Coby Lubliner

Berkeley, the town where I live, is a cosmopolitan place. In its many coffeehouses it’s quite common to see readers of foreign-language newspapers, which can be readily bought (a few days late) in several shops near the campus. And so I was not the least bit surprised to observe, as I recently looked over the shoulder of a customer seated near me and with his back to me, that the paper he was reading was in Hebrew. The headline said something about the Palestinians; at least the first word was hapalestina’im (’the Palestinians’). But I couldn’t see the whole word, only the first six letters: hé pé lamed shin tav yod. And it struck me that if that yod had been followed by a final mem, then the word would have been haplishtim – ‘the Philistines.’

Palaestina is the name that the Romans gave to the country that the Jews have always known as Eretz Yisra’el (the Land of Israel), and when Greek or Latin names (or other words) are borrowed by Hebrew, the combination st is normally transliterated as samekh tet. But Palaestina is ultimately derived from ‘Philistines,’ and the Hebrew spelling with shin tav is intended to reflect this etymology. It seems that the Hebrew word Palestina, thus spelled, first came into being when British administration of Palestine began in 1920, and it was feared that the use of Eretz Yisra’el as the country’s official Hebrew name would antagonize the Arabs. Consequently – as any philatelist knows – the postage stamps of mandatory Palestine bear the names Palestine and Falastin in English and Arabic, respectively; and, in Hebrew, Palestina, with the initials aleph yod, in parentheses, representing – like a secret handshake – the traditional name.

I don’t know if Israelis, when they see the name of their present adversaries in print, think of Israel’s archenemies of three millennia ago. I have not read or heard about such an association; but it would not surprise me. It would, after all, not be so far-fetched as the statement, just the other day, by Ariel Sharon’s spokesman Ra‘anan Gissin (in an interview with a Spanish journalist) that “Arafat is a modern Pharaoh.” To equate the besieged, pathetic figure of Yasser Arafat with the ruler of one of antiquity’s great empires is surreally absurd. The conflict between the Israelites and the Pharaoh took place in the latter’s land, and it was the Pharaoh, not the Israelites, who had the chariots. What the Israelites had was a terrorist mastermind (nom de guerre: Yahweh, or Jehovah, or the Lord) who perpetrated ten acts of unalloyed terror, mostly of a biological nature, against the civilian population of Egypt. If anyone resembles the Pharaoh of the Exodus, in his obstinate brushoffs of Moses and Aaron, it is Sharon.

The wars between the Israelites and the Philistines occurred in the same territory as the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But here, too, the analogy is upside-down. After all, it was the Philistines who ruled over Israel (Judges 14:4), not vice versa. And the deadly tricks that Samson, while holding the rank of judge (or something like Chairman of the Israelite Authority), played on them, – smiting thirty men of Ashkelon (14:19), burning fields and vineyards with firebrands attached to foxes’ tails (15:4-5), smiting a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass (15:5) – surely qualify as terrorist activity against an occupying enemy.

It is the blinded, shackled, imprisoned Samson who most resembles Arafat in his present state, evocative of a sad clown. Sharon’s cynical disparagement of Arafat’s feeble, probably feigned attempts at stopping the violence are reminiscent of Samson’s being made to “make sport” before the Philistines (16:25).

But we must not forget that, in the end, Samson became the first recorded suicide bomber, using his extraordinary store of ATP (the chemical that gives muscles their power), rather than the not-yet-invented TNT or dynamite, as the explosive.

April 2, 2002

© 2002 by Jacob Lubliner

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