A Genealogy of the Idea of ‘Palestine’

The Genealogy of Ideas is the history of the evolution of thought around any particular subject. 

It is part of the larger subfields of Cultural and Intellectual History. However, it touches upon every aspect of the field, such as Social History, Military History, Economic History, etc.. What distinguishes the History of Ideas from other categories is that it traces how various people thought about the object of discussion and how those ideas influenced behavior.

The history of the notion of “Palestine” spans millennia and evolved continually from the ancient Greeks to the Romans, to Christianity in the Middle Ages, to 19th century European Zionism, to the Arab states in their alliance with the Soviet Union in the 20th century, and, finally, to the western-left following the 6-Day War of 1967. It was after that moment that the western-left adopted Arab notions of “Palestinian” indigeneity to Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel), thereby validating and financing the long Arab-Muslim War against the Jews of the Middle East.

The Jewish Presence – Pre-History, the Bible, and the Babylonian Exile of 587 BCE:

The Jewish experience in Canaan precedes formal history. The early Jews, much like the early Muslims, had no notion of “Palestine” until it was foisted upon the people by Emperor Hadrian and the Romans in the 2nd century CE and then, later, by the European Christians in the early Medieval period. No Jew, from the time of Abraham through until the Jewish nation’s defeat and scattering by the Romans, considered themselves “Palestinian.” The Philistines, however, they were certainly well-aware of.

Although the Philistines are referred to numerous times in the Hebrew Bible, even the ancient Egyptians were aware of their presence as we know from reliefs at the Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu. The Hebrew Bible, of course, is not a historical text in the way professional historians think of such work. Rather, it is a primary source from which historians draw, but do not consider definitive. The Bible is an early attempt at the writing of history and tells us much about the Jewish people. 

The Israelites encountered the Philistines in the Biblical account when they entered Canaan. The Philistines preceded the Israelites, who followed Moses and Joshua out of slavery in Egypt to the “Promised Land.” Each considered the other a hostile power because, in a conflict over land and, thus, the means for survival, they were enemies. 

In Genesis 21-22, we read of Abraham and Isaac and their dealings with Abimelech (a generic Biblical name for all kings of the Philistines) and their negotiations and treaties. Just as Abraham prayed for peace between his eldest son, Ishmael, child of Hagar, (his concubine) and his son Isaac, so he prayed for peace between the Israelites and the Philistines.

In any case, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the Philistine city of Ashkelon in 604 BCE, wiping the Philistines off the face of the planet. The Jews were a bit luckier. In 587 the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, resulting in what history knows as the Babylonian Exile. But the Jews survived the Babylonians. The Philistines did not.

The Ancient Greeks – 5th Century BCE:

The Philistines, as an Aegean people, were kin to the Greeks. The Greek Reporter tells us:

“Philistines were very likely of Greek origin, according to a recent DNA study that traces the origins of the ancient villains in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This is actually the first study of DNA recovered from an ancient Philistine cemetery, as scientists wanted to find the roots of the infamous people of the Hebrew Bible, according to a report in National Geographic.

It is therefore not particularly surprising, that the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus (484 – 425 BCE), is the first person in recorded history to use the term “Palestine” as a geographical location. 

As he was writing during the Babylonian Captivity, he makes no reference to the Land of Israel, however as we read in the text of the Histories, he refers to “Palestine” nine times. 

In The Fifth Book of the Histories, Called Terpsichore, Herodotus tells us that, “the sea coast of Syria; and this part of Syria and all as far as Egypt is called Palestine.” 

In The Fourth Book of the Histories, Called Melpomene, he further claims:

Now in the line stretching to Phoenicia from the land of the Persians the land is broad and the space abundant, but after Phoenicia this peninsula goes by the shore of our Sea along Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, where it ends; and in it there are three nations only.

One thing is clear. At no point in the Histories are the people of “Palestine” ever represented as Arab. They certainly could not be Muslim because Muhammad was not born for many centuries to come.

Despite Arab claims to the contrary, contemporary “Palestinians” have no historical connection to either the land conquered by the Philistines, nor Canaan more generally, as their forbearers largely remained within the Arabian Peninsula until shortly after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE. This marks the beginnings of the Arab colonial period, defined by the conquest of the Middle East and the defeat of the Byzantine Empire.

The Romans – Early in the Common Era:

Were it not for the ancient Romans, it is likely that the word “Palestinian” would have disappeared from human lips long ago. For the Romans the idea of “Palestine” very specifically referred to the Philistines, which is precisely why Emperor Hadrian, upon the defeat of the Bar Kochba Rebellion (132–136 CE), renamed Eretz Israel as Syria Palaestina. The idea was not merely to humiliate the defeated Israelites by naming their land after its ancient enemies, but to erase Jewish history entirely. Hadrian thus set a precedent later duplicated by the Arabs and their western-left allies to seek erasure of Jewish history on Jewish land.

Despite Arab claims to the contrary, contemporary “Palestinians” have no historical connection to either the land conquered by the Philistines, nor Canaan more generally, as their forbearers largely remained within the Arabian Peninsula until shortly after the death of Muhammad in 632 CE.

During the Roman conquest of the Jewish people many of the Jews who were not slaughtered or crucified were led in chains to Rome, where surprisingly:

… the Jewish community in Rome grew very rapidly. The Jews who were taken to Rome as prisoners were either ransomed by their coreligionists or set free by their Roman masters, who found their peculiar custom obnoxious. They settled as traders on the right bank of the Tiber, and thus originated the Jewish quarter in Rome.

According to Lucius Cassius Dio (155 – 235 CE), a Roman historian and senator:

Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out. Thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate, a result of which the people had had forewarning before the war. For the tomb of Solomon, which the Jews regard as an object of veneration, fell to pieces of itself and collapsed, and many wolves and hyenas rushed howling into their cities.

The significant point in terms of the genealogy of the idea of “Palestine,” however, is that the Roman conquest represents the key moment whereby Israel became “Palestine.” Although they failed to wipe out the Jewish people, as the Persians erased the Philistines, they did manage to plant the seed that turned the Jews into “Palestinians.” Any semi-educated Roman understood that the Philistines were long gone by the time Hadrian dragged thousands of Jews to the Rome.

But even they understood that the “Palestinians” were not Arabs. And despite the change of name to Syria Palaestina, everyone understood from that moment until well into the 20th century that inhabitants of “Palestine” were primarily Jews.

The Rise of Christian Europe – The Early Medieval Period to the Crusades:

Following the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, and with the rise of Christian Europe, the idea of “Palestine” took on new meaning. No longer was “Palestine” merely a contemptuous Roman label meant to demean the Jewish people and eliminate Jewish history. Rather, it became an idealized place of religious yearning, often referred to as “The Holy Land.” Church historian and Bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius (263 – 339 CE) represents the first recorded usage of the word “Palestine” within the Medieval European Christian context. He wrote, History of the Martyrs of Palestine thereby unintentionally advancing a malicious Roman usage of the name. From that day to this, “Palestine” or “The Holy Land” has been in regular employment in the West and it was always understood to be the land of the Jewish people and the place where Jesus walked.

Despite the change of name to Syria Palaestina, everyone understood from that moment until well into the 20th century that inhabitants of “Palestine” were primarily Jews.

To a Medieval Christian, the notion that “Palestine” referred to a land indigenous to Arabs and Muslims would have been entirely preposterous, and from a historical perspective even the most illiterate, half-starved, serf would have been entirely correct. Everyone in Christian Europe understood “Palestine” or “The Holy Land” to be the land of their savior, Jesus Christ, who was a Jew believed to have been betrayed by other Jews. This concept goes to the very heart of the Christian faith. Were it not for the betrayal by Judas and, thus, the crucifixion of Christ, there could be no Salvation, nor the advent of Christianity itself. That it was Jewish land, however, was never in doubt. 

During the Crusades, in retaliation for the Muslim conquests of the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Jihad into Europe until halted at “The Gates of Vienna,” the Church sought to claim Jerusalem for itself. But the Crusaders understood, despite their slaughter of the Jews – as a mere interim exercise on their quest to trounce the Islamic Empire – that the land of Jesus was Jewish land at the time of Christ. The Crusaders had no soft and squishy collegial sensibilities with regards other peoples. They wanted, quite simply, to replace the Muslims with the People of Jesus. They longed with religious fervor to stomp out the Muslim conquerors and replace them with the Christian conquerors. That the land had once been Jewish was not relevant to the effort, but it was also not denied. The ones with any education understood that “Palestine” had been the land of the Jews, but why would that fact deter their goal? 

Naturally, it did not. From that day through until most of the 20th century “Palestine” was always understood to be the historical homeland of the Jewish people.

Muhammad and the Quran – Early 7th century:

Despite contemporary ahistorical Arab-Muslim claims to an ancient Palestinian nation that long preceded the rise of the Roman Empire, there is no reference to any such place known as “Palestine” in the Quran. There is, in fact, not even a direct reference to the city of Jerusalem in that book, and Muhammad never once left the Arabian Peninsula and therefore never put a toe in that city. 

Islam today claims that the al-Aqsa Mosque, in Jerusalem, is the ‘third holiest site in Islam.’ It does so because Muhammad is said to have, upon his death, ascended to Paradise on horseback, at the site of the “Farthest Mosque” in what is known as The Night Journey. Contemporary Muslims generally believe this mosque was in Jerusalem, even though there were no mosques in Jerusalem in the year 632, the year of Muhammad’s passing. 

It must be understood that religious mythology, while holding great meaning in the lives of believers, does not constitute historical truth. Nor should it, because that is not its function. As the famous 20th century mythologist, Joseph Campbell, said:

Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth—penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words.

Mythology is poetry. Muhammad’s Night Journey is religious poetry, perhaps even beautiful religious poetry, but it has nothing to do with historical truth. In much the same way the romantic notion of an ancient (Arab) “Palestine” is likewise mythology, but in the case of “Palestine” it is not even referred to in the Hadiths

Even contemporary sources, such as the pro-Palestinian / Jihadi organization Islamweb.net admits this. In a post titled, “Qur’anic verses about war between Israel and Palestine” we read, “The Hadith does not mention Palestine by the name, so this war will be general, i.e. in Palestine and everywhere else.” The Hadiths are Shia and Sunni religious texts, usually thought compiled around the 8th or 9th century, that describe the behavior of Muhammad, allegedly from eyewitness sources. They serve as examples to Muslims on how best to behave to exemplify Muhammad’s principles. “Palestine” is not referenced in the Hadiths, because it is not referenced in the Quran. It is not referenced in either because there was no “Palestinian-Arab” place in history until the United Nations formalized the notion

The Jewish Presence – The First Aliyah:

Theodore Herzl and the First Zionist Congress encouraged and promoted the First Aliyah, the wave of immigration from Europe to Israel in 1881 – 1903, for the Jews chased out of the Pale of Settlement by the pogroms and general Eastern European hostility. This requires very little emphasis because it is so obvious. For millennia, from the time of Bar Kochba until the late 19th century, after being slaughtered and forcibly removed from their homeland, the Jews were the world’s most famous wanderers. The “Wandering Jew” was a popular cliché throughout Europe and the West. The rootless Jew was a villain in the common imagination of many western nations. The Jews who made Aliyah at the end of the 19th century were determined to re-establish themselves in their ancestral homeland. At the time, even the Arabs had no concept of “Palestine” as distinctly Muslim land, other than by right of earlier conquest. It was simply one bit of land among many other much larger parcels that they had taken through Jihad and that, therefore, must always remain Muslim per theological decree. It was only as diaspora Jews returned to the Land of Israel that the Muslim leadership decided that Jerusalem was their third holiest site. Prior to that, some small numbers of Muslims and Arabs made a home for themselves there, but its religious significance was minor. Within the Ottoman Empire it was a backwater.

A glance at this 1875 photograph of the Dome of the Rock speaks volumes:

Dome of the Rock

It was desolate and overgrown with weeds, which would hardly befit the “Third Holiest Place in Islam.” Of course, at the time, the Dome of the Rock, built upon the Second Jewish temple, was not the Third Holiest anything to anyone. The notion that the Temple Mount was holy to Arabs was simply politics and not the least bit reflective of Arab feelings. 

Such a notion, in the long genealogical march of the idea of “Palestine” from Herodotus and Hadrian was definitely not gospel to the approximately 25,000 Jewish people who arrived in Zion under miserable physical and financial conditions during this period. The land was overgrown, untended, filled with swamp, mosquitos, and malaria. Were it not for the generosity of the famous Rothschild family, and its head, the Baron Edmond De Rothschild (1845 – 1934), it is likely that the First Aliyah would have died.  Instead, as Jews cleared land and set up settlements and towns, Arab peasants from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire began to immigrate to the land, too. 

The British and the Mandate following World War I:

This began to change following the Ottoman defeat in World War 1, by the Allied Powers of France, Britain, Russia, and the United States. In the negotiations after the war, the Mandate of Palestine (full-text) was established as a British protectorate under the League of Nations, thereby maintaining the western inclination toward the idea of (Jewish)“Palestine.” Herodotus (for innocent reasons) and Hadrian (for malicious reasons) dubbed Israel “Palestine” and so “Palestine” it remained. Of course, the post-war San Remo Conference of 1920, divvied up the Ottoman corpse among the European powers, while the text outlining the British Mandate of Palestine called very specifically, following the Balfour Declaration of 1917, for the “close settlement by Jews on the land.” The British immediately violated the Mandate by chopping off three-quarters of it as a gift to the Hashemites – descendants of the Prophet — who created the state of Trans-Jordan (now Jordan).

But even then, the truncated land delegated for the Mandate of Palestine was understood to be the land of the Jews who were giving the British migraines in their determination to continue Aliyah and to settle their own homeland whether anyone liked it or not. The Brits did not particularly like it and neither, obviously, did the Arabs who objected to any Jewish presence unless those Jews conformed to their traditional role of dhimmi with severely limited rights. The Jew among them as subservient they could stomach. The Jew among them as equal, they could not. 

Following the war Aliyah continued and the Jewish people – along with some Arabs, it should be noted – went about building the political, financial, industrial, agricultural, and transportation infrastructure of what would become recognized by the United Nations as the Jewish State of Israel, in Resolution 181, 1948. It should also be noted that the United Nations emphatically did not create the State of Israel. It merely acknowledged the condition of statehood that the Jews had constructed for themselves. 

The Arabs in the 20th Century:

Beneath the Arab surface, however, some Arab Christian intellectuals had already, by the late 19th century, floated the idea of a distinct “Palestinian” nationality. Your average local Arab would not have been aware of any such notion of “Palestinian” nationalism. And the opportunity did not arise until after David Ben-Gurion dubbed the Jewish reclamation of Jewish land Israel (or “He Who Struggles with God” – Genesis 32:28) that the local Arab population could later take up the banner of “Palestine.” 

It should also be noted that the United Nations emphatically did not create the State of Israel. It merely acknowledged the condition of statehood that the Jews had constructed for themselves.

In 1964, Yasser Arafat created the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). They not only insisted upon the ahistorical notion of an ancient “Palestinian” people struggling against Jewish usurpers, but with some helpful advice from the Soviet Union, suggested that Zionism was contemporary Nazism. In other words, they convinced some Western youth that fighting Jewish self-determination in the wake of the Holocaust was actually a fight against a Nazi-like evil. In the effort to demonize the Jews of Israel, the local Arabs in coordination with the Western press, developed what we call “Pallywood.” Pallywood was (and is) staged productions, or highly edited video footage, designed to malign Israel for the purpose of encouraging hatred against, and the eventual dissolution of the Jewish state. This encouraged idealistic western progressives to justify their venom for the Jewish state, and the Jewish people, as a righteous fight against contemporary fascism. Essentially, this is a genocidal project because, were it to succeed, it would leave the seven million Jews in Israel at the mercy of the over four hundred million Muslim-Arabs surrounding them. History very clearly suggests that any such eventuality would lead to the slaughter of those Jews. 

Nonetheless, throughout most of the 1960s, the local Arabs considered themselves Arabs, or often Syrians, but not “Palestinians” because in their experience that referred to the Jewish people, their traditional social inferiors. Many local Arab-Muslims despised the Jewish “Palestinians” because they refused to know their place under Islam.

All of this changed after the 6-Day-War of 1967. It was only after it became clear that the Jewish Israelis would not be so easily removed from the land that Yassir Arafat’s project began to reap significant fruit among the general Arab population who expropriated the name “Palestinians” for themselves as a distinct people.

This history of ideas teaches, among other things, how quickly people can be persuaded to believe virtually anything if the powers-that-be promote an idea, and one’s family and social circle embrace it. So, it was with the Arabs of the former Mandate. Within a very brief period after the Six Day War, a majority of Israeli Arabs  came to think of themselves as “Palestinians,” an allegedly ancient Muslim people. The local Arabs, encouraged by the Soviet Union and then by the western left, took up the notion of an ancient “Palestinian people.” The idea of an ancient “Palestinian” people became so widespread that the Palestinian Board of Tourism claimed (with a straight-face) – as we learn in Ryan Bellerose’s work in this volume –  an amazingly venerable “1 million years of Palestinian history” on this tiny strip of land.

The truth, however, was told by PLO executive committee member, Zahir Muhsein, in 1977, when he said:

“The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity… In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese.”

[ Michael Lumish ]