One of the more irritating and frankly offensive developments in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war has been the infection of the public discourse by the word “Palestine.” Slogans like “free Palestine” and the openly genocidal “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” are now common, and many otherwise well-meaning people refer to “Palestine” without giving it a second thought.
At first glance, this can seem relatively benign. To many, “Palestine” simply refers to a controversial region of the world. Certainly, activists can use it in a tendentious and strident manner, but this is true of most political rhetoric. Why not let the ultras have their fun?
This is a comforting delusion, but it is a delusion all the same. The truth is that “Palestine” is a monstrous term, the product of a history of genocidal violence that dates back some 2,000 years.
While “Palestina” has been used as a general reference to parts of the Levant since antiquity, it did not become the official designation of a demarcated territory until the second century C.E. as the culmination of an exterminationist war against the Jews.
In 132 CE, the Jews of Judea rose up against their Roman oppressors for the second time in a century. In the initial stages of what has come to be called the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Romans got the worst of it. So the legions adjusted their strategy. Rather than concentrate on suppressing the rebels, the Romans decided to destroy the entire Jewish population of the Land of Israel.
The results were horrific. Ancient historian Cassius Dio wrote of the Jews: “50 of their most important outposts and 985 of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. 580,000 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 Judea was made desolate.”
The early Christian historian Eusebius confirmed Dio’s narrative, writing succinctly, “Jerusalem was completely destroyed and the Jewish nation was massacred in large groups at a time, with the result that they were even expelled from the borders of Judea.”
The Talmud states simply, “For seven years the gentiles fertilized their vineyards with the blood of Israel.”
It was only then that the Land of Israel was officially given the name “Palestina,” replacing the term “Judea.” Clearly, the Romans were making a point: Judea, they were saying, is dead; and it is dead because its people dared to challenge the power of Rome. The word “Palestina” was, in effect, the last nail in the crucifixion of a people. It was genocide.
The same is true today. This is proved by the simple fact that “Palestine” does not exist. That is, there is no sovereign nation-state called “Palestine.” Nor, in fact, has there ever been one. To refer to “Palestine” as if such a nation did exist is rather like referring to France as “Gaul” or Iraq as “Babylon.”
The only reason to use the term is as a statement of intention. That is, people refer to the Land of Israel as “Palestine” in order to assert that the real country on that land—the Jewish state—should not exist and that eventually, through their efforts, it will not.
In this sense, “Palestine” is not a geographic term but a weapon. It is used to imply that any country in the Land of Israel other than “Palestine” is so illegitimate that its name cannot be uttered. Instead, it must be replaced, in classic imperialist fashion, with a term preferred by foreigners.
This sinister absurdity may reach its apex in the risible term “Israel/Palestine.” This is a remarkable formulation that succeeds in a) putting an existing country on equal footing with a nonexistent one, and b) delegitimizing the existence of the former by designating it as nothing more than one-half of a fantastical entity.
This is especially specious because not even the most fanatical Palestinian ultra-nationalists believe in “Israel/Palestine.” They make no attempt to conceal what the word “Palestine” means to them: An Arab supremacist state “from the river to sea” that has erased its Jews as effectively as its Roman predecessors did. To them, like the Romans, “Palestine” is genocide.
Even those who claim to advocate a binational “Israel/Palestine” are not innocent. They are very clear about the fact that this binational entity will preclude the existence of a Jewish state. Given that “Israel” is the name of the existing Jewish state that is to be precluded, it is obvious that “Israel/Palestine” will at best render the “Israel” half of the term irrelevant.
In practical terms, moreover, all the binationalists acknowledge that their state will have an Arab majority or quickly acquire one through the “return” of the descendants of Palestinian refugees. In other words, “Israel/Palestine” will be “Palestine” in all but name.
It is true that, while of fairly recent vintage, Palestinian nationalism as we know it today is a genuine nationalism, and those who subscribe to it sincerely believe that the Land of Israel is a “Palestine” to which they have an absolute right. But today’s Palestinian national identity, one regrets to say, is inextricably tied to its name’s long tradition—dating back to ancient Rome—of dispossessing and annihilating the Jews. This is simply what “Palestine” has always been: A negation of Jewish rights, Jewish history, and Jewish existence.
All of this may seem pointless nitpicking. Political terms and slogans come and go; they are usually disingenuous or simply silly, and we should not expend too much effort debunking them, if only because another will always arise in short order.
Unfortunately, this is not true. Deconstructing “Palestine” is not nitpicking but an absolute moral imperative, because the long and bitter legacy of “Palestine” provides an object lesson in how genocides happen. It teaches us that such atrocities never occur spontaneously. The writ is always drawn up beforehand. Words must precede the bloody work of extermination. The history of humanity is littered with these demonic words. “Palestine” is one of them.