Israel or Palestine? Does it Matter?
For such a small place, why does the land of the Bible have so many names? Is it Israel or Palestine? In this short video, Director Nic Lesmeister, Gateway Center for Israel, unpacks the historical timeline behind these often weaponized names, and helps us navigate what it means today.
This video appears inMiddle East Conflict
Why is the land that is commonly referred to as Israel, also called Palestine? You read this a lot in the media. It’s the Land of Palestine. No, it’s the land of Israel. A lot of people want to go to even verbal war over whether or not one title is true over the other. Well, where does this idea or term “Palestine” come from? That’s a great question.
The land of the Bible, which is the current area of the nation-state of Israel, was for a long time called Palestine. We just have to acknowledge that that was for real. That really happened. So then we ask the question, where did that come from? Because we know by reading our Bible that it was known originally as the land of Canaan. When God speaks to Abraham, he says, get up and go to the land that I will show you, the land of Canaan. Over time, it becomes known as the land of Israel, and at the time of David, when he establishes his kingdom, it’s well-documented in archeological evidence that it’s known as the Kingdom of Israel.
So when did it become Palestine? Why did it become Palestine? In the 12th century, a group of people called the Philistines migrated from the coastal Mediterranean regions of Europe to the area of the Middle East that was at that time David’s kingdom of Israel, the land of Israel. Now, these people were called the Philistines. If you’ve read your Bible, you know the Philistines are the arch enemy of King David and the arch enemy of the Israelites. In fact, if you look it up in your dictionary right now, Philistine is literally translated as, or the meaning of it is, like an uncouth, barbaric person. These people were brutal and they went to war with David. So the area that they lived in, which was right on the coast of the land of Israel, is now where the land of Gaza is, the Gaza Strip. This was called the Philistine territory. So this little sliver of land where the Philistines lived in Hebrew is called Paleshet, or in Egyptian Paleset, or in Assyrian Palashtu. This was the area that the Philistines lived in.
Now, by the time that the Greeks come on the scene in the fifth century, they sent a historian. He took a road trip. His name was Herodotus, and he went through this whole area of the Levant, and he began to just write a journal about everything that he was seeing. And interestingly, he started to use the term Palestina, Syria Palestina, as a reference to this land in this area. Now, where all this starts to come together is the Romans obviously conquer the Greeks. They take over the land of Judea where the Jews now live and where Jerusalem is. Now they didn’t have a very good relationship with the Jewish people, and the Jewish people didn’t really like the Romans being over the top of them. This led to the destruction of the temple in AD 70 because the Romans were trying to crush the Jewish uprisings. After that took place, there was one last uprising that most people don’t know about in 135 CE or AD. This was called the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Bar Kokhba led a hundred thousand Jewish warriors, one final siege against the Romans, and the Romans put ’em down. The Romans at this point were so tired of the Jewish people that the Emperor Hadrian at the time decided, I’m going to take away the name of your city. I’m going to ban you from coming to that place, and I’m going to rename the kingdom and land of Judah to erase you from the map. What did he name the area? Syria Palestina, because he loved Greek culture and he borrowed this term from the Greeks.
Now, over the course of history, after 135 CE all the way up into the 1800’s, most people at that time who were living in that area, whether they became Muslims in the 700’s and onward, or they were even still Jews living in that land, were referred to as Palestinians. In fact, Emmanuel Kant, a German philosopher, published a book that was very popular in the mid, mid 1800’s, and he talks negatively about Jews living in Germany by calling them Palestinians among us. So this was just a common term at that point. Where this all begins to change, of course, is when the Jewish people began to come back to the land of Israel in the 1800’s by the motivation of God and begin to reclaim this indigenous homeland that God gave to their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And they decide, obviously, this is the land of the Jewish people. This is the land of Israel. And so then the land of Israel becomes once again the name that connotates this part of the Middle East, taking over the term Palestine when Israel declares its independence in 1948.
Now, I want to end with this. A lot of people talk about the Palestinian people and they like to claim that they’re a made up people, that Palestine is a made up term because it’s something that the Arab world is trying to use to discredit the Jewish people. I just want to say, please don’t do that. That’s just not an accurate way of looking at history. It was clearly called the Land of Palestine. Now, of course, it was done in a way that was negative to the Jewish people, but let’s not try to erase history just so that we can make a point that we love and support the Jewish people. I think they can defend themselves on their own. But the bottom line is the land of the Bible is the land of Israel, the modern nation state of Israel, and the area that was once referred to as Palestine is no longer referred to as such because it’s the land of Israel, the land that God gave to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his descendants as an eternal gift in his covenant to them.