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What's in a name? When "Israel" becomes a dirty word

Photo by Dominic Greyer

I have a very special and precious friend. Her name is Basma and she’s an American from a white, middle class background, who converted to Islam and moved to the Middle East. She’s precious both because she’s a lovely person (I was fortunate enough to host her when she visited Tel-Aviv) and because she provides me with an invaluable political challenge. Basma’s anti-Zionist position is unyielding and staunch. Her commitment to the Palestinian cause makes my own politics seem Liebermanian by comparison.

Like me, Basma is appaled by the wrongs of the occupation. Unlike me, she sees both sides of the Green Line as being equally occupied. In all Truth, we share more than it would seem. Basma may be radical and angry but she isn’t unaccepting, or I would have been deleted from her list of Facebook friends a long time ago. I’m still there and we exchange comments and read each other’s status updates. Yesterday she posted the following one:

If I have to hear another foreigner in Amman talking about their plans “to go to ‘Israel’ for Eid,” somebody might die. If you’re going to come study or work here, then at least try to figure out what’s really going on here. If you’re a Zionist and aren’t willing to question it, go back to wherever you came from, yalla bye bye.

I took a minute to think about this and then posted a long response. I was later encouraged by Dimi Reider to post it here, not because he thought it was oh-so-cleaver, I’m sure, since it’s just as hastily written and casual as any remark made in a Facebook dialogue, but because Basma opened up an important issue and it’s worth being developed.

Here’s what I wrote:

‎”Eretz-Yisrael” (land of Israel) Is a term that has been used thousands of years before the invention of Zionism. Did Zionism delegitimize it to the point that it must be placed under a taboo? Can a country have two names or more? Am I “Israeli”? if not, what am I? If I am Israeli, yet Israel is not a legitimate term, then what is my home? If I was born here and my parents were born here and this land is Palestine, am I “Palestinian”? When asked where I am from, what should I say? What should I think of the Jordanian cab driver, who, mistaking me for an American tourist, praised the marvels of “Israel”? May I use the term “Palestine” when speaking of the West Bank, or even of the entire territory, despite the fact that Palestine is not yet a soverign state and using this term may create a skewed impression, as if the struggle for it is over? I can ask thousends of such questions, I ask them of myself every day.

I’ll add a story. There’s a city in Northern Ireland that’s referred to as “Derry” by Catholics and Republic of Ireland, and “Londonderry” by Protestants and the British government. It’s a charged place, where the events of Bloody Sunday took place, and the name is a charged matter. I knew a Catholic guy who in the 90s drove up from the republic to a concert in that town and was stopped by the British border police. They asked him where he’s headed and when he said “Derry” they told him no such place exists and sent him back.

I can understand the point of view from which “Israel” shouldn’t exist and doesn’t. I think perhaps for you, as a foreign pro-Palestinian activist, the answers may be a little more clear cut than they are for me. They aren’t for me. I struggle with these questions a lot. In any case, I don’t place taboo on words nor take any name for granted. I try to use “Palestine” as often as I can, even in situations here where people don’t expect to hear it and don’t know quite how to deal with heaving just heard the country named that. What’s in a name? A lot.

I won’t add many words here, since I’ve already taken up far more verbal room than did the other voice in this dialogue. It’s left to you, dear reader, to ponder these many questions and make up your mind. I’ll leave you with a good tune to which to muse. It was written by Bobby Sands, a man who took the struggle for liberation as seriously as Basma does.


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    1. I’ve been saying that for years, The unlucky name Israel is the name of the looser, the old clumsy kingdom, that made all possible political mistakes, and entered into all possible troubles. We have to rename Israel by the name Haim, the old Ashkenazy custom, to confuse the sheidim v’rukhot.
      Meshane shem, meshane mazal.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Toni

      You are absolutely right, although I also wonder if you, like me, have a tendency to go too far in your self-questioning. It seems that most Israelis either go too far or not far enough. Perhaps because a middle path that acknowledges the validity of both histories and realities has not yet been articulated.

      I was similiarly challenged by a European ‘pro-Palestinian’ activist when I mentioned the Hebrew place name, Betlekhem. She tried to correct me, with the Arabic name, “Betlaham”. I felt that she has no right to silence or erase my language. I grew up walking on “Betlekhem Way” (the road in Jerusalem leading to Bethlehem) and the word “Betlekhem” is both part of my ancient heritage and my modern everyday vocabularly. The word does not deny the fact that Palestinians live under occupation in this town. My Palestinian friends have never taken issue if I use Hebrew place names. I also pronounce the ‘s’ at the end of “Paris” and I don’t think anyone’s ever suspected me of trying to colonise or ethnically cleanse France. Language is indeed political, but it is violent to censure any tongue.

      This is why I do tell people I’m from/visiting “Israel-Palestine”, which, as you imply, usually disarms Jews. I say this, not to deny that Palestine is occupied, but to acknowledge that Israelis and Palestinians both live there and both Israel and Palestine are real, concrete everyday facts regardless of your morality, politics or identity. The hyphen is to include both and not to pose Israel and Palestine as mutually exclusive.

      The Palestinians have suffered a terrible injustice at the hands of Israel, the West and the Arab world. But a focus purely on the past, which blames Israel for everything and denies any Palestinian or other responsibility for the past, present or future will not bring about a just, sustainable peace. Replacing the Jewish population of Israel with descendents of Palestinian refugees and turning the Jews into refugees instead amounts to a base and spiteful desire for revenge. It’s racist and hardly just, peaceful, secure, moral or practical. The Palestinians who live there don’t want this either.

      The moral way to proceed with a conflict (and all conflicts are unequal) is for both sides to attempt to stop judging and start listening; to accept the other as human like you and acknowledge them on their own terms. This level of responsibility is demanded from all of us and if we take this on, our governments will not be able to sustain war and occupation any more.

      We are all vulnerable, frightened human beings and we are all implicated in the cycle of violence. Everyone is precious, even those convinced that they have a monopoly on truth, like Basma. It’s normal when you first join a group to be overzealous in your identification with them. Hopefully, when she’s more comfortable with her new identity she’ll chill out and become more accepting of others. In the meantime, I hope you stay friends and continue to gently diffuse biased, arrogant attempts to undermine you. Because Yuval, you too are precious.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Amos

      What about Abraham? He was the father of both Yishma’el and Yitzhak, so according to the myth he is our shared forfather. What if we all refer to Palestine/Israel with that name?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Yaron Ben-Ami

      I realize that, being a Zionist,I may seem to be imposing on this discussion, but hell – as a Zionist I probably seem to be imposing even if I don’t enter this discussion, so what do I care?
      In fact, insisting on using the term palestine for… the whole of the land between (roughly) the Jordan river and the Mediterrenean and between (say) Mt. Hermon and the Red Sea, is taking a very specific historical point of view, and harnessing it into a very specific political agenda, which is rather surprising, as the historical point of view in question is that of the Western powers (particularly the British) in the 19th century.
      The term Palestine, as referring for anything other than the southern coastal plain from approx. Jaffa towards Gaza, was coined by the Romans around 135 CE, specifically to extinguish the name Judah. Though the name persisted until the Arab conquest (c. 635 CE). The Arabs themselves, upon conquering the land, promptly abolished any such unified nomenclature, dividing the country into Jund Filastin (toughly the area from Nablus and to the south) and Jund Urdun (roughly from Nablus and to the north). Ever since then – and until the arrival of the British – the name Palestine came to represent, politically, only a part of the land, if that: under Ottoman rule, the land was divided into three regions – Sanjak Akka, Sanjak Balka and Sanjak Jerusalem. The Idea of the entire land as a unique entity was, in fact, reintroduced by the British – not least because the messianic Chiristian ideals of several of their leading diplomats were based on Jewish traditions.
      Insisting on the name Palestine for the whole of the land does not, therefore, have any stronger historical basis than calling it the land of Israel.
      There remains the political question. A complete negation of my right, as a third generation inhabitant of this land (many Palestinians cannot look further back) to call it my home in my own way (namely: Israel), seems to me as counterproductive as any attempt at Ideological putiry. It merely reinforces, by reflex, any apprehension I may feel about Palestinian identity. If the game is a zero sum game, then damn all other children but my own. Whatever hope there is for this land lies in the realization that a compromise must be found, not only in terms of territory and civil rights, but in terms names, terms and modes of speech.
      As for the point made about naming the current Jewish state after the ancient Northern kingdom – this was, in fact, decided a couple of days before Israel’s declaration of independence, when Yehuda Leib Fish Maimon begged Ben-Gurion not to call it by the most logical name for a state established by Zionism – namely, Zion. Ben Gurion conceded – in my opinion, wisely. This relegated the mythical name of Zion to the realm of dreams and yearnings, and bypassed the particularity of Judah in favor of the much more pluralistic Northern kingdom of Israel. In all of Judaism’s sacred books, not once is the people called Jews: Am Israel, the people of Israel, is the name used in prayer and celebration, as well as in mourning and loss. Just as I don’t expect a Palestinian to call himself or herself by any other name just because it’s source is a British whim based on Roman grudge, so I have no regard for anybody telling me not to call my self and my country by the name of my choice.

      I appologize for the long-winded answer. My people have had a lot of time to think about these things.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Yuval Ben-Ami

      No need to apologize, cousin dearest. Your knowledge certainly enriches this discussion. I find that I identify with Toni’s views and that you add an edge to both. Others offer interesting alternatives, but where are Basma’s supporters, those who think the name is simply obscene? Perhaps they do not read 972.

      Reply to Comment
    6. peter shapiro

      ok, what i want to say is that the problem is not the name, “israel”, but the state which hides itself behind the name, “israel”… that israelis and jews everywhere must free themselves from their identification, conscious and sub-conscious, and dependence on that state, its symbols, the flag, the army, the name, the power which has been given to it and which it mis-uses to maintain its existence, as for instance in lebanon, the gaza massacre, and daily in the occupied territories…that it is an abstract entity like a modern trans-national corporation–and it is deeply concerned with its brand-marks!.. that it uses its populace as a corporation uses its workers, executives and the consumers of its products to maintain its anti-life existence, but that “israel” being not a corporation but a state, exerts its power in blood death and injustice, since it must define itself as against others, the other..that if israelis and jews everywhere can shake themselves free from its grip, that a more true, just and life-supporting structure can be created…

      Reply to Comment
    7. nizar

      I don’t think that the Arabs would have a problem with the name Israel if they had equal rights under the law. I don’t have a problem at least. The battle of names is just a symbol for a different fight which is the fight over memory and rights to the land. If Palestinians had the right to go back to their lands and the historical injustice rectified then there is no problem. It can have triple names if you want. Many cities in the Levant have that in fact.

      As for the Israeli identity, I think one of the biggest problems is the exclusively Jewish character of the state which is illiberal and denies the native population its right. I understand when Palestinians try to reclaim the names. Ofcourse,especially with the attempt of Israel to change the demographic and physical space of the land of Palestine. The real problem is the racist nature of Israel that whatever we try to deny is there present in every aspect and built up of the Israeli society. This does not mean that you should leave, maybe at the contrary, you should stay and to do that you should embrace the region and justice.

      peace from Lebanon

      Reply to Comment