palestine Libre. Earlier in the 1930s, a Palestine Economic Foundation was set up in the U.S. to finance the development of Jewish industrial projects. The aim of all these efforts was, as the American League proclaimed, the "reestablishment of the Hebrew nation in an independent Palestine."
In Palestine itself, what is now the Jerusalem Post, Israel's leading English-language daily newspaper, began publication in 1932 as the Palestine Post. Four years later, what is now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was founded as the Palestine Philharmonic by the famed Polish violinist, Bronislaw Huberman, who persuaded Jewish musicians to flee from Europe and settle in Palestine. Arturo Toscanini conducted its first concert.
During World War II, a Palestine Brigade served with the British Army in Europe. The troops were all Jewish volunteers. On a personal note, while briefly stationed at a British air base near Bombay, India during that war, I met Royal Air Force men who wore a small shoulder patch on their uniforms bearing the word "Palestine." They were not Arab volunteers.
Why do I raise this issue? One reason is to strengthen the legitimacy of an independent Jewish state in territory that was ruled by the Turks from the early 1500s until World War I and by the British until 1948. Another is to argue that Palestinian Arab nationalism is a synthetic concept that was inspired, ironically, by the very success of Zionism.
The Turks ruled the territory that is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as part of "Greater Syria." Before the Turks conquered the territory, it was governed by a Muslim caliphate that encompassed much of the Arab world. And during all those centuries, while virtually all Jews were dispersed elsewhere, there was always a Jewish population--albeit a tiny one--living and praying in the Holy Land.
From 1948 to 1967, Jordan ruled the West Bank and Egypt governed Gaza. During this period, the Palestinian Arabs never asked for an independent state, nor was there any clamor for Palestinian statehood from the Israel-bashers who now demand it. There never was a unique, historic concept of Palestinian Arab ethnicity or nationality. The Palestinian Arabs belonged to a so-called "Arab nation," sharing a history, language, culture and religion (excluding a small Christian minority) with the Arabs in the surrounding countries.
From the collapse of the Jewish state under the Romans until the start of British rule, the area now identified as Palestine was never a country and had no frontiers, only administrative boundaries. That was the case until the establishment of an independent state that the modern Jews called Israel, a name restored from Jewish antiquity.


Blogger Rabbi Ruth Adar said...

You pose a fascinating "what-if" scenario.

I have been told that there was a lot of discussion among the founders of the State of Israel about the name, but that the decision was made rather suddenly and at the last minute by David Ben Gurion. I've never heard a reason for the name "Israel" as opposed to "Palestine;" my guess is that Palestine was seen as a name imposed by conquerors, and Israel was the ancient name.

Saturday, July 23, 2005 2:29:00 PM  

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