Harold Behr

Palestine: What’s in a Name?

The other day a friend asked me, somewhat ingenuously, whether Palestine was an actual country. If not, he pursued, why was it being presented as such on maps by a reputable news agency like the BBC?

Instead of becoming embroiled in a tiresome discussion about whether countries which had not been legitimised by the United Nations could be regarded as nations, which would have led straight to an ill-tempered argument for or against the right of the Palestinian people to refer to themselves as constituting a national entity, I embarked on some research, turning first to my ‘Concise Jewish Encyclopaedia’ edited by Cecil Roth, for clarification of the name, ‘Palestine’.

There, I learnt that Palestine had been one of the names of the land of Israel, originally used to denote the land of the Philistines, and that it was also the name of the Roman province of the region. The entry concludes with the observation that Palestine was not an official name for many centuries, until the time of the British Mandate.

From 1917 onwards, modern Palestine, a land taken from Turkey at the end of the First World War, became the subject of bitter dispute as to who should govern it. The victorious powers, Britain and France, accepted that their occupancy of the land was a temporary one, at which point the curtain opened on a drama which runs to this day.

The region known as Palestine shared borders with Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and the newly created Kingdom of Transjordan. As the First World War was drawing to an end, there was considerable horse trading between the victorious powers as to how the Arab lands should be allocated. Britain was given the mandate for administering Palestine and promptly muddied the waters by making contradictory pledges to the two main disputants in the contest for rightful ownership of Palestine, the Jews and the Arabs.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 had the aim of carving up the large Northern sector of Arab land including Palestine and Syria, into British and French spheres of influence. Jews did not feature in this proposal. Hard on the heels of the Sykes-Picot treaty, however, came the Balfour Declaration, a carefully worded document in which Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, underwrote the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people, ‘provided that nothing shall be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by the Jews in any other country.’

The Jews welcomed the Balfour Declaration as the green light they had been hoping for. Arab nationalists, however, were incensed by it. Neither side paid much attention to the nuanced allusion to a home ‘for’ the Jewish people ‘in’ Palestine, as opposed to ‘Palestine as a home for the Jewish people’. As far as the Arabs were concerned, Jews were alien intruders, not welcome in any part of their land.

A notable exception was the Emir Faisal, who wrote, in 1919, ‘We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement…We will wish the Jews a hearty welcome home…We are working together for a reformed and revised Near East, and our two movements complement one another. The movement is national and not imperialistic…Indeed, I think that neither can succeed without the other.’

This royal declaration would have been like a red rag to a bull to Arab nationalists and it has long since been consigned to the flames of the conflict. However, like its counterpart, the Balfour Declaration, it is worth resurrecting as a voice of friendship and co-operation in a desert of mutual antagonism.

Jews had been purchasing land for settlement since the 1850s. At the end of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century there was a spike in Jewish immigration, corresponding to the rise in antisemitism in Europe. During the build-up to the Holocaust and in its immediate aftermath, the flow of immigrants into Palestine became a torrent and the issue took on an urgency which only intensified the conflict between the parties involved. Jewish and Arab nationalists were locked in mortal combat, and Britain, charged by the United Nations with the task of administering the Palestine Mandate, found itself in an impossible situation.

The story of the British Mandate turned into a tragedy of irreconcilable positions. In 1947, Britain handed the package back tot he United Nations and withdrew to the side-lines. In the following year, the United Nations voted to accept Israel as a member state, a decision which might have marked the beginning of a peaceful coexistence in the region had the Arabs not flatly refused to accept the existence of a Jewish State in the midst of their world.

The implacable enmity of the Arabs led to a war which has never really ended. Israel defended itself with the determination of a people faced with annihilation, and prevailed against the odds. The tragedy was compounded by the mass exodus of Arab inhabitants from the former Palestine to form a refugee diaspora in neighbouring countries and beyond. They became a people in limbo, nurtured on grievance and resolved to recover their lost homeland.

Israel, meanwhile, reconciled itself to the necessity of maintaining its military ascendancy in the face of unremitting Palestinian hostility. Unfortunately, this necessity, born out of fear, has evolved into a disregard for the rights of those Palestinians still living within Israel’s borders. Injustice is now piled on indignity and this has further fuelled feelings of resentment, which have been expressed in demonstrations and acts of terrorism. These in turn have provoked unbridled retaliation by the Jews. And so the cycle rolls on.

I am now able to tell my friend that Palestine was recognised as an Observer member of UN in 2012. It does indeed qualify as a nation but without the rights accorded to full member States. In other words, it has a sort of second class status.

It feels as if there is still a mountain to climb, but none of the protagonists seems willing to scale the heights, and the most powerful of them, the government of Israel, seems determined to push ahead with provocative and discriminatory policies, oblivious of their impact on the national psyche.

The story of Israel and Palestine is a history with two narratives without any points of intersection. There are many definitions of ‘history’, of which two have particular resonance for me in this case. The first is offered by a character in a James Joyce novel, ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. The second is attributed to Winston Churchill, ‘History is written by the victors.’ But who, in the Israel Palestine saga, are the victors and who the vanquished?

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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