Israel, Palestine: what's in a name?


The name “Israel” dates back to the period of the Torah and has been in use for at least 3000 years. The word “Israel” was used not only in Hebrew but also in other, now-extinct Canaanite languages, such as Ugaritic and Eblaite.

According to the Torah, “Israel” was the name ascribed to the Jewish patriarch Jacob after he wrestled with an angel. The word roughly translates to “one who wrestles with G-d.”

Jacob’s descendants were called Israelites, who then went on to establish the Kingdom of Israel (1047 BCE-930 BCE). In 930 BCE, the Kingdom of Israel split into the kingdoms of Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Today’s modern-day Jews and Samaritans are the direct descendants of the ancient Israelites.

The first known non-Biblical usage of “Israel” was found in an Egyptian inscription dating back to 1209 BCE. It refers to “Israel” as a people. The Quran and the Christian Bible both describe Jews as “the People of Israel” or “the Children of Israel.”

The term “Eretz Israel,” or Land of Israel, has long described the geographical area where the Israelites lived, though its borders are not clearly defined, changing throughout the millennia depending on who was in power. Records from the second century CE confirm that Jews continued to refer to what is now Israel-Palestine as “the Land of Israel,” even after the Romans changed its name from Judea to Syria-Palestina.

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Historians have long debated the origins of the name “Palestine.” Most believe that the word derives from the Hebrew and Egyptian word “peleshet,” meaning “migratory.” “Peleshet” was used to describe the Philistines, who settled on the Mediterranean coastline above Egypt, in parts of what is now Israel and Gaza. The Philistines were a seafaring people of Greek origin; in other words, today’s Palestinians are unrelated to the Philistines.

The first use of the word “Palestine” to describe a geographic region was in the 5th century BCE, at least 700 years after the use of the word “Israel.” Like the Land of Israel, “Palestine” was a loose region, describing the coastal strip that runs from Egypt to Lebanon.

Another, newer theory asserts that “Palestine” derives from the Greek word “Palaistes,” meaning “wrestler”; if you recall, the term “Israel” means “one who wrestles with G-d.” According to this theory, the word “Palestine” is a direct, Greek translation of the word “Israel.”

Between 132 CE-136 CE, when the Romans ruled over the Land of Israel (then known as the province of “Judea,” which is where the term “Jew” derives from), the Jewish population revolted for the third time against the foreign rulers. This revolt, known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt, ended in complete catastrophe, with 600,000-one million Jews murdered in an act of genocide or sold into slavery. Following the revolt, Emperor Hadrian changed the name of Judea to “Syria-Palestina,” marking the first time that “Palestine” was used as the official, legal name of the region. Historians have long argued that Hadrian did this to sever all Jewish ties to the land, though like nearly everything about Israel-Palestine, other historians dispute this assertion.

It’s important to note, however, that Palestine wasn’t known as Palestine from 136 CE. Its name changed periodically depending on those in power. As recently as the Ottoman period (1517-1917), the residents of what is now Israel-Palestine commonly called themselves “southern Syrians.” "Palestine"was revived as a political name under the British Mandate (1920-1948).


Most people aren’t aware of the fact that during the British Mandate period (1920-1948), Palestine *was officially called Eretz Israel in Hebrew.* Its full official name in Hebrew was “Palestina (Aleph-Yud),” the Hebrew letters “Aleph-Yud” being an acronym for “Eretz Israel.”

Even so, following the 1947 UN Partition vote, the would-be leaders of the State of Israel struggled to agree upon an official name for the new Jewish state. They worried that naming the whole country “Eretz Israel,” as it was during the Mandate period, would violate the Partition Plan, as it might imply domain over *all* of Mandatory Palestine. So other suggestions were brought forth.

Many assumed it would be “Judea” (Yehuda in Hebrew). However, two problems arose: (1) the Partition Plan dictated that the region of historic Judea would either be an international zone (i.e. Jerusalem) or part of the Arab state, and (2) presumably, citizens of Yehuda would be known as Yehudim, but that directly translates to “Jewish” in Hebrew, and not all citizens would be Jewish.

“Zion” was also suggested, but the same problems came up: (1) “Zion” is the name of the hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, which was to be an international zone, and (2) citizens of “Zion” would likely be called “Zionists,” which presented similar problems.

Another suggestion was “Ever,” the root of the word “Ivri” (Hebrew), but this was ruled out immediately.

It wasn’t until May 12, 1948, two days before Israel declared its independence in accordance with the termination of the British Mandate, that the leaders voted in favor of the name “Medinat Israel,” translating to the “State of Israel.”


In 2013, the State of Israel declassified documents revealing that, in the lead up to the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence, the leaders of the Zionist movement considered naming Israel “Palestine” in Arabic to “take the feelings of the Arab minority into account.”

In other words, the country would be named “Israel” in Hebrew and “Falestin” [Palestine] in Arabic.

However, in the end they decided against it because they assumed that, in accordance with the 1947 UN Partition Plan, an Arab state would be established alongside the Jewish state. Presumably, said Arab state would be named “Palestine,” so they didn’t want to cause any confusion. As such, they decided that the official name of Israel in Arabic would be “Isra’il.”

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