The Dreaded’ P-word: Palestine

The left-wing 'thought-police' is often said to go too far, but now, it is elements in the Israeli right who are doing exactly the same thing.

Recently, I helped establish the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

Last month, we held an online discussion. The scholars we invited to lead the discussion provided the public with a source-sheet of Jewish texts. They had recorded their own three-way video-conference, in which they engaged in a philosophical discussion of those texts. They posted their video on Youtube and a wonderful discussion ensued.

Excerpts from the Babylonian Talmud.
Limor Adary

However, something about the way we advertised our discussion provoked an angry/sarcastic e-mail. These are the sources that we publicized as background material for the discussion:

• Mishna Sanhedrin 9:6
• Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 81b-82b
• Palestinian Talmud Sanhedrin 27b

Can you spot the offensive phrase? Yes, we used the P-word. We spoke of the “Palestinian Talmud.”

Now, of course, this is completely unremarkable to anyone who has worked in academic Jewish-studies. There are two Talmuds: one of them is a compendium of discussions held in Babylon, while the other is one of discussions held in the land of Israel. In the yeshiva world, these are known as the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi respectively. In the university world, the two Talmuds are overwhelmingly referred to as the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud.

Nevertheless, I received a somewhat irate e-mail from a gentleman who is both an ordained rabbi and a university teacher of engineering. These were his words: “I have never before heard of a “Palestinian Talmud”. Is this some new invention of the liberal modernity?”

Long before the rise of Palestinian national consciousness, the land of Israel was almost universally referred to as Palestine in the English language. Thus, our Zionist forbears lobbied for a Jewish state in the land of Palestine. The Jewish agency published posters to help the fledgling pre-state Jewish economy, which read, “Visit Palestine”, Carmel Wines still produces a kosher wine called “Palwin – Palestinian Wine”, which used to be made by the pre-State Jewish Palestinian Wine Company, and, let us not forget that the main English-speaking Jewish paper for the Jews in Israel was called “The Palestine Post”, now “The Jerusalem Post”.

Admittedly, the name, “Palestine” was foisted upon this land by the Romans. After quelling the second major Jewish revolt against Rome, Hadrian changed the name of “Provincia Judaea” to “Provincia Syria Palaestina.” “Palaestina” after our long extinct Biblical enemies, the Philistines. Hadrian evidently wanted to rub salt in the wounds of our defeat. But, that name stuck. That’s what the land was called in English for many generations, by Jews and non-Jews alike. That’s why, in English, the Israeli Talmud became known as the Palestinian Talmud.

Talking of the Palestinian Talmud neither endorses nor denies the modern phenomenon of an Arab Palestinian National consciousness. It neither endorses nor rejects the territorial compromises that Israel would have to make to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside itself. To talk of the Palestinian Talmud is merely to use the name that academia generally uses. Academia has been using that name continuously, long before the P-word became politically charged.

Having explained all this, in more irate tones to our e-mailer, regrettably, I turned up my scorn another notch: “[G]oing out of our way not to use the term would, I believe, indicate that we belonged to a reactionary sect of ultra-conservatives that was afraid of its own shadow lest it be interpreted, G-d forbid, as a liberal, and be reported to the McCarthy House Committee for Un-Zionist Activity.”

Things only got worse, when he replied, having, apparently, done some research, to discover that “no self-respecting Jewish scholar of Judaism had ever referred to it as the Palestinian Talmud.” Jews with self-respect had always called it the Jerusalem Talmud or the Talmud of the Land of Israel. This was just ignorance on his part. But, offensive ignorance nonetheless, as it obviously implies that we, at the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism, are not self-respecting Jews. Oh well.

I regret replying so bombastically. Actually, I want to understand what motivated his initial e-mail. Contrary to what he thought, calling it the Palestinian Talmud could actually help the cause of the Israeli right-wing. It indicates, or implies, that the ancient Palestinians were not, as Arafat might have argued, Arab ancestors of the Fatah movement; rather, they were Jewish rabbis writing a Talmud.

On the other hand, the P-word used to be politically neutral, but now, things have changed. Zionism is increasingly under attack by a pro-Palestinian lobby that refuses to recognise Jewish national identity. To them, talk of Israel, or the State of Israel, is talk of a foreign imperialist outpost in the midst of indigenous Arab-Palestine. Given that we have come under attack in this way, to continue to use the P-word, as if it is still neutral, is to be blind to the fact that we may well be fuelling our own deligitimization, by erasing Israeli and Jewish national consciousness.

But, to change our use of language for such reasons is to give in to the siege mentally that we are building around ourselves; it is to view ourselves as constantly under attack; and to calibrate our behaviour to the tune that our detractors are singing. Isn’t that exactly what the Zionist dream was supposed to stop?

The left-wing, with its sensitivity to political correctness, is often said to go too far. It is said that when political correctness goes mad, it amounts to a thought-and-language police. But now, it is elements in the Israeli right who are doing exactly the same thing: ruling out neutral uses of the P-word, barring peaceful law-abiding citizens of friendly countries from entering if they’re going to say or do things with which we may disagree and writing laws that punish people and organisations for holding certain political views

We are being ruled by a devastating fear. They might all be out to get us, but the fear of their hatred is debilitating. We have to break free from this fear before it transforms us into the ogre that our detractors already take us for.

Dr. Samuel Lebens teaches Jewish philosophy at Yeshivat Har’el in the Old City of Jerusalem. He studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.