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November 30, 2015 / 18 Kislev, 5776
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Inventing ‘Palestine’


If the UN should decide to recognize a “State of Palestine” in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people it would endorse a bizarre irony.


Because Palestinian national identity borrows so extensively from Jewish and Zionist sources as to virtually constitute historical plagiarism.

“Palestine” emerged as an abbreviation of “Syria Palaestina.” The name was imposed by Roman conquerors to obliterate the connection of Jews to their land after the Bar Kochba rebellion collapsed in 135 CE. During four hundred years of Ottoman rule, Arabs considered it to be part of Syria-Palestine, not a separate entity. A remote and neglected imperial province, it was loosely administered from Beirut or Damascus.

Modern conceptions of “Palestine” began to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century once the Holy Land, as it became known to European visitors, entered Western consciousness.

The veil began to lift after Edinburgh-born artist David Roberts followed the trail of the ancient Israelites from Egypt through the Sinai wilderness to the promised land in 1838-39. During his journey into the past Roberts sketched the lithographs that filled The Holy Land (1842), his magnificent three-volume collection that for modern critics defines the Orientalist vision of intrusive Westerners.

“If God spares me in life and health,” Roberts wrote in his journal, “I expect to bring home with me the most interesting collection of sketches that has ever left the East.” With their riveting ancient city gates, walls, tombs, churches, mosques, barren wilderness landscape, and the exotic local inhabitants, his lithographs remain unrivaled romantic depictions of sacred memory.

A year after The Holy Land appeared, another Scotsman, Rev. Alexander Keith, published his own book about the land of Israel. Keith had also traveled to the Holy Land in 1839; there he came to believe that Christians should bring to fulfillment the biblical prophecy that Jews would return to their ancient homeland.

His book, The Land of Israel According to the Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, included a phrase that has reverberated ever since. The Jews, he wrote, are “a people without a country; even as their own land is in a great measure, a country without a people.” Slightly altered by the book reviewer for a Scottish Free Church magazine, it became the iconic phrase: “A land without a people and a people without a land.”

Rev. Keith’s words were reiterated several years later in a letter from Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley-Cooper) to Lord Palmerston, the British foreign minister. Anthony-Cooper pondered the future of “Greater Syria” (as the land of the ancient Israelites was then commonly identified) after the Crimean War. He rephrased Keith’s description as “a country without a nation” needing “a nation without a country.” He wondered: “Is there such a thing?” before answering his own question affirmatively: “the ancient and rightful lords of the soil, the Jews!”

Rev. Keith’s phrase continued to recur in the writings of Christian Zionists, especially once pogroms erupted in Russia during the 1880s. Evangelist William Blackstone, concerned over the plight of Russian Jews, referred to an “astonishing anomaly – a land without a people, and a people without a land.” In 1897 John Lawson Stoddard published a travel guide exhorting Jews: “You are a people without a country; there is a country without a people . Go back, go back to the land of Abraham.”

An American visitor to Palestine chose different words to describe the barrenness of the land for literary posterity. In The Innocents Abroad (1881), Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) described Palestine as “a desolate country . We never saw a human being on the whole route . There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”

About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.

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