November 25, 2005
Language in conflictBy Michael Zimmerman
Different language about the same geography can reflect the various sides of a conflict or war. Consider use of Eretz Yisrael, Land of Israel, as compared to 'Palestine.' Another pair from the Middle East: 'Persian Gulf' versus 'Arabian Gulf'; use of one in place of the other may quickly raise tempers among Saudis or Iranians and respective allies.
An example from American history involves battle names in the Civil War (Southerners often refer to the 'War Between the States' or 'War of Secession'). The Union usually used natural objects, often streams, as names for battles, the Confederacy towns or man--made objects. For example, the 'Battle of Bull Run' or the 'Battle of Manassas' where Bull Run was a stream and Manassas a railway station in the battle area. The bloody battle Antietam (Union nomenclature) or Sharpsburg (Confederate): the first is a little stream, the second a village.  Which name is used may reflect casual ignorance, or an orientation, a perspective, a bias.
Involving territory controlled by the State of Israel, for example, is the use of one or another of the following terms for the same terrain: 'Liberated Territory,' 'Occupied Territory,' 'Disputed Territory,' 'Administered Area.' The political implication of each is different.
Two distinct terms are commonly used to refer to a significant portion of the disputed territory between Jews and Arabs: 'Judea--Samaria' and the 'West Bank.' Whether unintentionally or not, the political nuance of the term used often implies a Jewish versus an Arab orientation.
Judea and Samaria (Yehuda v'Shomron in Hebrew) are the traditional names for the mountainous areas west of the Dead Sea and the lower Jordan River. That tradition extended firmly from biblical times to the mid--20th century. Only relatively recently, with the 1948 1949 Arab war against Israel, did Arabs begin using the name West Bank to designate the land conquered by Transjordan west of the Jordan River, as opposed to Transjordan itself which was east of the river.
To avoid a linguistic reminder of their imperialism, in 1950 the Arab leaders of Transjordan also changed the name of their state to Jordan. (They considered the name Palestine.) Arab Transjordan, or Jordan today, was established in 1922 on eastern Palestine, fully 76.9 percent of the Mandate of Palestine given the British by the League of Nations, to provide a homeland for the Jewish people.
The West Bank, as popularly understood, denotes an area roughly equivalent in geography to Judea and Samaria. Today, Judea is taken to refer to the area about Jerusalem and the mountains to the south, east, and west of the city, while Samaria is northwest, north and northeast of Jerusalem.
Archaeologists have found evidence that Jewish communities exited in Judea--Samaria virtually without interruption from antiquity until 1948. During the period of the British Mandate over the area, from the early 1920's until the conquest by the Arabs of Transjordan (eastern Palestine), Jews had exercised the right to settle in the region. At least eight new communities sprang up, including two north of Jerusalem, a like number near the Jordan River--Dead Sea juncture, and four in the Hebron Hills. In 1948, Arab forces drove out every Jew from the region thereafter called the West Bank by the Arabs, and kept judenrein by them from that year until 1967. An asymmetry thus arose, as Arabs were permitted to remain in areas controlled by Jews.
The geographical equating of Judea Samaria with the West Bank is not exact. Even after 1948, western Jerusalem and the land corridor from the capital city toward the Mediterranean coast were not part of the West Bank, but part of the State of Israel. Jerusalem and the corridor formed a wedge that always has been within the context of Judea Samaria.
Double meaning to West Bank
The term West Bank has a cunning double meaning. Although in popular understanding West Bank refers to the area west of the Jordan River held by Jordan from 1948 to 1967 and administered by Israel afterwards until some portions were handed by Israel over to the Palestinian Authority to govern during the Oslo negotiating process and since. The term West Bank in a purely geographical, and not political sense may be applied to the entire land west of the Jordan River, ranging all the way west to the next body of water, the Mediterranean Sea.
About forty miles wide, the West Bank once controlled by Jordan, ran west from the Jordan River to about eleven miles short of the Mediterranean. That eleven--mile wide coastal strip is often called the "narrow waist of Israel." That demarcation, the frontier delineated by the 1948--1967 armistice lines, often called the 'Green Line' for its marking in green on maps, was called by Israel Foreign Minister Abba Eban, who was considered 'dovish,' as the 'Auschwitz borders' (meaning such lines border on the indefensible).
The geographical west bank of the Jordan River includes all the land between the river and the Mediterranean Sea. In this broader context, the west bank includes the circumscribed "West Bank" and virtually the entire State of Israel except for the Negev region.
The term Cisjordan, rarely used for western Eretz Yisrael or western Palestine, faces Transjordan across the Jordan River, the two combined comprising the Mandate of Palestine allocated to the British by the League of Nations, and considered by the British to be equivalent politically, if not exactly geographically, with the Land of Israel. Transjordan, the eastern three--quarters of the original Palestine Mandate, was bestowed full sovereignty as an independent Arab state by the British in 1946. On British official documents during the 1920s and thirties, three identifying terms were used together: the English term Mandate of Palestine, along with the Arabic word for Palestine, and the Hebrew letters aleph and yud, standing for Eretz Yisrael, or Land of Israel.
Arab ideologists today most certainly understand and manipulate the dual meanings: the limited one is for popular consumption especially in America and Europe and among those Israelis (of wishful thinking) who bought or buy into it; the broader one is for politically more sophisticated Arab audiences. The political implications are clear. The call for an Arab state in the West Bank lends itself to being interpreted as ostensibly limited and moderate, that is, when the circumscribed definition is understood to be the limit of Arab ambitions. The leaders of the PLO, Syria, Libya, Iran, and other Muslims in the actively anti--Israel camp are frequently explicit in Arabic and sometimes even in English that their ambitions are not so limited. These extreme statements are frequently ignored by the mass media.
Some observers of the Middle East understand that the pervasive Arab ambition regarding the West Bank or west bank may be total and extreme, and involve the destruction of Israel. Such politicide is often euphemistically described by Arab propagandists as the "replacement of the Zionist entity by a secular democratic state" -- ruled by Arabs. Ironically, the only secular democratic state in the Middle East is Israel, since Lebanon was dismembered by Syria and its then prot�g�s in one or another faction of the PLO.
Most Americans, and other Westerners, understand the name West Bank in the limited sense. Many Arabs appreciate both the limited definition and the implication of the extreme, i.e., politicidal ambition.
While the name West Bank came into play only some thirty years ago, Judea had its beginning about 3,500 years ago. In Genesis 29:35 it is related that Leah bore four sons to Jacob (whose name was to be changed to Israel):
The Hebrew root of "praise" and "Judah" is the same. The name Judah, Judea, or Yehuda in Hebrew, comes from the same linguistic root as the word odeh, which means "I will praise." The Hebrew word todah, meaning "thank you," has the same root. Thus the root of the name of the land Judea, and its people, Judeans, means something close to "praise" or "thanks," and relates to the birth of Jacob and Leah's fourth son, as is related early in the biblical saga of the story of Israel.
Jacob and Lea's son Judah became leader of one of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the tribal area of Judah, Judea (the hill and desert region encompassing Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem), was allocated during the time of Joshua to the descendants and followers of Judah. King David was a man of Judah. The word Jew itself comes from Judean.
Later, the geographical name for the tribal region that was the legacy of Judah became the name of the state. This occurred after King Solomon's reign, when his united kingdom broke up into two portions, Judea and Israel. The name Judea came to refer to the political group consisting of two of the tribes, Judah and Benjamin.
When the Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE, Judea became the political name applied to all Eretz Yisrael, the promised Land of Israel, under subsequent Jewish governments. During the Second Temple period of the Maccabees, Hasmoneans, and Herod, the entire country was known as Judea (Yehuda in Hebrew).
Samaria also has a distinctive and honorable beginning as a name. About the ninth century BCE, over 2,800 years ago, King Omri reigned over Israel for twelve years. The Bible relates that his first capital city was at Tirza, a locale between ancient Shechem (alongside today's Nablus) and the Jordan River. It was not fully suitable for a capital city, because although it was along the main east west axis across central Israel, it was off the best north south mountain trade route. King Omri sought a new site for his capital.
Samaria became capital of Israel, as Jerusalem was capital of Judea. Omri was later buried in Samaria, the city he built, and his son, King Ahab, also reigned there. When else in history has a king named his capital after the man from whom he purchased the land? Usually a king glorifies himself by his capital.
The site of King Omri's capital is on a prominent hill west of Nablus dominating the main north south route along the mountain spine of the land, and overlooking the Mediterranean coast some twenty miles west. Later, the same name Samaria (Shomron in Hebrew) was applied not only to the capital city there, but also to the entire region around it, as has been the case until our own time. The ancient capital at Samaria would be renamed Sebaste by King Herod some eight or nine centuries after Omri. Archaeologists have excavated the site in the 20th century; visitors can now wander through the remains of layers of magnificent cities.
The mountains of Samaria are the highest in the land west of the Jordan River, higher than Jerusalem, Judea, or the Galilee. From the hill of the ancient capital Samaria, the Mediterranean can be seen, and Mount Carmel above Haifa bay, and the coastal cities of Caesarea, Netanya, Herzlia, and Tel Aviv. King Omri's choice of site for his capital had clear strategic value in his day; it does so now.
During World War I, the Ottoman Turks, with German assistance, built a railway from Damascus to Sinai, with a key junction and station at the foot of ancient Samaria. In 1918, the final British military campaign in the Holy Land jumped off from near Tel Aviv with an initial objective of capturing the strategic road, rail junction, and height at Samaria. The British assault, with cavalry leading the breakthrough, succeeded in reaching Samaria in only one day and Tiberias further northwest in but three. Israel is a small country, and strategic terrain has had consistent value over the ages.
It was from the heights of Samaria that Arab Iraqi forces in 1948 nearly cut the young and diminutive State of Israel in two. The narrow waist of pre--1967 Israel beneath and in view of Samaria was less wide at its narrowest (about nine miles) than New Jersey is wide (thirty miles) or Manhattan Island is long (thirteen miles).
Is it coincidental that Shemer was the name of the man who sold land to King Omri for the capital of Israel? The linguistic Hebrew root of shemer means "guard," "preserve," or "watch." Samaria, named for Shemer, geographically dominates, "guards" if you will, western Eretz Yisrael. Samaria is the geographical heart of the Jewish homeland. If one looks at a map of Israel and is asked to point to the geographical center of gravity of the country, one's finger will instinctively gravitate to the region about ancient Samaria and Shechem.
In fact, it was in the hills of Samaria at Alon Moreh and Shechem, that Abraham, who began the Jewish story about 3,500 years ago, first sojourned in Eretz Yisrael and it was at this central, guardian region that the Israelite people led by Joshua first gathered after their victory over the Canaanites about 3,100 years ago. Jews, the 'People of The Book,' are so--named as the people of Judea, descended from Judah, and Samaria is the heartland of Israel. So it has been for three millennia.
Thus much more is implicit in the names Judea Samaria and West Bank than is generally known. If the French epigram that the "pursuit of truth lies in nuance" is itself true, it certainly behooves conscientious people to pursue truth by appreciating nuance, if a first class political issue can be called a "nuance."
Before 1948, books on the geography of the Holy Land never utilized the term West Bank, but rather referred to the region as usually done since the biblical period, i.e., as Judea and Samaria. A suggestion: since the Arab--oriented term West Bank is so prevalent in journalistic, political and common use, it behooves those who would be more accurate, or balanced, to at minimum refer to the land in question along the lines of 'West Bank, the relatively new name for what was traditionally called Judea and Samaria.' Or better, invert the order and recast the line as: 'Judea and Samaria, the traditional names for what only recently has been called West Bank.'
1. During the battle of Antietam or Sharpsburg on September 17, 1862, nine times as many American casualties were suffered than on June 6, 1944, D--Day. Antietam / Sharpsburg saw more American casualties than the Revolutionary, 1812, Mexican and Spanish--American wars combined. The battle provided President Lincoln with the victory he needed to announce the abolition of slavery in the South, and with the Proclamation of Emancipation, he broadened the base of war support and may have prevented England and France from lending support to the Confederacy, because it engaged in human bondage. The battle sealed the fate of the secessionists: curious that it is less well known than those fought at Gettysburg, Bull Run / Manassas, or Pittsburgh Landing / Shiloh.
The author earned a masters degree from the London School of Economics in international relations and worked as a political analyst for several years in Israel.