A Brief History of the Name “Palestine”

You often hear people refer to the land of Israel as “Palestine.” Why is that? Where did that name come from, and is it a term you should use?

About four thousand years ago, the Hebrews settled in the land known as Israel. Their leader, Abraham, even legally purchased some of the land himself. However, due to famine, his descendants fled to Egypt, where they ended up being enslaved for over 400 years. Then, in 1446 BC, these Hebrews (who called themselves “Israelites”) escaped from slavery and returned to their rightful land.

These dates are important, because there were other people who were interested in that same land: the Philistines. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Goliath—the giant killed by David around 1012 BC—was a Philistine. Evidence for Philistine presence in the area first shows up around 1150 BC—just about 300 years after the Israelites had settled the land.

So, who were these Philistines, and where did they come from?

According to the Hebrew Bible as well as the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible—and confirmed by modern genetic testing—the Philistines were a sea-faring European people. That’s right—the Philistines were colonizing Europeans. And after their repeated attempts to invade northern Africa were repelled by the Egyptians, they set their sights on another land—Israel.

In the middle of 12th century BC, the Philistines arrived at the borders of Israel, built a handful of cities, and then spent several hundred years trying to conquer the Israelites. As you probably know based on the David and Goliath story, these plans never succeeded, and they eventually stopped their continued invasions and were satisfied to remain just outside the land of Israel. There they remained until 604 BC, when they were conquered and scattered by the Babylonians. With the destruction of their five towns and the scattering of their citizens, the Philistines genetically ceased to be a people.

Fast forward 700 years. The Jews (a subset of Israelites) have never left their land but have been subjugated by just about every superpower that has existed in the interim—the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. The Jews have launched a number of rebellions hoping to win their freedom. Some are moderately successful (the Maccabean Revolt), but most are failures. One such failed revolt—the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 AD—particularly pisses off Roman Emperor Hadrian, and as punishment for the Jews’ insolence, he renames their homeland “Palestine”—after their ancient invaders, the Philistines.

In other words, the (at that time) current colonizing European invader renamed the land after another colonizing European invader that never succeeded in capturing the land, never dwelt in the land, and no longer even existed. They renamed it to pour salt in the wound of the most historically oppressed population in the entire world. A population that was almost systematically wiped off the planet less than 100 years ago. A population that is still the most hated group of people on the planet.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with the make-believe title created by Romans to punish the Jews. I’m satisfied referring to it by its historical name: Israel.