Photo Credit: Larousse free image
Palestine Flag with Jewish Star as it appears in the Larousse French Dictionary

{Repsoted from the author’s blog}

I recently critiqued an article that used the term “historic Palestine” nine times in 21 pages without offering a definition even once. It is taken for granted that the reader would know what this term means. Not being a historian myself, I asked the historian Prof Amatzia Baram to explain it to me. He responded in an email:

There is no definite “Historic Palestine”. It depends on when you are talking about. The beginning, of course, was the three-part Roman Palestine [Palestina Prima, Segunda and Tertia]. The British until 1922 meant both sides of the Jordan River. After that you have British Mandatory Palestine that does not include the east side of the Jordan River. Fatah and the PLO still regard both Jordan and Israel as “Palestine”. So did Jabotinsky. Begin no longer did. Everyone and his/her Palestine.

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This answer makes sense to me based on my limited experience as an amateur academic sleuth as I critique articles in fields I never formally studied. But will other professional historians agree with Baram? I turned to Google Scholar to see what academic articles were being written on historic Palestine.

There were 3490 results to this search. As I delved into the material, I discovered that this may be an overestimation of the actual published works since there were some duplicate results and some with dead links or otherwise irretrievable materials and not all were necessarily in academic journals. But what was most of interest was whether or not these articles answered the question, what is historic Palestine?

The earliest search result I found using that exact term, “historic Palestine” was published in 1976. The authors are Judaic Studies professor Israel Singer and writer and international affairs consultant Mark Bruzonsky. While their article was published in an apparently well respected magazine, it was not academic. In any case, they implied that “historic Palestine” was Mandatory Palestine before the separation of Jordan given their comment that Prime Minister Rabin would “never consider a third state in historical Palestine“.

This is a view repeated in a minority of articles that I looked at.

In his doctoral thesis written in 1987, Elias Kukali, then a student at Dresden Technical University, wrote in several places that “historical Palestine”, is everything on the west side of the Jordan River, i.e., Israel, Judea & Samaria (what they call the West Bank) and Gaza. But how can he be taken seriously when you consider this ridiculous statement:

Palestinians … claim that the land is theirs, which they were inhabiting since the Canaanite era, even before the Hebrews guided by Moses left Egypt around 1200 B.C. and invaded their land, Palestine.

There was no such place as Palestine in 1200 BCE. And it is hard to see how Palestinian Arabs can claim to be both Arab and Canaanite. They can be one or the other. But to proudly declare that they are simultaneously part of the Arab Ummah and Canaanites just does not make historical or anthropological sense at all. Kukali is currently a faculty member of the Arab American University in the Palestinian Authority. Thank goodness he is not teaching history or anthropology.

Archaeologist Adel Yahya left no room for doubt regarding what he defines as “historic Palestine”; In his 2010 article on looting of archaeological sites, he writes:

According to a 1930s British Mandate survey, historic Palestine (Israel, the West Bank & Gaza Strip) has a total of more than 35,000 large and small archaeological sites and features (caves, ruins, tells, sanctuaries, quarries, towers, churches, mosques, etc.) from all historic and prehistoric periods.

Note that ancient synagogues do not make it onto Yahya’s list of archaeological sites.

But what do actual historians write?

Beshara Doumani, Brown University professor of history, wrote in 1985 that:

 At present, there are twenty-one shari’a courts in historic Palestine.

and then he lists 21 cities in Israel, Judea and Samaria, and Gaza. Professor of anthropology and history Ilana Feldman agrees that historic Palestine is comprised of these three regions by defining Palestinians, in her paper in 2019, as “…refugees in exile outside of historic Palestine, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza…”

And this is how the term is used regardless of discipline (psychology, sociology, law, political science, economics and more). So it seems that with regard to “Palestine”, history began in 1948. Had it begun for them in 1921, then historic Palestine would have included what became Jordan in 1946.

I find it interesting (and telling) that none of the articles that use the term “historic Palestine” support the existence of Israel as a legitimate state among the world’s nations. In fact, those who promote “historic Palestine” are not troubled by the fact that official documents issued by the British (as well as coins and postage stamps) correlate the Hebrew word for Palestine with Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) because they see all of Israel as occupied territory. Even this stamp that commemorates the fifth anniversary of Fateh (Palestinian National Liberation Movement) uses the image of a stamp marked with “Eretz Yisrael”.

Commemorative stamp shows that historic Palestine is Eretz Yisrael

Also interesting is that the name “Palestine” is associated quite directly to paganism in the first instance and Christianity in the second. Generally a historic people have some connect between their country and their spiritual orientation. Never was the name Palestine associated with Islam.

The pagan Roman Empire, as noted by Baram above, had three Palestinian provinces in their empire: Prima, Segunda and Tertia. This naming shows how uncreative the Romans are and they simply borrowed “Palestine” from the one-time name for a sliver of land along the coast where Gaza is now: Philistia. The Philistines were from the Aegean region and cannot be claimed as Arabs any more than the Canaanites can.

Bernard Lewis was a historian on the faculty at Princeton University. In 1980 he published perhaps the most detailed historical treatment of the name Palestine, while not even once using the term “historic Palestine”; Lewis wrote:

The name Filastin, or Palestine, … had never been used by Jews, for whom the normal name of the country, from the time of the Exodus to the present day, was Eretz Israel.10 It was no longer used by Muslims, for whom it had never meant more than an administrative sub-district and it had been forgotten even in that limited sense. It was, however, widely adopted in the Christian world. In the Middle Ages, Christian writers had usually spoken of ‘the Holy Land,’ or even of Judaea. The Renaissance and the revival of interest in classical antiquity gave a new currency to the Roman name Palestine, which came to be the common designation of the country in most European languages. European influence brought it to the Arabic-speaking Christians, the first of the country’s inhabitants to be affected by western practices and usages. The second Arabic newspaper to appear in Palestine, published in 1911, was called Filastin and was edited by an Arab Christian of the Orthodox Church. [Note added by Sheri Oz: Zachary Foster’s recent PhD thesis describes how Russian missionaries to “The Holy Land” in the mid 1800s taught their Arab pupils that they were Palestinians.]

An expression as vague as the Palestine of Christian usage could of course have no very precise geographical definition. The 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published when all these lands were still part of the Ottoman Empire, defines it as follows:

Palestine, a geographical name of rather loose application. Etymological strictness would require it to denote exclusively the narrow strip of coastline once occupied by the Philistines, from whose name it is derived. It is, however, conventionally used as a name for the territory which, in the Old Testament, is claimed as the inheritance of the pre-exilic Hebrews; thus it may be said generally to denote the southern province of Syria. Except in the west, where the country is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, the limit of this territory cannot be laid down on the map as a definite line. The modern sub-divisions under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire are in no sense co-terminous with those of antiquity, and hence do not afford a boundary by which Palestine can be separated exactly from the rest of Syria in the north, or from the Sinaitic and Arabian deserts in the south and east; nor are the records of ancient boundaries sufficiently full and definite to make possible the complete demarcation of the countries. Even the convention above referred to is inexact; it includes the Philistine territory claimed but never settled by the Hebrews, and excludes the outlying parts of the large area claimed in Numbers xxiv as the Hebrew possession. … The River Jordan, it is true, marks a line of delimitation between western and eastern Palestine; but it is practically impossible to say where the latter ends and the Arabian Desert begins.

It will be noted that this territorial definition differs in several important respects from that laid down for the British mandate only a few years later. For the writer, it clearly includes the east bank of the Jordan as part of Palestine – common usage at the time. In addition, it includes what is now southern Lebanon but excludes the Negev Desert and its extension southwards.

And he ends his article thus:

The Palestine entity, formally established and defined by Britain, was formally abolished in 1948 with the termination of the Mandate. The subsequent history of the idea of Palestine is another story. [emphasis added]

And that takes us back full circle to the beginning of this article.

Just out of curiosity I wondered what I would find if I searched the word “historic” attached to the names of other places under contention today. I will give just two examples of what I found.

Historic Kashmir

In his paper on the rights of the Kashmiri people to self determination, Swastik Bushan Singh defined “historic Kashmir”:

… (1) a definable territory with a history of independence or self-governance; (2) a distinct culture; and (3) the will and capability to restore self-governance. The area had a long history of self-governance pre-dating the colonial period.16 In this regard it is revealing that under British colonial rule, Kashmir was granted internal autonomy. The territory of Kashmir has been clearly defined for centuries.17

Regarding cultural uniqueness, the Kashmiri people speak Kashmiri, which, while enjoying Sanskrit as a root language as do all Indo-European languages, is clearly a separate language from either Hindi or other languages spoken in India or Urdu or other languages spoken in Pakistan.18 The Kashmiri culture is similarly distinct from other cultures in the area in all respects –folklore, dress, traditions, and cuisine. Even every day artifacts such as cooking pots, jewelry have the unique Kashmiri style.

Historic Armenia

Contemporary economic viability of the agricultural sector in Armenia was examined by business professors within the context of Armenian history. Here is how they describe “historic Armenia”:

Armenia is one of the most ancient countries in the world, existing since the times of Babylon, Assyria and Egypt. In 301 AD, Armenia became the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion (De-caye and Iskandaryan, 2000).

According to the History of the Armenians by Movses Khorenatsi, in 2107 B.C. the legendary archer, Haik, defeated the army of the Assyrian King Belus and established the first Armenian kingdom. In 1824 B.C., the Armenian princedoms united and came under one authority thus giving birth to the geographic and political concept of Armenia. The first indications of Armenia can be traced in Sumerian cuneiform inscriptions dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C., and the Hittites testify to the existence of a country called Hayasa, which is believed to be the cradle of Armenia. The legendary country consisted of kingdoms of over 60 tribes and included hundreds of towns. The Armenian kingdom is referred to as Ararat kingdom in the Bible. Archeological excavations in the 1950s on the Arin Berd hill within Yerevan city limits revealed a unique and highly developed civilization in the Araratian kingdom of Urartu (Ararat) (Ministry of Industry and Trade, 1998, p. 3).

Compare these with “historic Palestine” which apparently dates back “as far as” 1948 or at most 1920. And compare the description of the Kashmiri and Armenian people with the “Palestinians”, the latter of which is unique among those who call themselves a “people” for having no language of their own, no culture distinct from that of their Arab neighbors, and did not even call themselves Palestinians until the Jews threatened their peace of mind with the audacity of returning to their indigenous homeland and seeking sovereignty over it.

“Historic Palestine” indeed!

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Sheri Oz, owner of www.israeldiaries.com, is a retired family therapist exploring mutual interactions between politics and Israeli society.