Names: The Fight for History

February 23, 2014

8 min read


My Russian History professor in college shared the following joke:

A survey was being conducted, and a man was asked the following questions:

First question: Where were you born?

Answer: St. Petersburg.

Second Question: Where did you go to school?

Answer: Petrograd.

Third Question: Where do you live now?

Answer: Leningrad.

Final Question: Where would you like to live?

Answer: St. Petersburg.

The joke, of course, is that these are all names of the same city at different points in time. Each name reflected the new sensibility, the new reality that was being imposed on the city at various junctures. While physically in the same location, nonetheless, the man does not want to live in Petrograd or Leningrad; he wants to live in the city as it was characterized by the name St. Petersburg.

In 1991(well after my professor told us this joke), the name of the city did, in fact, become St. Petersburg once again. This decision was predicated on lengthy, emotional discussions among the city’s residents who were cognizant of the fact that the name chosen would both highlight certain aspects of the city’s history, and would shape the feeling, focus, and identity of the city going forward.

Language shapes reality. Names and labels have a tremendous influence on outcome.

In school – teachers are instructed to “describe the behavior, not the child.” We learn to separate the student from the unwanted behavior, and take great pains not to negatively label a student, since psychology teaches us that students often live up to -or down to, in this case- the labels we give them.

In linguistics we learn that the existence of open-ended language allowed for human progress because people were able to say things that had never been said before, and in doing so, were then able to move forward toward and create that new reality, solve that new problem, discover a new cure, invent that new technology.

We see the same careful attention to language in the law. When a legal document is drafted, the language is chosen with great specificity, as all the parties know that these words will determine the terms and obligations by which all will need to abide.

In a business setting, companies will offer sensitivity training, teaching workers to give great consideration to what they say and how they say it so as not offend anyone, and so as to ensure that nothing will be misconstrued. In our social, community interactions, there is a demand for certain terminology that promotes specific values, such as the push to adopt gender-neutral language, for one example.

There has been a recent, national controversy over the name of the football team from Washington D.C., the “Redskins.” People have argued that this name, which has been in use since 1933, should now be changed. Proponents of the change say that this name is offensive and derogatory. And many a celebrity on their Twitter accounts have had to issue apologies for remarks or labels they used that were in any way construed as being racist.

This joke, then, that my professor shared years ago, is essentially intuitive to us today, given our heightened sensitivity to language. We well recognize that labels and words are essential in shaping our environment. Words matter; they are critical in both dismantling old attitudes and bringing forth new realities.

So why is it that the same people who would demand an accurate legal contract, a gender-neutral news article, a validating, tolerant social vocabulary, and egalitarian workplace terminology, why is it that when it comes to the Land of Israel, there is a complete dismissal, and even suppression, of the accurate language and historical record?

There are terms that are misused on a daily basis regarding the State of Israel, and yet, anyone who tries to raise the issue and restore the accurate history and terminology is immediately painted as extreme, as too sensitive, as a fanatic.

Among the most egregious misuses of language regarding Israel is seen in the attempted renaming of many places in Israel, cities and regions, including the Jewish spiritual heartland of Samaria and Judea. In the Land of Israel, the regions of Samaria and Judea represent the spiritual center of Jewish history. This is the area where the Jewish people always lived, where the history of the Jewish nation took place, and where the prophets of Israel delivered their message.

In these regions, we find Hebron which was the first capital of Israel, burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Israel. Here we also find Bethlehem, the city where the Matriarch Rachel is buried, where Ruth gave birth to the line of the Davidic monarchy. Shechem was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It is the city where Joseph is buried. Shiloh, the city of Priests, housed the holy Tabernacle before it was brought to Jerusalem. We read of Joshua in Jericho, Amos in Tekoa, Jeremiah in Anatot, and Jacob in Beit El. These regions of Shomron (Samaria) and Yehuda (Judea) constitute the Jewish spiritual heartland which is steeped in Jewish history dating back to Biblical times.


In a complete affront to Jewish rights and Jewish history, the Arab armies of Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan (as Jordan was initially called), Syria, and Iraq attacked Israel after Israel declared her independence in 1948. Jordan then occupied Judea and Samaria, expelled all of the Jewish communities of these regions, barred any further Jewish access to these areas and holy sites, and attempted at that time to rename the region the “West Bank.”

This generic, geographic label conveniently obscures all of the Jewish history that took place there: It is much more difficult to try to claim that Judea does not belong to the Jews, than it is to claim that a parcel of land with a vapid, geographic name does not.

The duplicity in this attempt to erase the history of, and Jewish connection to, Judea and Samaria was then extended further by the deceitful claim that Jews are “occupiers” in this land. “Occupation” refers to the holding and control of an area by a foreign force. Given the fact that the Land of Israel was never the sovereign country of any nation but the Jewish one, Jews cannot be deemed “occupiers” in their own land, a fact affirmed by international law.

The historical and religious rights of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel were affirmed and codified in international law at the San Remo Conference of 1920, a meeting of the Allied Powers of WWI, to decide the future of the former territories of the Ottoman Empire. At this conference, where international agreement was also reached regarding the establishment of other countries in the region, such as Syria, and Iraq, a binding agreement was enacted between these world powers “to reconstitute the ancient Jewish State within its historic borders.”

Recognizing the ancient and continuous historical and spiritual connection between the nation of Israel and the Land of Israel, the San Remo Resolution included the regions of Samaria and Judea as part of the area designated for reestablishing the Jewish National Homeland, along with all the land that is between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, all the land that currently comprises the country of Jordan, as well as, the Golan Heights and Gaza. This mandate, which was then ratified by a unanimous vote of The League of Nations, affirmed the Jewish right to settle anywhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which is where these regions of Samaria and Judea are found. This right is enshrined to this day in international law.

Arab national entities were designated for other areas of the former Ottoman Empire. The San Remo Conference, along with various treaties following World War I, succeeded in establishing independent countries sought by the Arab nationalists; Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan were all established out of what had been provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet, when it came to similarly recognizing the rights of the Jewish nation to the Jewish homeland, there were those who consistently sought to prevent Jewish self-determination and sovereignty in the Jewish ancestral homeland of Israel. This was despite the fact that the world clearly recognized, by international law and treaty, the right of the Jewish nation to reestablish the Jewish National Homeland. This is the same rejection and subversion of Jewish rights to the Land of Israel that we are seeing today.

The attempts to rewrite – and rename – history and, thereby, deny the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, are reflected, as well, in the fraudulent language regarding the holy city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the city which holds the very soul of the Jewish people, has always been central in Jewish life.

On Passover Jews say L’shana ha’bah b’Yerushalayim, “Next year in Jerusalem.” On Tisha B’Av each year, Jews sit in mourning and weep lamentations over the destruction of the holy city and Temple. When building a home, Jews leave an unfinished corner to remember the destruction of Jerusalem, and at every Jewish wedding, the groom breaks the glass, showing that he places Jerusalem above his highest joy. The ancient sages taught that ten measures of beauty were given to the world; of these, Jerusalem was given nine.

Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for over three thousand years, and The Temple Mount, the site of Solomon’s Temple remains Judaism’s most sacred site. Unto this day, every Jew turns towards the Temple Mount to pray.

During the nineteen years of Jordan’s illegal occupation of Judea and Samaria, beginning after the 1948 War of Independence, the city of Jerusalem was divided in two for the first time in history. The Jews who had been living as a majority in Jerusalem since the middle of the previous century were expelled by the Jordanians and barred from those areas that were within the walls of the Old City, where the holiest Jewish sites are found. In 1967, besieged by hostile Arab armies, Israel liberated and recovered the regions of Samaria and Judea and reunited the city of Jerusalem.

Today, however, references are often made to an “East” Jerusalem in an attempt to perpetuate the myth that there are two distinct parts to the city. And the duplicitous corollary, once again, is that Jews are “occupiers” in “East” Jerusalem; this, despite the fact that Judaism’s holiest sites are found in precisely that area.

In the United Kingdom, an agency that monitors the accuracy of advertisements upheld a complaint about an ad for trips to Israel. The ad displayed the various places that could be seen on a brief visit to Israel. This agency rejected the ad for use within the United Kingdom, saying that it was misleading because it showed a picture of the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site that sits adjacent to the Temple Mount. According to this agency, it is debatable as to whether the Western Wall, (the Kotel), is in Israel, debatable as to whether the holiest place in the world to Jews, belongs to Israel, as this is part of the area that many regularly try to label as “occupied;” this is the precise area from which many are again trying to ban Jews.

Changing the name of Jerusalem to “East Jerusalem” is a ploy often used by those who want to erase history and wrest the Jewish homeland away from the Jewish people. It is outrageous to rename the Jewish homeland, obscure its history, and then accuse Jews of being occupiers there. But that is precisely what is happening today. And the international community, whether through lack of information or lack of good will, is allowing, and at times aiding with, this ongoing injustice. If something so clear, so straightforward, so indisputable as the Jewish connection to Samaria and Judea, if something as unmistakable and irrefutable as the Jewish connection to Jerusalem can be so rewritten, so misrepresented, and Biblical, spiritual, historical, and legal rights so resoundingly dismissed, if those around the world can literally invert history and accuse Jews of being occupiers in the very cradle of Jewish history and civilization, then the level of deceit knows no bounds, and the absolute necessity to stand up and fight against this attempt to subvert the truth and rob Jews of their history, heritage, and homeland has never been more clear.

The ancient Sages who devised the Passover Seder were wise. Citing the Torah, they emphasized “v’higadita l’vincha bayom hahu leimor” “And you shall tell it to your children on that day, saying…” (Exodus 13:8) The message is clear: we must keep telling and retelling our history, so that the truth is honored and not obliterated.

The fight for language is the fight for history. It is one in the same.

Reprinted with author’s permission


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