The Department of Corrections: Ben-Hur, the LA Times & a place called Palestine

Israel/Palestine
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“You know the law – every son of Israel must have some occupation.”
Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, Chapter IV

ben hur charlton hestonOn September 26, The Los Angeles Times ran a short Calendar section item on the new belated 50th anniversary, fully restored DVD and Blu-Ray editions of William Wyler’s 1959 blockbuster biblical epic Ben-Hur. The film, which was based on an 1880 novel by former Civil War general and New Mexico territory governor Lew Wallace, is described by the paper as a “period drama [that] revolves around Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a Palestinian nobleman who is enslaved by the Romans, engages in one of the most thrilling chariot races ever captured on screen, and even encounters Jesus Christ.”

As no innocuous (or factual) mention of “Palestine” goes unpunished, especially when the culprit is a major American publication, the Zionist advocacy group, The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), was immediately on the case.

The same day the Ben-Hur blurb appeared, CAMERA issued a call to its supporters to contact the Times and complain about its usage of the term “Palestinian nobleman” to describe Ben-Hur’s title character, claiming, “Of course, there was no such place as ‘Palestine’ in the time of Jesus, since the Romans didn’t rename Judea as ‘Palestina’ until a hundred years after the death of Jesus.”

Considering CAMERA’s supposed interest in “accuracy”, it should be noted that its condemnation calls Ben-Hur a “1951 Hollywood blockbuster.” In reality, the film was released in November 1959. 

Nevertheless, two days later, as a result of CAMERA’s complain-campaign, theLA Times printed a correction to its original item. It apologized for referring to Ben-Hur as a “Palestinian nobleman” and continued:

“The character Ben-Hur was a Jew from Judea who lived long before the place now known as Palestine was given that name.”

Unfortunately, the paper was far too quick to issue this correction and should have checked some primary sources rather than merely rely on the flurry of emails and phone calls from outraged and misinformed Zionists for their historical information.

To call CAMERA’s claim that “there was no such place as ‘Palestine’ in the time of Jesus” is a matter of revisionism is an understatement. The allegation is not only simply false, it is a deliberate lie.

Specific references to “Palestine” date back nearly five hundred years before “the time of Jesus.” In the 5th Century BC, Herodotus, the first historian in Western civilization, referenced “Palestine” numerous times in chronicle of the ancient world, The Histories, including the following passage describing “Syrians of Palestine”:

“…they live in the coastal parts of Syria; and that region of Syria and all that lies between it and Egypt is called Palestine.” (VII.89)

The above translation by Harry Carter is featured in the 1958 Heritage Press edition of Herodotus’ famous work. Both older and newer versions corroborate the accuracy of the reference. A. D. Godley’s 1920 translation of the crucial line states, “This part of Syria as far as Egypt is all called Palestine”, while Robin Waterfield’s 1998 updated Oxford translation renders the passage this way: “This part of Syria, all the way to the border with Egypt, is known as Palestine.”

A hundred years later, in the mid-4th Century BC (still nearly four hundred years before the birth of Wallace’s fictional hero), Aristotle made reference to the Dead Sea in his Meteorology. “Again if, as is fabled, there is a lake in Palestine, such that if you bind a man or beast and throw it in it floats and does not sink, this would bear out what we have said,” he wrote. “They say that this lake is so bitter and salt that no fish live in it and that if you soak clothes in it and shake them it cleans them.” (II.3)

Two hundred years later, in the mid-2nd Century BC, ancient geographer Polemon wrote of a place “not far from Arabia in the part of Syria called Palestine,” while Greek travel writer Pausanias wrote in his Description of Greece, “In front of the sanctuary grow palm-trees, the fruit of which, though not wholly edible like the dates of Palestine, yet are riper than those of Ionia.” (9.19.8)

Despite the claim “the Romans didn’t rename Judea as ‘Palestina’ until a hundred years after the death of Jesus,” contemporaries of Jesus also routinely referred to Palestine as, well, Palestine. For instance, in the first decade of the 1st Century, the Roman poet Ovid mentioned Palestine in both his famed mythological poem Metamorphoses and his erotic elegy The Art of Love. He also wrote of “the waters of Palestine” in his calendrical poem Fasti. Around the same time, another Latin poet Tibullus wrote of “the crowded cities of Palestine” in a section “Messalla’s Triumph” in his poem Delia. Incidentally, Ben-Hur’s childhood friend and subsequent betrayer is named Messala.

The bulk of the action of Ben-Hur takes place in the third decade of the 1st Century CE. The noted Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, writing around the very same time, opined, “Also Syria in Palestine, which is occupied by no small part of the very populous nation of the Jews, is not unproductive of honourable virtue.” (XII.75)

The Jewish historian Josephus (c.37-100 CE) was born and raised in Jerusalem, a military commander in Galilee during the First Jewish Revolt against the occupying Roman authority, acted as negotiator during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE and later penned vital volumes of Levantine Jewish history. His The Jewish War, Antiquities of the Jews, and Against Apion all contain copious references to Palestine and Palestinians. Towards the end of Antiquities, Josephus writes,

“I shall now, therefore, make an end here of my Antiquities; after the conclusion of which events, I began to write that account of the war; and these Antiquities contain what hath been delivered down to us from the original creation of man, until the twelfth year of the reign of Nero, as to what hath befallen the Jews, as well in Egypt as in Syria and in Palestine, and what we have suffered from the Assyrians and Babylonians, and what afflictions the Persians and Macedonians, and after them the Romans, have brought upon us; for I think I may say that I have composed this history with sufficient accuracy in all things.” (XX.11.2) [emphasis added]

Josephus’ own emphasis on accuracy appears to be far more credible than that of CAMERA.

The claim that the Roman emperor Hadrian, eager to punish Jewish inhabitants of Judea after the Bar Kokhba Revolt, officially changed the name of the region to “Syria Palaestina” or simply “Palestine” in 135 CE and forced the Jewish community into exile is dubious at best, especially when, by then, the terms “Syrian Palestine” and “Palestine” had already been in use for over six hundred years.

It should certainly be pointed out that Wallace’s original text of Ben-Hur makes no mention of “Palestine” and consistently refers to “Judea”, “Judeans”, “the land of Israel” and “Israelites.” With this in mind, I agree that an appropriate description of the Ben-Hur character would be as a “Judean prince” or even a “Jewish nobleman.” Nevertheless, referring to him as a “Palestinian” is not at all inaccurate or incorrect, nor should it be in any way offensive or cause of umbrage. To lead a charge against such a reference is to promote not only the rewriting of history, both ancient and modern, but also to encourage the continual Zionist efforts to erasedestroy and deny Palestinian history and culture in their own historic homeland.

And yet, the major U.S. newspaper went out of its way to announce that “Ben-Hur was a Jew from Judea who lived long before the place now known as Palestine was given that name,” a statement clearly lacking in any semblance of accuracy. 

It appears to be time for the Los Angeles Times to issue a correction on their correction.

Nima Shirazi blogs at Wide Asleep in America. You can follow him on Twitter at @wideasleepNima.

About Nima Shirazi

Nima Shirazi is co-editor of the Iran, Iraq and Turkey pages for the online magazine Muftah. His political analysis can be found on his blog, WideAsleepinAmerica.com, where this post first appeared. Follow him on Twitter @WideAsleepNima.

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