Socratic Palestine

Came across this column, “A Palestine by any other name”, by A. Trevor Hodge (1930-2012), then a retired Professor of Classics of Carleton University. Published in the “Argument & Observation” page of the Ottawa Citizen, May 4, 1999, p. A17. Extracted as follows:

…So where did the idea of Palestine as a political entity come from? The name was used by the Romans to refer to the Gaza Strip, which they saw as a sort of sub-division of the Roman province of Syria. There, Jews, Arabs and Romans managed to rub along together on the basis of tolerance and acceptance. This broke down when, in two wars (66-67 AD and 131-4), the Romans, in what a modern Middle Eastern leader would probably call The Mother of All Ethnic Cleansing, got rid of all of the Jews. They did it chiefly by massacre, and took to applying the name Palestine to the whole area, previously called Judaea and centered on Jerusalem, as a visible sign that the place was Under New Management.

This was how “Palestine” came to be extended from the Gaza Strip to cover loosely what later ages took to calling “The Holy Land”. It may be noted that the Arabs had nothing to do with this, for at this time “The Arabs” in our sense of the term, did not exist. The sense of Arab identity and coherent unity came six centuries later, one of the great achievements of Mohammed.

As for the word “Palestine”, it’s neither Arabic nor Hebrew, but, of all things, Classical Greek, apparently invented by the Greeks in a rough translation of “Philistines”. The Philistines lived in the Gaza Strip and, as any reader of the Bible knows, were familiar (some might say all to familiar) to everybody around them. Indeed to demonstrate the power of a word, one need only substitute the modern spelling of their name (i.e. Palestinians) in certain verses of the Bible, and gasp at what one hath wrought: “And the Palestinians drew near to battle against Israel, but the Lord thundered…” (1 Samuel 7). This is what the Bible says and is presumably an accurate account of what happened, but I wouldn’t advise you to go round the Middle East repeating it.

Over the years, “Palestine’ has referred to practically anything, from the Gaza Strip to the enormous Palestine of the British mandate, which included the whole of modern Jordan and went half-way to Baghdad, while to Syrians, Palestine has hardly existed, being always regarded as intrinsically part of Syria.

Nationally too, the picture is confused. Nobody looking at the Palestinians today could deny them a clear national identity, but it is very recent, dating only from the foundation of Israel. Palestine has never been and actual country, and spent most of its life as a minor province of the Ottoman Empire. The region came on the real estate market when the Turks lost the First World War, and was taken over by the British, under mandate, the intention being largely to keep the French away from the Suez canal.

Everybody in this British Palestine were officially Palestinians. Even Golda Meir, the former leader of Israel, proudly claimed that she was a Palestinian and had an identity card, issued by the British, that said so. One can only hope that Mr. Netanyahu, in response to a declaration of Palestinian independence, does not pull the same trick.

All of which does not really help us to understand the historical turmoil that is the Middle East, but if it teaches us that it is not as simple as we thought, that at least ought to please Socrates. He always maintained that he was the smartest man in Athens, because he knew nothing about anything and realized it, while everybody else seemed to be in the same state, but didn’t. So, to a philosopher, an acknowledged state of mental muddle on current events in the Middle East must stand as a milestone of intellectual progress.

Knowledge of history adding so much. Ideas expressed adding so much. Permanent currency.

About brucelarochelle
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