Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Arab-Israeli Conflict: Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Arab-Israeli Conflict: Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948

Article excerpt


Sacred Landscape: the Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, by Meron Benvenisti. Tr. by Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2000. ix + 340 pages. Notes to p. 352. Index to p. 366. $35.

Reviewed by Richard B. Parker

This important book describes the Hebraicization of place names and the obliteration of Arab villages and agriculture in what was Palestine, in order to affirm the Zionist ethos of moledet (or homeland) and to erase the Palestinians' claim to the land. Reading it gives one a new perspective on Woody Guthrie's "This Land is My Land," which could have been the theme song of this Israeli effort.

As yet another salvo in the post-Zionist dialogue that has produced so much soul-searching about Palestinian rights among Israelis, the book is a revelation to those of us who had assumed, if we gave any thought at all to the political importance of toponymy, that the renaming of localities and terrain features was the casual and inevitable result of the change of ownership. But no, an Israeli equivalent to the US Board of Geographic Names surveyed, studied, debated, and decided what the appropriate names should be. The maps were changed accordingly. Benvenisti's father, a geographer, was a leading participant in this scholarly-political effort and Benvenisti accompanied him on many of his expeditions to gather data for "a Hebrew map of the land." The book is an explanation of, and in a sense an apology for, what his father and others did. It is also testimony to Benvenisti's own sense of loss at the disappearance of what he calls the "human landscape" he had known as a boy and to his "nagging feeling of guilt because my triumph had been their disaster."

The book is full of striking quotations, comments, and observations underlining the importance of toponomy to the continuing Zionist need to legitimize the Jewish claim to the land. Here are a few:

"We are obliged to remove the Arab names for reasons of state. Just as we do not recognize the Arab's political proprietorship of the land, so also we do not recognize their spiritual proprietorship and their names" (Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to the chairman of the Negev Names Committee, p. 14).

"The historical Hebrew names of places in Eretz Israel are the most reliable testimony that these places have been our patrimony from time immemorial and that our rightful claim to these places and to this land are historical and ancient" (Menachem Ussishkin, Jewish National Fund Naming Committee, p. 27).

"The mixing of authentic ancient names with synthetic, pseudo-biblical names was done, of course, to provide a basis for `our rightful historical claims,' and in retrospect they were all perceived as being authentically `biblical and ancient"' (p. 35).

"Acknowledgement of the fact that the Israeli landscape was built on the ruins of the Palestinian landscape and examination of the essential contribution consciously made by the Israelis to the obliteration of an entire physical and human universe are regarded as tantamount to confessing to Israel's being guilty of `ethnic cleansing' and to contesting the Jews' right to shape the landscape of their homeland. …

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