Dr. Anat Berko, politician and academic.

Dr. Anat Berko, politician and academic.


I really don’t get the NY Times, an intelligent and well-written paper that seems to fall apart when it approaches anything about Israel.

We all have our favorite “can-you-believe-the-NY-Times-published-this?” moment. For many, it was the time that a writer so twisted the words of the archaeologist that he interviewed that the archaeologist had to send in a full page retort. That infamous article is now appended with a lengthy editor’s note and correction.

But a recent piece takes the cake for frivolousness, though it may seem relatively benign. It’s titled “No ‘P’ in Arabic Means No Palestine, Israeli Lawmaker Says” and it was on the front page, right under an article on the discovery of Einstein’s gravitational waves.

The big news, almost outdoing Einstein, is that Ms. Berko, a member of Israel’s parliament, pointed out that Palestinians can’t pronounce the “P” in Palestine, because the word has Greek and Roman origins while Palestinians speak Arabic, which has no “P” sound. 

Ms. Berko’s point is unclear at best. “Palestine”–or “Falastin” to Palestinians– has developed into its own, as a unique national and cultural label. It’s wrong to deny modern Palestinian identity, if that’s what Ms. Berko was trying to do.

But there’s something disturbing in the way the NY Times pounces on the moment with childish glee and with little journalistic integrity.

The paper offers a dismissive explanation of Berko’s remark:

“The name “Palestine” is a borrowed term, Ms. Berko said, presumably referring to the ancient Greek “Palaistine” and the Syria-Palaestina of the Roman era.”

Ms. Berko is presumably referring to those things, but we’ll never know because the above sentence is all that the paper offers about this linguistic connection. The article fails to address this connection’s historical veracity and its import–or lack of import–for the conflict. Instead, the rest of the article occupies itself with condescendingly poking fun, failing to offer facts or an intelligent response of any sort.

In closing, the authors compare the Palestinian “P” to the “J” in Jew, adding exultantly that “the Jews themselves [are] potentially in trouble since there is no J in Hebrew.” They then cite a “Twitter user” to affirm this point.

Let’s try to address the above comparison and the underlying facts, since the NY Times–and many other news outlets–have failed to do so in a serious way. What are the origins of the descriptors “Jew” and “Palestinian”?

The name “Palestine” is derived from the Greek Palaistine. The Greeks, in turn, borrowed from “Pileshet” (פלשת), the Hebrew biblical name for a peoples who were enemies of the ancient Israelites. The Romans used the Greek Palaistine as the basis for naming the province Syria-Palaestina. It’s worth emphasizing that this name was applied to the land after it was conquered from independent Jewish states; much of the Jewish population was gradually exiled. By changing the name of the region from Provincia Judea to Provincia Palaestina the Romans sent a clear message to the conquered Jewish tribes that they no longer had rights to their homeland.

The term “Jew” came a long way from “Yehudi,” related to the Hebrew Yehudah, the biblical tribe and subsequent kingdom that existed in present day Israel. The Greeks transliterated Yehudi, or the Aramaic Yehudai (יהודאי), into loudaios, which Latin then borrowed as ludaeus. The French subsequently truncated this into giu, which eventually shifted to the present day “Jew.”

In other words, there is no “J” in Hebrew because “Jew” isn’t the original term; “Yehudi” is. Jews never had to adapt their national title to fit their national language–the empires that conquered them were the ones that did the adapting. In contrast, “Palaistine” is the original term. “Falastin” is the phonetic adaptation of that original term into Arabic by modern day Palestinians, who adopted the Roman name as their national label.

Whether or not one wants to consider the above politically relevant should be up to readers, after they’ve been offered the facts. Isn’t that what journalism is about? It seems that the NY Times has lost itself and its journalistic rigor in its mirth over those abominable Israelis.

The fact is that the Palestinians are not an ancient indigenous national group. Though older tribal, ethnic, and regional identities may exist among the Palestinians, the Palestinian national identity is, by all accounts, an outgrowth of the 19th and 20th century Arab-Islamic nationalism which emerged as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. We can claim that Palestinian nationalism is perfectly legitimate. Yet, we still have to question the extent to which this modern nationalism has a right to supplant another, at least equally legitimate, national group–that of the Jewish people. Jews have a central and undeniable national, cultural, and religious connection to the land, grounded in archaeology and genetics. Palestinian nationalists regularly deny this objective fact.

Why is the NY Times so dead-set on ignoring history and nuance when it comes to Israel? Why do frivolous articles about Anat Berko and the “P” sound in “Palestinian” get published?  Why does this stuff so excite the NY Times yet they have no ink to spare when Palestinian leaders freely spout the most vile things imaginable?

If only all the Palestinian leadership did was merely deny Jews a consonant or two.

(With thanks to Arun Viswanath)