West Bank: Time To Retire the Term
By Aryeh Green
An Open Letter to the Editors of the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, YNet English, Haaretz English (and the Wall St. Journal, Washington Post, Times of London, CNN and other leading media)
One cannot read or hear about Israel without hearing the name “West Bank” used to describe the geographical area west of the Jordan river otherwise known by historians, geographers and cartographers for millenia as “Judea and Samaria”. Back in the Sixties, even the NY Times referred to it as “the west bank of the Jordan River” - ie. as a descriptive phrase, not a proper noun designating a territory - along the lines of the “rive guache” (the “left bank” of the river Seine) in Paris, as it were. It has become so prevalent, even journalists and Jewish leaders use the term “West Bank”. Yet it is a term that indiscriminately, and erroneously, alters perceptions and misrepresents the historical and legal facts relating to the area.
It's funny but not: I was just discussing with a congressman the fact that Burma has managed to persuade the world to call it Myanmar; Ceylon convinced the world to call it Sri Lanka; Siam, Thailand; even Hungary has many in the world respecting its use of its tribal roots name, Magyar. American Indians are now called Native Americans at their insistence, and even Mount McKinley was recently renamed to reflected its original nomenclature of “Denali,” with the blessing of President Obama.
Isn't it time Jews, indigenous to Judea, insist on the natural and historically accurate terms used to describe us and our region?
Please don't stop reading here. This is not a political rant.
Those who know me know: I'm no right-winger. I am perfectly comfortable, like the majority of Israelis, considering the idea of a withdrawal from the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria, ancient heartland of our ancestral homeland, in the pursuit of real peace with our Arab neighbors. (Or if not "comfortable", at least willing to consider....) So my point here is not a political one in support of a policy agenda in favor of building in the territories, though that's also a supportable argument.
If we wish the world to pursue even-handed and reasonable policies toward us and our legitimate security and national concerns, including territorial, wouldn't it behoove us to at least consistently use terminology which reflects historical and linguistic, if also geographical and cartographical, reality?
Leading lights of the Left - from Prof. Shlomo Avineri through Mossi Raz to MK Yitzhak Herzog recently (to say nothing of Rabin and Ben Gurion) - back up the apolitical nature of this contention. It’s not a right-wing thing: even if we wish to cede territory, the starting point must be the veracity of our claim to it, the indigenous nature of our people in this land and the very legitimacy of the founding of the nation-state of the Jewish people here. (This, aside from our legal claim based on international law, considering that the defensive nature of the ‘67 6-Day War, and not least our responding to constant shelling from Jordan, is taught by all western law schools as the paradigm of defensive war under the terms of the UN Charter.)
This means reasserting the very legitimacy of Zionism and Israel. It can - must - be done by our use of accurate, rather than political language. Describing this area as the "West Bank" is a political act, as much as many would say "but that's what everyone calls it". So went the argument against returning to a (historically more rigorous and justifiable) use of the names Myanmar, Sri Lanka, etc. Just because Jordan used the term to assert its claim for the 'other' side of the river and it was adopted by the Arabs and then most of the rest of the world is no excuse. And this is not merely true for our politicians and spokespeople, though it certainly should guide them as well.
I'd like to respectfully suggest we - politicians, journalists, authors and all others, Left & Right, who care about and support Israel’s right to exist, irrespective of political persuasion - refer to these Jewish communities as just that; Jewish communities or villages, perhaps adding "across the '49 armistice lines” as appropriate. And we should use the historical, geographical term Judea/Samaria; and then we can, as a nod to common practice, add a phrase such as "or, as much of the world calls it, the 'west bank' of the Jordan river". This acknowledges the fact that many/most refer to it as such, without legitimizing and perpetuating the term. We could, also, as policy, occasionally elaborate on the history and use of the terms (West Bank, Palestine, Judea & Samaria, the '49 armistice which explicitly does not prejudice the claims of either side, etc.) for the edification of viewers/readers/students and the like..
If we don't assert our legitimacy - linguistically and otherwise - how can we expect allies let alone foes to acknowledge and respect it?
A concerted effort by all Zionist organizations, media, government offices and academia over two or three years can change public perception as well as policy around the world. And the leadership of the mainstream Israeli press, as well as responsible media abroad, is instrumental - and crucially needed.
I hope you'll take this in the spirit offered - of national urgency as well as pride, and in understanding of the power of words in our continuing struggle for survival (and your tremendous power to influence public opinion and policy-makers).