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Jews and Israelis; Arabs and Palestinians

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avatar by Jerold Auerbach


The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Historians understand that knowledge of the past is necessary to understand the present. So it is with “Palestine,” which made its debut in the 5th century BCE when the Greek historian Herodotus identified it as a “district of Syria, called Palaistine.” By then Jews already had a long history in what they identified as the Land of Israel, their promised holy land. 

It begins in the Biblical narrative when God appeared to Abraham in Shechem, (now Nablus) in Samaria, and declared: “To your offspring I will give this land.” Abraham chose to live “near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents.” (Genesis 13:17–18) There he purchased the Machpelah cave from Ephron the Hittite as the burial place for Sarah, insisting — to Ephron’s surprise — on paying the full asking price (Genesis 23) to insure that its ownership could never be legitimately challenged. 

The other patriarchs and matriarchs, with the exception of Rachel, were also entombed there. The massive stone structure surrounding the Hebron burial site, known as Me’arat haMachpelah, was built during the reign of Herod the Great between 31 and 4 BCE. King David, who had ruled from Hebron a millennium earlier before relocating his throne to Jerusalem, had recognized them as the most sacred cities of Jews, which they have remained ever since. Not even Tel Aviv has qualified for that honor.

In the 7th century CE a new religion, Islam, emerged in Mecca. Two centuries later, following the Moslem conquest, it became the majority religion in “Palestine.” It lacked any national component.

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Fast forward to the 20th century. In 1917 British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour issued the proclamation that is embedded in the modern history of the Holy Land. “His Majesty’s Government,” proclaiming its “sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations,” declared that it “view[s] with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” There was no mention of “Palestinians,” who did not yet exist as an identified people with national aspirations.

Five years later Colonial Foreign Secretary Winston Churchill gifted the land of Palestine east of the Jordan River, to become known as the Kingdom of Jordan, to Emir Abdullah. Even as late as the eruption of violence between 1936-1939, known as the “Great Revolt,” it was Palestinian Arabs, not “Palestinians,” who were identified as its perpetrators. The earliest signs of a Palestinian national identity emerged with the appearance of the Fatah movement, led by Yasser Arafat, in 1959. But where was “Palestine”? Until the Six-Day War (1967) it stretched across the Jordan River into land known as Jordan’s “West Bank.” 

Then, for the first time in millennia, the land comprising the ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judah was absorbed within the Biblical homeland of the Jewish people, now the State of Israel. Biblical names reappeared: no longer Jordan’s West Bank, but Judea and Samaria; not Al-Haram Al-Sharif, but the Temple Mount. Archeological discoveries have proven, beyond doubt, the ancient Jewish connection to Judea and Samaria, to Jerusalem and Hebron.

Israel is incessantly blamed for depriving Palestinians of their own state. But its inflamed critics ignore the reality of an already existing Palestinian state. East of the Jordan River, its name is the Kingdom of Jordan. By now, Palestinians — refugees of the 1948 Arab attempt to annihilate the fledgling Jewish state and their descendants — constitute a majority of the Jordanian population. Jordan, in translation, is Palestine. Historically, geographically and demographically, Palestinians already have what they yearn for: a Palestinian state.

Why should the Biblical text, history and archeological discoveries matter? Because, for millennia, they have defined the boundaries of the Jewish birthplace. Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War was not an intrusion. It marked the return of Jews to Judea and Samaria, their Biblical homeland in the Land of Israel. History, whether ancient or modern, matters. 

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of twelve books, including Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019

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