Sunday, October 26, 2008

Israel, Canaan, Palestine, Eretz Yisroel: The Power of Nomenclature [and Noah-menclature]

[A great new edition of Haveil Havalim is out here.]

A few years back I noticed that Israel’s Dalton Winery was producing a line of wines called Canaan. It rubbed me entirely wrong; aren’t we supposed to be getting away from the whole Canaan thing? Isn’t there a biblical instruction about not emulating the ways of Canaan?

(Of course, the Canaan name might be a tip of the hat to the rabbinic teaching that Canaan was the one who discovered his drunken grandfather Noah (Genesis 9) - but, really, how much better would that be?)

At this time of year I feel the same discomfort as I speak about the parshiyyot in which Avraham and Sarah, and then their descendants, are introduced to the land that would, eventually, become known as Eretz Yisrael. Technically, I should describe our ancestors as arriving in Canaan, as moving around Canaan, as living in Canaan - in fact, as being Canaanites. But the word carries such baggage that I am uncomfortable with it, and so I say absurdly illogical things like, “HaShem appeared to Avraham and told him to travel west, into Israel.”

In truth, I do the same thing in using, or not using, the historic name Palestine. Yes, I know, there’s never been an Arab state called Palestine, there’s never been a Palestinian government, et cetera - but much of the land known today as Israel was identified as Palestine two thousand years ago. When we talk about the “Jerusalem Talmud,” we really mean “Palestinian Talmud” - it was not written in Jerusalem, at all, and it was written in a land whose governors called it Palestine. Many of our Tannaim were Palestinian. But, outside of academic circles, I feel funny using those terms - so that when we read the mishnaic descriptions of the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, I translate the land's name anachronistically as “Israel” instead of calling it by the correct secular name of that day, “Palestine.”

And lest one think this substitution of “Israel” for “Palestine/Canaan” is solely the province of Zionists who wish to manufacture historic credentials for a modern state, let’s remember that anti-Zionists as well as anti-government Zionists do the same in reverse, invoking “Eretz Yisroel” today rather than use the word “Israel” when referring to the medinah.

Bottom line: We play games of nomenclature in order to bring our speech in line with our political and religious views. I think we do it both in order to clarify to our listeners what we believe, and in order to make ourselves more comfortable with the words emerging from our mouths.

To return to the winery, though, “Canaan” might not be the most offensive name out there for an Israeli vineyard; there is a Noah winery as well. The Noah name offers a redeeming feature, though: They could have a great ad campaign, in the wake of the collapse of the world’s financial markets. “Want to forget the world’s just been destroyed, get falling-down drunk and curse your grandchildren? Then have we got the wine for you!


  1. Wow, lots of food for thought there. The Canaan wine my husband buys will never taste the same.

  2. It is good wine, though... and despite the "Canaan" name, it counts as buying Israeli!

  3. B"H

    And when did the name palestine first appear?

    It was a bastardization of philistia which was located on the coast, including Azza and Ashqelon, Egron, etc.

    Likewise, Nablus is really Napolis, but the Arabs can't say "b."

    Clearly, Israel is preferable to palestine, representing at least nine of the shvatim who lived in the northern kingdom. However, if you were to suggest we call the country Yisrael wiY'hudah, you'd get no arguments from me.

    I myself identify my location as K'far Tapu'ah, Efraim.

    BTW, the Israeli postal service provides more accurate names than even the Yesha Council: The Binyamin Council actually includes parts of Efraim in its constituency. Whereas as the postal areas are named East Binyamin and Efraim.

  4. Fascinating (re: the shevatim) - I wonder how the Postal Service ended up with that system. There must be a story behind that.

  5. B"H

    Three possibilities:
    1. Dumb luck

    2. Divine intervention

    3. Some religious influence on the system.

    4. Some seculars had/have some interest in Tana"kh, and may have gotten the idea from there. Ben Gurion felts that the Tana"kh was something "Jewish" and should be taught in schools, as were mezuzoth which should be put on buildings.

    He attempted, unsuccessfully, to remove the qedusha from things, but nonetheless, even he thought they should have a place in Israeli society. And so, it's likely that possibility no. 4 above, in combination which some of the others was behind the postal service's decision. Not sure.

    As you know the Greater Tel Aviv area is called Gush Dan, the area around Akko and Nahariah - Mateh Asher, they should be.

  6. I support a Jewish-Arabic state called West Jordan.

  7. I support a Jewish Kingdom, from the Nile to the Euphrates.

    The first step is to recover northern parts of Asher and Naftali, currently occupied by the Lebanese. The next step will be to recover Reuven and Gad, currently occupied by Jordan.