Palestine never existed — or so, I have often been told, is a stock Zionist claim.
But what is meant by Palestine having, or having not, ‘existed’? Humans have lived and died in the region we call Palestine for about as long as our species has walked the earth, regardless of who had the biggest club, the grandest throne, or the most F16s. What does it mean for the land to have been, or not to have been, ‘Palestine’? And how does it alter the present-day political, legal, or ethical landscape?
I have occasionally argued with people who claim that Zionists deny the existence of the geographic term ‘Palestine’ before the post-1948 resistance. Well, maybe there are such individuals, but it is not the claim made by any savvy Zionist. The misunderstanding leaves individuals supporting Palestinian justice open to being proven ‘wrong’ on a straw issue.
The mainstream Zionist construct is not that there was ‘no Palestine’, but rather that Palestine never existed as a sovereign, independent political entity. In the course of the arguments I’ve had over this, I have encountered such resistance that I even been accused of secretly being on the ‘other side’.
A postcard addressed to Golda Meir in Palestine recently made the Facebook rounds in order to ‘prove’ that even Zionist leaders acknowledged that Palestine ‘existed’. Most commonly, late nineteenth century maps of Palestine whose titles label it as such viralize on social media in the belief that they ‘prove’ the Zionists wrong.
But they do not. Such artifacts merely demonstrate that the land was being referred to as such, not that ‘Palestine existed’ in our cultural concept of a political-geographic space. The Zionist claim is even more fundamentally ludicrous, but it is not contradicted by the word ‘Palestine’.
Herewith an attempt to clarify this issue.
A few days ago, an interesting Facebook exchange I had with Jocelyn Hurndall about this topic was screen-grabbed by a troll and written about by the prolific pro-Israel blogger, Daphne Anson.
Ms. Anson (I will assume that Daphne Anson is the blogger’s real name) summarizes her position thus:
When will these people get it through their heads that the issue is not whether the name Palestine was applied to the Holy Land (it was, by the Romans, in order to erase the Jewish connection with Eretz Israel) but whether there was a sovereign state of Palestine as pro-Palestinian activists such as themselves maintain (there was not, of course, for since its invasion by Romans that land has always been ruled by someone else, latterly the Ottoman Empire, of which it was a backwater)?
Thank you Ms. Anson (if you’re trolling), yes, that clearly explains matters. But I note that you cropped out the rest of my Facebook posting that would have made your blog post moot.
To disentangle this issue, let’s first establish the reason for the Zionist claim that Palestine never existed as a sovereign, independent political entity: It is to justify Israeli ‘right’ to the land.
Let’s take a look at the three premises implicit in this logic.
1. The claim that Palestine was never a sovereign territory (we are supposed to think: never a ‘country’).
This claim is nonsensical on its face. Palestine includes regions that are among the longest inhabited on earth. Jericho, for example, has been continually inhabited for several millennia before there was any Biblical Israel.
The nation-state mindset that now seems universal, and what we intuit as political autonomy, was unknown until the last millisecond of human society. Palestine had local rule, regional rule, always blurring into other centers of power, as was the earth-wide political norm until the nation-state with its clinically defined borders — except, in superb irony, for Israel, which still refuses to commit itself to any borders. And like much of the rest of the world, Palestine also morphed in and out of occupations that exerted more or less control in conflict with, or collaboration with, local rule.
2. The claim that historical Israel was a sovereign political entity (we are supposed to think: the land in the Bible was a ‘country’).
The Zionist narrative, however, treats the Israel cited in the Judeo-Christian Old Testament as though it were a large, sovereign nation, and indeed a long-lived one. The ancient Biblical kingdom was “the Hebrew Nation”, as Revisionists referred to it during the British Mandate. And it had no antecedent; it was not simply one wave in the complex human history of the region, but was the unique defining sovereign entity of a vast swath of the Levant.
Finally, the settler state self-proclaimed in 1948 is the ‘reconstitution’ or ‘re-establishment’ of that ancient ‘nation’. To be sure this connection was embedded in our collective hard-wiring, Zionist leaders also exploited the psychological power of geographic place-names, giving their creation what they called ‘Jewish’ geographic identity — ‘Israel’ — since, as Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders put it in a secret meeting in 1941, “they would [otherwise] never get a Jewish majority”.* In other words, they would never have enough settlers unless they invoked the power of messianic nomenclature.
The Zionist ‘return’ to Israel — necessary for the settler state — requires the construct of a ‘diaspora’ composed of ‘the same people’ as the subjects of the Biblical realm, a geo-political entity with a population tied to it that is modular in both space and time. This association of an allegedly distinct population with an historical geographic term seeks, implicitly, to justify the expropriation and ethnic cleansing that Zionism pursues.
Geographic regions, not the ruler or religion du jour, have populations. Palestine, like anyplace else on earth, experienced waves of settlement, assimilation, local rule, influx, out-flux, conquest, colonization, influence in, influence out, natural disasters, and wars. Populations did not pick up and move in and out with changing faiths and sovereigns.
3. Connecting the dots: The claim that either  or  have any relevancy.
The overriding issue, however, is that none of this matters. The very argument is preposterous. Let’s say that nothing called Palestine was ever a sovereign state. Let’s say a great and mighty Eretz Israel ruled the land three thousand years ago. So what? Ancient history, whether evidence-based or Biblical, is irrelevant.
When beginning in the early 1880s, European Zionists decided to move on in, people already lived there, period, end-of-story. They had been living there for centuries, lived through the various upheavals, political shifts, wars, and all the other permutations that have defined human civilization.
The Zionist assertion that people’s right to live their own lives in their own homes on their own land is contingent on a ‘sovereign state’ having once ruled over them — ‘them’ itself a misleading term — is a chauvinistic perversion that not even our present-day notions of political space would accept. The argument is ludicrous, and like so much of the Zionist world construct, it seems that this reasoning is to apply only to Palestine, not to the rest of the world. (I can invent my own narrative: I am a descendant of Epipaleolithic civilization that once ruled the Levant with full political authority, strong but sagacious. My ancestors were booted out in 8671 BC. We have never given up hope of returning home.)
Ms. Anson decreed that “American violinist and propagandist against Zionism Tom Suarez … has become excited by some maps.” Having been involved in the history of cartography for decades, there were rare times when I became excited by fresh analysis of some maps. But my ‘excitement’ here consisted simply of pointing out that ‘Palestine’ appears on Western maps centuries before the late nineteenth century examples commonly invoked — and, agreeing 100% with Ms. Anson, that these maps do nothing to refute the Zionists’ claims. Those claims, rather, self-implode under the most elementary scrutiny of their internal logic and morality, without ‘Palestine’ or any other nomenclature entering the equation.
Maps, nomenclature, and geographic thought always reflect a society’s collective subconscious, and this is particularly relevant in the case of Palestine. It is no coincidence that most of the European mapping of the Holy Land during the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries was Biblically based, even as the same cartographers raced for the latest secular data for every place else in the world. (A sample of this phenomenon is seen in articles I wrote for the 2002 exhibit of Holy Land maps, Borders and Boundaries, mounted at the Herbert & Eileen Museum, Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, a small bit of which is available online.)
It is this same disconnect that today enables Israel to position itself as a realm from an ancient holy book in our allegedly modern, secular geographic world view. Indicative of the role of Palestine in the European cartographic psyche, the first printed map of European origin of certain date to be based on actual observation was of Palestine (see Rudimentum Novitiorum, open book, above). The work in which it appeared contained only one other map, the non- empirically based world map illustrated at the beginning of this article.**
* See Suárez, State of Terror, p73.
** The only European printed map of certain date preceding these 1475 works is a small schematic “T-O” map of 1472, whose nomenclature was limited to the three continents.
Tom Suárez’ books on the history of cartography include: Early Mapping of the Pacific, Charles E. Tuttle, 2004; Early Mapping of Southeast Asia,Charles E. Tuttle, 1999; Shedding the Veil: Mapping the European Discovery of America and the World, World Scientific, 1992; In edited volumes, ‘Early Portuguese Mapping of Siam’ (in Smithies, 500 Years of Thai-Portuguese Relations: A Festschrift, The Siam Society, 2011); ‘Genesis of the American West: The Cortes Map’ (in Cohen, Mapping the West, Rizzoli, 2002).