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Exile and the prophetic: Naming it Palestine, and being censored for doing so

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

“Palestine.”  The very name evokes so much.  That’s why I found Martin Hughes’s post on the history of the word and territory fascinating.  

Naming is what sets humans apart.  Naming brings being into existence – beyond being.  On the personal level, names aren’t interchangeable.  This is true for collectives as well. 

On the Israel/Palestine scene, naming is crucial.  Barbra Streisand still calls Palestinians within the state of Israel, “Arabs,” as she did when she accepted her honorary Doctorate from Hebrew University last week. Evidently “Palestinian” doesn’t role off her tongue as easily as (Jewish) women’s rights.

A few months ago I lectured at a seminary in Puerto Rico. A rabbi and two of his congregants came to revile me.  He led with his mighty right hook:  “There never was a Palestine, that name was never used.  Why do you lie about everything?”

If I had a dime for every time that “Palestine-never-existed” came my way, I’d be wealthy. 

But naming goes both ways.  If I could count the times my naming has been changed by well-meaning and supportive editors, I’d be wealthier still.

Below I cite four interesting examples of times I have been censored for naming. 

The lesson – Censorship doesn’t only come from conservative forces.

The message – If you stop people from naming realities beyond what you see or beyond what benefits you or your organization, then the discussion you seek to foster falters.  You and the people you represent lose out.  At any rate, it’s only a matter of time before the real naming takes root.

 Example 1:

After the Oslo Accords were signed, a prominent Palestinian academic journal asked me for an essay.  When I received the edited version back, I noticed one substantive change.  It had to with surrender.

In my text, I referred to Oslo as a Palestinian surrender. I noted that there was no shame in surrender since at certain times surrendering is the only way to survive to fight another day.  I noted as well that Jews specialize in surrendering.  This is one of the reasons Jews are on the scene today.

When I queried the editor, she understood my point but, in her view,the journal was hardly the place for this naming.  Why hang out Palestinian dirty laundry for all to see? The editors wanted Oslo named something else.

Example 2:

A few years later a Rabbi asked me for an essay for a book he was editing on the meaning of the Holocaust for contemporary Jews.  When I received a copy of the book, my use of “Holocaust” had been changed to “Shoah.”

Shoah means catastrophe, which the Holocaust certainly was, but the use of Shoah instead of Holocaust is precisely to further separate the Jewish experience of destruction from those who now use Holocaust to describe experiences of their people.  Without consulting me, the editor had changed the trajectory of my thought.  He wanted the Holocaust reserved for Jews. 

Example 3:

I was present at the origins of a Palestinian Christian liberation center located in Jerusalem.   When I started arguing that the Two State solution was over more than a decade ago, I was considered a troublemaker and was effectively banned from their conferences. 

The Palestinians knew I was right.  They didn’t want the end of the Two State solution named in public under their auspices.  Today, the One State option is freely discussed in their conferences.  But think of the time lost.  Wouldn’t it have been better to name what everyone knew to be true?

 Example 4:

 Three years ago I was invited to a college in upstate New York to give a major lecture in a series featuring controversial issues. They asked a local Jewish educator to respond to my lecture.  Usually these responses are hatchet jobs delivered by Progressive Jews.

To my surprise, my respondent agreed with all my points save one.  The disagreement had to do with the ethnic cleaning of Palestinians in the creation of the state of Israel. His point: The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – which he agreed occurred – was not named as such then.  The term “ethnic cleansing” came into usage only in the last decades.  His conclusion:  What happened to Palestinians should be named something else.

Since he accepted my major points, I was taken aback. I offered to find another term for what happened to Palestinians If Jews abandoned the term “Holocaust” for what happened to Europe’s Jews.  The way we conceptualize and name the “Holocaust” as a Jews-only event only became normative in the late 1960s.

I have so many examples of censored naming it could fill a book.  At first it makes you angry.  After a while, you relax and let it roll over you.  Sometimes it’s humorous.  As often happens in censored naming, the censor doesn’t quite get it.

My latest example is an essay I wrote for a book supporting the One State option.  The editors didn’t like my nuanced approach and so “corrected” and eliminated certain passages that didn’t comport with their ideas.   I found it amusing and allowed them their editorial privilege.  Since they were looking for the big differences they didn’t realize that what I had to say remained in passages they didn’t quite get.  As I say, the essay was nuanced.  They only understood the sledge hammer. 

If censors are so entangled in false naming, you know it’s just a matter of time until they have to change.  In the meantime, the challenge is to keep yourself untangled.  While they’re sitting still, keep moving.

In the meantime you can still experience the power of naming.  Shout out “Palestine” in a local synagogue service, at an Anti-Defamation League meeting, in a university Jewish Studies conference or during a Holocaust Remembrance luncheon. Note the response.

“Palestine” has a way of unnerving our empire sophisticates – in ancient times and today.



Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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15 Responses

  1. quirx
    June 23, 2013, 1:32 pm

    I am so glad to see a piece on naming. Throughout history naming has been extremely important – think of Rumple Stiltskin, names of tribes, various gods, and family names (and family names based on one’s profession).

    Here is a very interesting and very long essay about the term ‘holocaust’ referring to what happened under Nazi Germany to the Jews [link to essay at]. It is written by a Jew and he is not in any way deny the holocaust or anything like that.

    It has always struck me as odd that the shoah was termed ‘holocaust’ in relation to the experience of Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany. Seeing as how in general, ‘holocaust’ refers to a burnt offering (a religious ritual) to God/G-d/YHWH, was this horrible experience deemed to be that with respect to Jews?? Does or did anyone look at the shoah (again, only with reference to Jewish experience) as a religious burnt offering?

    The author addresses that and notes the thinking of Elie Wiesel on the matter.

    The idea of it has always sickened and disgusted me actually.

  2. just
    June 23, 2013, 2:14 pm

    “the power of naming.”

    An amazing and powerful essay, Professor Ellis. Thank you.

  3. piotr
    June 23, 2013, 3:20 pm

    Because names have such power, it is worthwhile to consider if they should have that power. After all, it should be obvious that names are labels developed to describe “typical cases” and then extended in usage in a manner that must be arbitrary to some extend. After all, the underlying reality does not stem from the laws of physics but from human ideas that are mutable and subjective.

    In some sense, names are like bullets. By themselves, they do not do anything. But we may be worried when we see some people using them. For example, can we kill someone using the word “uncooperative”? Daniel Silva of Bakersfield, California was found in the state of repose next to a public sidewalk, thus disturbing the peace and prompting an intervention of the county police. According to the official statements, he was uncooperative so police used force. That picked my interest, because police is also using more active term “resisting arrest”, but “uncooperative” sounds rather passive. However, one act of Silva was described: a dog was sent to restrain him, and rather than cooperate, Silva grabbed the poor canine by the neck. What followed was a very vigorous defense of the mistreated animal, and after several minutes Silva died. The coroner attributed that death to the heart condition of the deceased, rather than following tempting fallacy “post hoc ergo propter hoc”.

    Thus in many context the name/label “uncooperative” is at most slightly deregatory, but sometimes it is a licence to beat until the subject does not even twitch. If I had an argument with the Sherif of Kern County I would not try to remove “uncooperative” label from Silva but attack the very premise that you can utilize that label in such a brutal (and lethal) manner. (And what type of cooperation with police dogs is required by the Police Department?).

  4. DICKERSON3870
    June 23, 2013, 3:49 pm

    RE: “Naming it Palestine, and being censored for doing so”

    GEORGE ORWELL (excerpted from Politics and the English Language, 1946):

    . . . In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

    “While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

    The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

    But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like ‘a not unjustifiable assumption’, ‘leaves much to be desired’, ‘would serve no good purpose’, ‘a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind’, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. . .

    SOURCE (“Politics and the English Language”, 1946) –

  5. DICKERSON3870
    June 23, 2013, 4:01 pm

    RE: “Barbra Streisand still calls Palestinians within the state of Israel, ‘Arabs’, as she did when she accepted her honorary Doctorate from Hebrew University last week.” ~ Marc Ellis

    MY COMMENT: Streisand’s use of ‘Arabs’ instead of ‘Palestinians’ calls to (my) mind Iran’s use of “the Zionist entity” instead of ‘Israel’.
    Go figure!

  6. Citizen
    June 23, 2013, 6:35 pm

    And, to comment on this article, and continue the comments under another recent thread here reagading historical Palestine, and the myriad of people involved back in ancinent times. here’s DNA test results–seems Jewish and Palestinian males have more genetic material in common than the respective females:

    I’m reminded that some Jewish leader recently noted he couldn’t tell a Jewish Israeli male from a Palestinian Israeli. Well, neither typically looks like Pat Boone, or Justin Bieber, do they?

    • James Canning
      James Canning
      June 25, 2013, 7:04 pm

      Jews in Israel have a more varied ethnic origin than do the Palestinians, at least as regards past century or so.

  7. W.Jones
    June 23, 2013, 6:51 pm

    Example 1. I am not sure that surrender is the right term, but it is not out of the ballpark either! It is like alot of treaties with the Native Americans. The army had much larger forces and the Indians often chose to sign them. Some treaties were worse than others, and there were many treaties. At the end of the “process” and the treaties, what did the Indians have? So in a sense they are surrenders, but perhaps in another sense they can be “treaties” where the native group loses alot. And yet, what better word is there?

    I can see the editors’ desire to avoid admitting how humiliating the treaty was they signed. And I see how you arguably put this humiliation too strong. And yet, shouldn’t they and their readers realize that this was a humiliating treaty that is alot like a surrender? Should the realization of the blow be softened like a painkiller?

    Example 3

    I was present at the origins of a Palestinian Christian liberation center located in Jerusalem. When I started arguing that the Two State solution was over more than a decade ago, I was considered a troublemaker and was effectively banned from their conferences.

    Sorry about that. Three explanations I can see are that (1) they saw it as too radical and wanted themselves to be seen as mainstream, hoping to get a larger audience as well as more tolerance from the government and the opposition. (2) Another explanation could be that they wanted to see the Two State Solution as a possibility and as a real goal they could push towards so that Palestinians in the territory could get sovereignty. (3) A third explanation could be that they themselves still saw the Two State Solution as a real possibility- after all, even Finkelstein still promotes this, Marc.

    Nonetheless, the reality has set in enough due to the settlements that people dedicated to liberation movements are most likely sympathetic and at least tolerant of this practical observation.

    In any case, good job on example 3, Marc.

  8. James Canning
    James Canning
    June 23, 2013, 7:29 pm

    Bravo. One is continually amused, or shocked perhaps, that ardent supporters of Israel right or wrong claim Palestine never existed.

  9. Naftush
    June 24, 2013, 2:01 am

    I’ll limit myself to the “Shoah” vs. “Holocaust” remark. The author sees Jewish/Zionist supremacism and subterfuge under every sofa. In fact, Jewish commentary in Europe seems much to prefer “Shoah” to “Holocaust,” possibly because holocaust in French denotes a willing sacrificial offering and not a disaster, as shoah suggests.

    • Ecru
      June 24, 2013, 7:49 am

      Sorry they’ve changed emphasis from “holocaust” to “shoah”because of French? I’m sorry how many languages are there in Europe again? And the international language, the Lingua Franca of today – isn’t that English? As excuses go – what you’re trying is pretty weak and pathetic.

    • piotr
      June 24, 2013, 8:12 am

      The true significance here is not in using this term or that term but in replacing the choice made by the other person. Nobody uses the term holocaust according to its original meaning in Ancient Greece, “sacrifice by complete burning” (show me a citation if I am wrong). (Even in the original meaning, the act of sacrifice was “willing”, but the subject was pitiful, as holokaustos was applied to animals; I am not familiar with examples of willing human sacrifice that was completely burned). So indeed the only distinction between Holocaust and Shoah is that one term can be applied to various nations, and another cannot.

      Why should the editor intervene?

  10. iResistDe4iAm
    June 24, 2013, 6:39 am

    Even the BBC censors the word Palestine then absurdly claims that “implying that it is not free is the contentious issue”

  11. Woody Tanaka
    Woody Tanaka
    June 24, 2013, 12:09 pm

    On the “Shoah”/”Holocaust” issue, I think that the only viable solution, in light of history, is that the former term is to be used when one wishes to discuss the systematic murder of the Jewish population 1941 (or even 1933) – 1945, but the latter should refer to all of the German systematic murders during that time frame, only one of which was of the Jewish people. Thus, the Shoah was a subset of the Holocaust.

  12. MHughes976
    June 24, 2013, 4:15 pm

    Thank you for kind words about my Ancient Palestine stuff – Martin

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