Israeli children in Judean community of Neve Daniel
Israeli children in Judean community of Neve DanielFlash 90

There is no question that the name we today pronounce as “Palestine” was imposed on the Land of Israel by the Roman conquerors. This was standard Roman procedure to weaken or destroy the Jewish connection to their land. Thus, they also renamed Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina, and Shechem to Neopolis (now Nablus in Arabic).

It seems universally assumed that Rome derived the name Palestine from the name of Israel’s Philistine enemies, an assumption endlessly repeated even by Israel’s friends and supporters. But this assumption, however, is entirely incorrect. The name “Palestine” has no connection, linguistic or otherwise, to the biblical Philistines. Not only that, the actual source for the name “Palestine” bolsters Israel’s claim to the land.

But before examining the source of the name “Palestine,” let’s take a closer look at the Philistines. The Philistines were not native Canaanites; they were later invaders from Crete and the Aegean islands. The Bible called these invaders “Pelishtim” (which later devolved into the familiar “Philistine”). Not surprisingly, the Hebrew term Pelishtim means invaders or squatters. And the areas under their control was collectively called Peleshet (i.e., territory held by the invader or squatters). The Philistines completely disappeared by the end of the 5th century B.C.E.

It is no small irony that the Arab invaders to the Land of Israel have built up a mythology, inconsistent and absurd, linking themselves to the Philistine invaders. Consider their oft cited and foolish claim that Jesus was the first Palestinian (which by their reckoning would make the first Palestinian Jewish), while simultaneously denying that there was a Judea or that the Temple Mount ever held the Holy Temples.

But to the issue at hand, if no linguistic connection exists between the Roman-applied name “Palestine” and the Philistine invaders, where did the name come from?

An excellent book by Stuart Arden, called “Sense and Nonsense – What You Need to Know About the Arab-Israeli Conflict” (Gefen Publishing House, 2013), provides the details, and they are stunning. [See the footnote at the end of this article.]

Upon conquering Israel, Rome called the territory Provincea Judaea. Though it derived that name from the Kingdom of Judea, Rome applied it to the entire conquered territory. This included land on both sides of the Jordan, Samaria, the Coastal Plain, most of the Galilee and the Golan Heights – in short, the whole Land of Israel. However, after the Bar Kochva revolt, Rome sought to erase the link to Judea, and chose the name Palaestina, or more fully, Syria Palaestina. In that designation, “Syria” identified a wide region – the entire Levant; and “Palaestina” (the name that concerns us) identified a specific area within the Levant.

The name was actually first coined by the ancient Greek historian/geographer Herodotus in the 5th century BCE, when he wrote of a “district of Syria, called Palaistine.” To the Romans, this seemed the perfect name replacement for Judea. Especially since the name derived from the Philistine enemies of the Jews – except that it didnt.

Herodotus knew that the Philistines occupied only a relatively small portion of the Land of Israel consisting of five city states: Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod on the Mediterranean coast, and Gath and Ekron a bit further east. (And, In fact, the area occupied by the Philistines was collectively termed Philistia.)

By contrast, Herodotus applied Palaistine to the whole area located between Phoenicia in the north and Egypt in the south, and he also described it as the “land of the circumcised.” Clearly, Herodotus was calling the whole land of Israel, whose inhabitants he knew to be Jews, “Palaistine.” The question is “Why and how did he choose that name?” And the explanation is at once wonderful and compelling, And it absolutely confirms the Jewish connection to the land.

As a historian/geographer, Herodotus was familiar with the legends, accounts, and history of the people of Israel. And one particularly key account is that of the Patriarch Jacob wrestling a man/angel all night, before going on to encounter his brother Esau. Jacob emerged victorious from that wrestling match, and the man/angel gave Jacob a new name: Yisrael (Israel) – “because you strove with G-d and man and prevailed.” And he blessed Jacob/Israel (Genesis 32:25 – 30).

Yisrael/Israel means the one who wrestled/strove with G-d.

That event, that wrestling match, was so pivotal that the new name given to Jacob redefined Jewish identity forever. From then on, Jacob’s descendants became known as Bnei Yisrael -- the Children of Israel; and the promised land became known as Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel. (Even today, as we merit to see G-d ingathering the Jewish exiles as He promised, the founders chose to call the new Jewish state Medinat Yisrael - the State of Israel.)

The significance of this key biblical account was not lost on Herodotus, and is the determining factor in the name he coined for the Land of Israel. The Greek word for wrestler is Palaistis, so Herodotus called the Land of Israel “Palaistine” – the Land of the Wrestler. In other words, Palaistine is nothing short of a Greek translation of the Hebrew name “Eretz Yisrael.”

The time is long overdue to set the record straight and jettison the false linkage of Palestine to the Philistine invaders. Not only is there no connection linguistic or otherwise, but the ancient Greek name Palaistine is an ancient acknowledgement and confirmation that the Land of Israel belonged to its Jewish inhabitants. And it negates the myth that the land contained an ancient, so-called “Palestinian” people. Like the Pelishtim/Philistine invaders of long ago, the so-called Palestinians are simply Arab invaders – who invaded the land not so long ago.

It is no small irony that every time the world uses the term “Palestine” they are unwittingly confirming that the Land of Israel, the Land of Wrestler, belongs to the Jews.

From the river to the sea Palestine is already free, and in the hands of its Jewish inheritors. And with G-d’s help may we soon merit to see the return of the rest of those portions of the land of Israel that are not yet in our hands.

Footnote: Stuart Arden, author of the above-cited book, credits much of what he wrote on this topic to an article, “When Palestine Meant Israel” by David Jacobson, that appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol 27 no.3 (May-June 2001).

Alan Perlmanis a resident of the community of Carmel in the South Hebron Hills. Originally from the U.S., he became religious during his 20’s, and earned a Master's degree in Social Work in 1979. He made aliyah with his wife and children in 1984, built a career in Israel as technical writer, and is thankful for living in Israel as the redemption unfolds.