Palestine? Israel? Palestine/Israel? A call for honesty about the political import of names

Last year while living in Al-Quds/Jerusalem I wrote a post about the way the names we use for places here are always politically charged.  I still agree with that post, but it focussed on issues in Jerusalem, especially linguistic differences between average Israelis on the one hand and internationals concerned with international law on the other. In Jerusalem, even asserting the existence of the green line is transgressive, it is radical to call the Moroccan Quarter what it was, and you feel like you are standing against the entire world if you question Israel’s commitment to peace on the basis of its unwillingness to give up the Old City.

Living in Ramallah, however, another linguistic difference grates on me. The problem is with the name “Palestine”. When Palestinians say Palestine they don’t mean the Westbank, either by its international legal definition or what Israel means by it (i.e. large sections cut out by the wall, including East Jerusalem). But internationals constantly say “Palestine” to mean the area between Israel and Jordan under partial Palestinian authority control. Which, by extension, means they use the term “Israel” to mean the land inside, usually including East Jerusalem. Travellers who have been travelling around “Israel”, and perhaps Jordan and Egypt, come to “Palestine” to make sure they see as much as they can in the area. For them, “Palestine” stands beside “Israel”, a proto-state, an occupied state, but a kind of country nonetheless.

For a long time people sympathetic, or at least wishing to recognize the Palestinians, have used the term “Israel/Palestine” or “Palestine/Israel” to describe this area of the Levant since the declaration of the State of Israel (without any specified borders) in 1948. For a long time the use of the two terms was used to show that the space was contested – that there are those who call it Israel, and those who call it Palestine. With the declaration of the State of Palestine and emergence of the Peace Process, however, “Israel/Palestine” has come to mean something like 2 states, or one state and a proto-state which is occupied next door.

Now, if you support the peace process, if you support the “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then I have no issue with you using the word “Palestine” to mean the West Bank, or the West Bank and Gaza. If you support the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem, I have no problem with you calling East Jerusalem “Israel”. What I have a problem with, however, is the pretense that this language is neutral, that these are just “the names for things”. Palestine is not the name for the Westbank. Palestine is the name for Palestine, this is what Palestinians mean when they say Palestine. For Palestinians, especially for Palestinian refugees, the occupation of their land is 64 years old, not 45, and when Palestinians talk about the other side of the Apartheid wall, they don’t say “Israel”, they say “the other side of the wall”, or maybe “inside the occupied land”.

So say what you want, but be honest with yourself about the political implications of your language. When you name “Israel” the regions of Palestine from which Palestinians were expelled in ’48, you legitimize the continued expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. And you do the same when you use “Palestine” to name the Westbank. If you want to do that, fine, do what you like. Also, feel free to point out that if I or a Palestinian uses “Palestine” to name all the land, we delegitimize the Zionist claim to Jewish sovereignty over all or part of the land of Palestine. That’s fine, that’s what I was trying to do.

So, if you want a name for the land here that doesn’t take a position on the dispossession of the refugees, or the question of Jewish sovereignty over the part or all of the land, there is an easy solution: go back to what people said before, and say “Israel/Palestine” or “Palestine/Israel”.


7 thoughts on “Palestine? Israel? Palestine/Israel? A call for honesty about the political import of names

  1. but what if you are israeli? does that mean you can’t identify as such? and what would someone who refers to the land exclusively as palestine refer to Israelis as?

  2. Milan, I think it’s perfectly normal to use the expressions “Gaza strip” and “West Bank”. This fits well with using the term “Israel” to mean the internationally recognized state within its internationally recognized borders..

    However, you can end up in some of the same problems as I mention above if you don’t remember that Westbank has two quite different meanings. Actually it’s more than two. On the one hand, it means the territory seized by Israel in ’67, held by Jordan between ’49 and ’67. On the other hand, it means a region of the territory controlled by Israel which is named “Westbank”. The 2nd meaning of “Westbank” denotes a smaller territory, and one which itself has an unstable definition. The Israeli meaning of “Westbank” never includes the areas of the Westbank which are in East Jerusalem (the area annexed within the “Jerusalem Municipal Boundary”) on the Israeli side of the Wall. And sometimes, the Israeli meaning of “Westbank” also doesn’t include any territory to the west of the Wall, regardless of whether it has been formally annexed or not.

    Of course, the use of the term “Israel” even in the internationally recognized sense is deeply offensive to most of the more than five million Palestinian refugees. There is no way of avoiding taking sides, the language you use reveals your politics about this place, and there is no such thing as not having such a politics

    Ayelit, I don’t really understand your question; the post isn’t about identity directly, although I see that this is an implication of names and their implications.

    If you want to know what I think about identity, well, I’m not going to tell Israelis what to call this place, because I’m not going to tell anyone what to call it. What I’m saying is we should be honest about the implications of the names we use. So if you want to call all of Palestine, or any part of Palestine “Israel”, I don’t necessarily have any problem with this. What I have a problem with is anyone, Israeli or not, calling any part of it “Israel” and thinking that this is somehow neutral with respect to the conflict. Calling land that was ethnically cleansed by the colonizer’s name serves to justify the Palestinian refugees, which means the majority of Palestinians, continued dispossession, expulsion and exclusion from their lands by military force. I would be a hypocrite if I expressed some kind of crazy moral outrage at this colonialist position. After all, I’m a Canadian, and I’m not going to pretend that I always call it “turtle Island” rather than Canada, because I don’t. I can say that I wish Canada had as determined and steadfast an anti-colonial indigenous resistance movement as there is in Palestine, but there isn’t so these are just empty words. If my identity was actually threatened by an indigenous nation which could challenge the Canadian state and take away my colonial privilege on this land, I’d probably be as racist as the average Israeli. So, of course, if you want to be Israeli, call it “Israel”. I just ask for it to be recognized that “Israeli”, like “Canadian”, is a colonial identity, to be able to claim it is an act of colonial privilege, and one of the implications of reproducing this privilege is the continued dispossession of the land’s indigenous population.

    As for what I refer to “Israelis” as, I tend to use the words “Zionist” and “Israeli” fairly interchangeably. Up until the creation of the state, at least as I understand it, Israelis were called “Zionists”, and I think changing the name of the identity attributes a permanence to the state that I don’t want to make a principled point of reproducing in my own language. But I don’t want to be an extremist about not using the expression “Israeli” either, because after all it is the common term for that identity. I think the fact that “Zionist” has a negative connotation is a major Palestinian victory. As far as I know, it’s the only colonialist identity which is recognized as such, generally, when referred to by its original name. We’ve never had a resolution passed in the US asserting that “Canadian identity is a form of racism”, and I think that’s pretty unfortunate. I’m not sure if there are any Israelis who are not Zionists. I’ve read that genuine anti-Zionists in Israel tend to be anarchists, and while they hold Israeli citizenship, they do not identify as Israeli. But to be honest I don’t know much about this topic, and if I’m wrong, I’d be happy to be corrected. I would find it strange for someone to identify as “Israeli” and be at the same time in favour of the destruction of Israel, but, I guess stranger things have happened. (But I guess I’m Canadian, and I’m for the destruction of the current Canadian regime…)

  3. Oh, Ayelit, one other thing. You asked “what would someone who refers to the land exclusively as palestine refer to Israelis as?”


  4. ok… then its ok for you to tell someone what there identity is, and if someone happened to be born in Israel then there rights to identify are abolished? ……impressive that you have such a powerful self right to claim others identities for them

    1. Is it fair for the indigenous people in Canada to ask 4th generation “Canadians” of British colonialist descent to identify as “settlers”? I think it is. And what do you mean have “their rights to identity are abolished”? Do I have a right as a Canadian to an identity which denies the rights of the people who were forcibly dispossessed of the land I live on? The difference between Israeli settler identity and Canadian settler identity is the presence of a formidable resistance movement, which actually aims at the overturning of the colonial project. If such a movement existed among the indigenous in Canada and it threatened my presence there, you can bet I’d be a lot more racist, and I’d refuse to acknowledge that my presence on the land was a crime against the indigenous inhabitants. I have a lot of sympathy for Israelis, as a Canadian settler I must say they have a much more difficult existence than me. That doesn’t mean I’m going to start to stand with the colonizer and claim that there is an Israeli “right” to continue to exclude the indigenous people from their land, to continue to live in stolen houses. And as for the houses that aren’t stolen, well actually this is a complicated story because the Zionists didn’t only bring money to buy houses, they also by way of the British brought the laws that made it possible to pay for and kick people off the land (something that, to the great surprise of the New Yishuv, was not so easy under Ottoman law). But that said, as of 1948, it only amounted to 6.5 percent, which is why I think it’s interesting that as of about 1969 the Revolution no longer called for the expulsion of European Migrants from Palestine, but offered them Palestinian citizenship in a single democratic state – the only condition was to renounce Zionism and their settler identity. It’s a pretty standard de-colonizing protocol, the same kind of thing you could expect indigenous leaders in Canada to call for, and in fact similar things have been called for by indigenous leaders in early Canadian history – that these British colonists are welcome to live here, but they are not welcome to interfere with the sovereignty of the indigenous nations, to take all the land and claim it as their own.

  5. Of course, I am not stopping you from identifying as Israeli. I’m not even asking you not to, I’m just trying to clarify the implications. Like I said above:

    “When you name “Israel” the regions of Palestine from which Palestinians were expelled in ’48, you legitimize the continued expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland.”

    So, if you want to legitimize the continued expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland, if you want to continue to claim Arab lands as “Jewish”, then feel free, I’m in no position to stop you. And why would I want to stop you? I’m in no position to fight the Israelis, I’m not even Palestinian. I’m just another settler. I feel some connection to this place, sure, because if my grandfather had stayed here and fought on the side of the Arabs, I probably wouldn’t be alive today. Instead, he went and settled some other indigenous land that was even richer than this place, and where the natives were treated much worse. But I’m not a humanitarian – I don’t think the fact that one oppression is worse than another justifies the former.

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