This land has been here longer than you and me

Even if we can’t accept each other’s historical narratives, it is still possible to acknowledge that there are both Israelis and Palestinians living here today.

By Alex Stein

Orthodox Jews look out over the Palestinian village of Silwan in East Jerusalem. (Yotam Ronen/
Orthodox Jews look out over the Palestinian village of Silwan in East Jerusalem. (Yotam Ronen/

MK Anat Berko (Likud) kicked off a storm in the Knesset last week when she pointed out that Arabic doesn’t have a ‘P’ sound, meaning that Palestinians themselves can’t pronounce Palestine (Arabic softens Ps into Fs, which is why the Arabic word for Palestine is Falastin). This led to uproar in the Knesset, with MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) shouting out “Are you for real?” and several members of the Joint List walking out. Much of the media incorrectly reported Berko as saying that, as a result of this consonant deficiency, the Palestinian nation didn’t exist. Berko clearly didn’t say that, but, given that she was speaking on the same day as Prime Minister Netanyahu once again said that the time wasn’t right for a two-state solution, it’s no surprised that there was disquiet following her remarks.

On a factual level, her point is correct. Palestine is quite clearly a pre-Arabic name for the area between the river and the sea, probably derived from Philistine, although there are some other interesting theories, including the wonderfully ironic idea that it’s actually a Greek pun on the name Israel! And while it’s clearly not particularly constructive to point such a fact out in today’s Knesset, it’s important to acknowledge the context in which such notions take on importance, namely the systematic denial of the Jewish connection to historic Israel/Palestine, most recently with repeated and ludicrous assertions that the temple never existed. At the same time, this systematic denial of Jewish history needs to be understood in the context of the ongoing failure to establish a Palestinian state.

On one level, these arguments regarding historical claims are irrelevant. Even if one thinks there was no ancient Kingdom of David or that Palestinians didn’t exist before Zionism, it’s possible to acknowledge that there are currently Israelis and Palestinians living here today. But disputes about national legitimacy cut to the bone, and in order for there to be any possibility of a lasting peace, more thought needs to be put into reconciling these historical disputes. To achieve this, we need to get beyond the competing histories of Jews and Palestinians and begin thinking more deeply about the history of the Land itself.

One of the most surprising moments during my time studying to be a tour guide came when one of our lecturers, one of the pioneers of Land of Israel Studies and by no means a radical leftist, recommended that we buy one of the books produced by Zochrot, a far left Israeli group working to promote the Palestinian right of return. He said that he didn’t support their political positions but that the book was vital for understanding the history of the Land. A fluent Arabic speaker, he had also composed a map of Israel that included forgotten Arabic place names.

Palestinians put a sign marking the destroyed village of Lajjun in northern Israel, Nakba Day, May 15, 2015. (Photo by Omar Sameer/
Palestinian citizens of Israel place a sign marking the destroyed village of Lajjun in northern Israel, May 15, 2015. (Photo by Omar Sameer/

“Between Tanakh [the Bible] and Tashach [1948]” goes the old Zionist saying, as if the intervening centuries didn’t matter. It’s particularly ironic given the important Jewish events which took place between these eras, for example the composition of the Jerusalem Talmud in Tiberias or the Golden Age of Safed. But even without these, surely love of the Land should entail a passion for all its history, even those periods in which the history was made by non-Jews? Take the example of Daher el-Omar, who ruled northern Palestine in the mid-18th century. By securing autonomy from the Ottomans, he could be regarded as a forerunner of the Palestinian national movement. At the same time, he invited Jews to resettle in Tiberias and Akko, in the hope that they would promote economic growth. In the unlikely event of a one-state solution, he’d surely be prime contender for a place on one of the banknotes. And then there’s the fact that the only reason we know the location of many of sites inhabited by Jews in ancient times is that their names weren’t changed by the Palestinians.

The Palestinian national movement has frequently denied the Jewish connection to Israel/Palestine. Sometimes this denial has been particularly ridiculous. Take the Arabic name for Al-Quds, for example. It means “the holy” and is short for “Beit al-Quds”, or “Beit Ha-Mikdash” in Hebrew, the name for the Temple. When the Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem in the seventh century, one of the first things he did was ask where Solomon’s Temple had been located. Indeed, in the first half of the 20th century, tourist brochures issued by the Waqf happily acknowledged that the Dome of the Rock was located on the site of the Solomon’s Temple, whereas now the Muslim authorities routinely deny that such a building ever existed.

Palestinian youth hold a Palestinian flag outside the Aqsa Mosque in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, East Jerusalem. (Photo: Oren Ziv/
Youth hold a Palestinian flag near al-Aqsa Mosque in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound, East Jerusalem. (Photo: Oren Ziv/

In 2016, there is no Jewish history in Israel without Palestinian history, and there is no Palestinian history in Palestine without Israeli history. Instead of using our competing claims to score political points, we should acknowledge the rich Jewish and Palestinian histories here, not to mention the histories of peoples who belonged to neither group. Acknowledging these histories should not undermine our historical claims, at least not if efforts are redoubled to build a solution around the most obvious reality; namely that two national groups share this land and there will only be a solution when both their national rights are acknowledged. I’m aware that, in the midst of what I think is best understood as an intifada of attrition, that many people will dismiss these ideas as naive, and I’m happy to admit that right now there is little chance of educators in either camp trying to move in the direction I’ve suggested. But I still think it’s the correct approach, and if a lecturer in Israeli tour guide school can recommend a Zochrot publication without the world caving in, then others can make similar gestures.

Alex Stein is a tour guide and writer based in Jerusalem. He blogs at The Blog of Disquiet and his website is