By Victor Rosenthal
I originally posted this in 2009. I am republishing it as a page because of its continuing relevance.
Names, words, language. Their importance in shaping reality as perceived can’t be minimized. Do we say ‘Palestine’ or eretz yisrael? Is there a ‘security fence’ or an ‘apartheid wall’?
As someone who writes about the Mideast almost every day, I make lots of decisions like these. Although I’m not likely to say ‘apartheid wall’, I might struggle with ‘fence’ vs. ‘barrier’. What I’m looking for are expressions that are neutral — not polemical in themselves; I want my explicit argument to carry the weight of (I hope) convincing the reader.
What I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of days is the area between the Green Line and the Jordan River, not including East Jerusalem. And what I think is that I’ve been making a mistake for the last three years.
There’s a whole continuum of terms, each with its connotations:
- Judea and Samaria
- Disputed territories
- West Bank
- Occupied territories
- Occupied Palestinian territories
I’ve been using ‘West Bank’, thinking that it was the most neutral possible term. Wrong. Here’s what “Philologos” wrote in 2006:
What, after all, is “the West Bank”? It is a translation of the Arabic term al-daf’a al-gharbiya — which is a rather odd term for Judea and Samaria when you consider that the “bank” in question is that of the Jordan River and that these territories are both separated from that river by the Jordan Valley and are not on its bank at all. And in fact, this was not a term ever used for them by their inhabitants or, for that matter, by anyone at all, until King Abdullah’s Arab Legion occupied them when it crossed the Jordan westward in its 1948 war against Israel.
In 1950 Abdullah annexed the “West Bank,” a move that was protested by the rest of the Arab world as a land grab over the heads of the Palestinians. Already, the previous year, he had changed the official name of his country from The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan to The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to indicate that it now comprised territory on both sides of the Jordan River rather than only on its eastern side. And to drive home this point, the Jordanians encouraged the use of the terms “East Bank” and “West Bank” as a way of stressing that theirs was a single country that straddled a river running through it. Eventually, “West Bank” became a term used by the “West Bankers” themselves, as well as by the rest of the world.
On the other hand, ‘Judea and Samaria’ [an anglicization of יהודה ושומרון, yehuda veshomron] dates to biblical times, and was used exclusively to describe this area in maps, documents and books up to about 1950.
So rather than being neutral, ‘West Bank’ is a hostile creation that obscures the Jewish connection to the land.
[A]fter the 1967 war it became bon ton among Israeli intellectuals on the anti-annexationist left to refer, too, to Judea and Samaria as “the West Bank,” as if these were areas devoid of Jewish historical associations and Jewish memories. And because it was the annexationist right that continued to use the traditional Hebrew words Yehuda and Shomron, it was assumed by the ignorant that these had been yanked crudely from the mothballs of a distant biblical past to justify expansionist policies.
I’ve been told not to say “Judea and Samaria” because it will immediately identify me as a member of the extreme Right, and nobody will take anything I say seriously.
But this is exactly how the political corruption of language progresses; soon, only ‘Palestinian territories’ will be acceptable, and how can one say that ‘Palestinians’ shouldn’t have sovereignty over Palestinian territories?
(Which brings us to the word ‘Palestinian’ itself. Before 1948, when someone said ‘Palestinian’ he or she was as likely to be referring to a Jew as to an Arab. By arrogating the term to themselves, Palestinian Arabs try to imply that they are the indigenous inhabitants of the land and the Jews are interlopers, something I discussed yesterday. Even the word ‘Palestine’ was invented by the Romans for political purposes).
Already, to many people the word ‘Zionism’ has come to mean ‘Jewish racism’ (see the correct definition here).
In any event, I intend to stand firm and not retreat in the face of linguistic aggression.
It’s Judea and Samaria from now on.