Michal Eshed Takes on Arab Lies about Indigeneity in Israel
Many accuse Israel of Judaizing place names in the modern State of Israel. In fact, if you search Google Scholar for academic papers using the search term “Judaization Project” you will get 136 items for 2020 alone (correct for 17 Nov). These accusations are part of a campaign to promote a supposed “historic Palestine” as if there ever was such a place and as if the current Arab Palestinians are indigenous to it.
What is happening, in fact, is that Israel is calling places by the ancient Israelite names by which they were known before the Arab colonialists came and Arabized them; in other words, Israel cannot “Judaize” place names in the country, but she can and should de-Arabize them, restoring the original Hebrew.
Naming places is a common ploy of colonialists, an act not dissimilar in purpose from the way dogs urinate on bushes and posts – to stake out the limits of the territory they claim, in the case of colonialists, for their “motherland” or “fatherland”.
We can give an example from Canada. The British and French, who overcame the First Nations indigenous peoples, changed place names. In many cases, they just used words that were used by the conquered peoples; for example, Ottawa is the Algonquin word for “to trade”. In other places, they used descriptive terms, such as the Northwest Territories (NWT) whereas it was called Nunavit in Inuit. Frobisher Bay is the name of the bay “discovered” by Martin Frobisher and they called the settlement there Frobisher Bay.
In the 1990s, Canada divided the NWT, creating a new region with the name Nunavit, a kind of nod to the Inuit People. The name of the town, Frobisher Bay, was changed back to its original Inuit name, Iqaluit. Their magnanimity is perhaps because Canada has nothing to fear from the indigenous peoples who have no power to change the status quo of Canada. Apparently the Arabs in and around Israel cannot afford to be so generous as to allow the indigenous Jewish People to take back their ancient Hebrew names. Never mind right now about why the tiny Jewish minority in a sea of Muslim countries is so threatening to them. That is not the point of this article.
The point of this article is to describe a mapping project that reclaims the indigenous Israelite names for her settlements and other sites.
But first, let us look at the accusation that Israel is Judaizing Arabic place names. That would require the Jews to be the settler-colonial project many claim her to be. One could only call Jews colonial settlers if they took upon themselves to invade a land that was not her own. In fact, the British suggestion at the turn of the past century that the Jews be given land in British-controlled Uganda would have turned that Jewish settlement into a settler colonial project in East Africa. Of course the British, as settler-colonialists in Africa themselves, saw no problem with this plan; the Jews, however, wanted only to return to their own indigenous land, then under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
It was, in fact, the Arabs who were the settler colonialists in what the British then called Palestine. Descendants of the Arabs who had colonized the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Mediterranean Europe in the 7th Century CE make up part of the contemporary populations in these regions. They originated in what is now Saudi Arabia; they Arabized the names of places they conquered and converted to Islam countless native peoples wherever they went. In Morroco, Libya and Tunisia, for example, they applied Arabic names in lieu of the indigenous Amazigh place names.
The Imazighen are fighting to regain their rights (also see here) over the Arab conquerers who have wrongly convinced the world that northern African countries are indigenous Arab countries similar to how Arabs have convinced much of the world that the Palestinian Arabs are indigenous to Israel.
“Naming” and reclaiming indigenous names is one battlefield in which this is being carried out. In fact, the UN has a unit devoted to that topic: the UN Group of Experts on Geographical Names. They held a conference in 2015 called Geographical Names as Cultural Heritage. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, Israel was not among those countries in which the restoration of her indigenous place names was discussed and, in fact, they promoted the lie that Israel is Judaizing Arab place names in order to eliminate the traces of Palestinian Arab supposed “indigeneity”.
Michal Eshed: Eretzil.net
One woman has taken upon herself the task of mapping the Land of Israel to show the indigenous Israelite names for the places Israel is accused of Judaizing. Her name is Michal Eshed; she is a psychologist by profession and a PhD student in the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar Ilan University. After six years, this map is still a work in progress. So far, her English and Hebrew maps show about 700 ancient Israelite sites and the Arab-Muslim villages that were built on top of many of them, some inhabited to the present day. Textual material describing each site is available on her map in Hebrew, some English has been provided on the English language map and Arabic may be added in future. Her website describes the three categories of information provided on the map:
- Israelite and Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel from the time of Abraham until the end of the Mishna and Talmud period (6th Century CE).
- Muslim-Arab settlements in the Land of Israel that began with the Arab conquest of the Land of Israel (7th Century CE) and that were built on top of ancient Jewish communities.
- Movement of the Moslem-Arab conquering forces that invaded the Land of Israel from 634 CE and before which no Muslim-Arab settlements were established.
I spoke with Michal about her project. First I asked where she got the idea for the map.
I was working as a psychologist for the Samaria Regional Council. Every day I drove from Ramat Hasharon to work in Samaria. Along the way, on the Trans-Samaria Highway (Hwy 5), there is the town Kafr Qasem. I knew, from my own general knowledge, and my love of history, that Kafr Qasem was a town from the time of the Second Temple and was known then as Kfar Kesem. And then thoughts started rolling around in my head as I wondered if there were articles or maps documenting the Hebrew or Israelite communities that existed before the contemporary Arab villages.
I went to some university libraries where I found a few maps but the most important one was produced by the late Hebrew University of Jerusalem historical geographer Professor Michael Avi-Yonah. He is an interesting story in himself because there was once an international academic association that wanted to study the historical geography of the Roman Empire. That was during the time of the British Mandate, in the 1930s, and the British wanted to map the Land of Israel — Egypt as well – but also the Land of Israel. They approached Avi-Yonah and he was assigned the task. He worked on it for ten years; today it is considered an old map but he did the major preliminary mapping. I used his map as a basis for continuing the work.
As a first step, I consulted with professionals at the Israel Survey Department and the Geological Survey Institute in Jerusalem; later on, I consulted with a mapping firm that uses GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology.
At this point, I enrolled in the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology Department at Bar Ilan, where I am currently working toward my PhD degree.
After intensive work, a list was produced with over 700 ancient Israeli Jewish settlements each one of which has geographic landmarks associated with it. To this list I added the Arabic names that were given to these sites following the Arab Muslim Conquest and these are clearly indicated on the map.
Sheri: You invested a lot in this project. It seems like it was more than just a hobby for you even at the beginning. What motivated you?
My motivation was a desire to get to the historical truth and to publish the results of my work on a map. I saw there was a phenomenon that nobody was exposing. Almost every Arab village is sitting on an ancient Israeli village. Nobody is talking about this. You cannot find this on any signs, not at the entrance to Arab villages, not at national parks; there is no indication there was once an Israelite town in these places.
There is a debate raging concerning the geographic history of the Land of Israel and a lot of invention of “history”. It is important to make sense of the historic sequence of settlement in the Land of Israel: to show where all the ancient Israelite communities were and to document the Arab occupation of Israel from the 7th Century CE and the comprehensive Arab Muslim settlement on Israelite settlements both alongside Jewish residents or in their stead.
Sheri: Did you find anything surprising while you were working on the map?
My biggest surprise was that what I thought was true about most Arab villages sitting on ancient Jewish villages turned out to be true in fact.
Also, I was surprised to discover that the word Kafr that is part of many Arab village names, such as Kafr Qasem, Kafr Qara, Kafr Manda, etc., is not an Arabic word at all. This is an Arabized version of the Hebrew word for village, Kfar. The word for village in Arabic is Qar-ye. This is irrefutable evidence for the phenomenon and whenever you see an Arab town named Kafr “X”, therefore, you know it was originally a Jewish village.
While researching for this article, I saw that quite a number of former Arab towns are called Khirbet “Y”. Khirbet is the Arab word for “ruin of”. So let us look at a few examples: Khirbet Shalha which was built on the ruins of Shihlim, Khirbet Purt on the ruins of Ptora, Khirbet Riba on the ruins of Raba, Khirbet Kutsin on the ruins of Kotso — need I go on? These former Arab towns, therefore, were built on the ruins of ancient Israelite towns that had either been abandonned or destroyed and the Arab town, itself, was either abandonned or destroyed in turn.
Many of the names for Arab towns on the Land of Israel are simply the same names as the ancient Israelite village pronounced with an Arab accent, such as: Bet Jibrin/Beit Govrin, Yata/Yuta, and so on.
Michal reminded me about Ramla, an exception among Arab-Muslim towns in the Land; Prof. Nimrod Luz wrote in 1997 that:
though the Muslims ruled the country for 1100 years, al-Ramla remained the sole example of a new town in the whole of Palestine.
If you are interested, Luz provides a thorough historical and geographic context for the selection of that particular site for the new capital for the Muslim province of Palestine shortly after they conquered it.
There are other, more recent, Arab towns that may have no connection to ancient Israelite villages (such as Jizr-a-Zarqa or Fureidis); perhaps they are related to the influx of economic migrants from neighbouring countries during the time of the British Mandate. Therefore these towns are not marked onto Michal Eshed’s map.
Michal also told me that there are still about 200 sites at which Jewish artifacts were found but which have not yet been identified. These are sites that have been discovered by researchers over the last decade and will soon be added to her map.
Now, when you are confronted by those who claim that Israel is Judaizing Arab so-called “indigenous” settlements, you can refer to the map to find upon which ancient Jewish settlement it really sits.
No less important, her map provides evidence to combat the lie that Israel engaged in ethnic cleansing of the “indigenous” Arab towns.
In 1992, Walid Khalidi wrote a book entitled All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. Let us look at just two examples he gives, Idnibba and Al-Hamma. Wikipedia tells us that:
Idnibba (Arabic: إدنبّة) was a Palestinian village, located at latitude 31.7426937N and longitude 34.8561001,E in the southern part of the Ramle Subdistrict. It was depopulated in 1948, at which time its population was 568, and its lands are now used by Kfar Menahem.
and Khalidi is quoted as providing the history of the town:
Idnibba may have been built on the site of the Roman settlement of Danuba. The Crusaders also called it Danuba.
What Khalidi neglects to tell the reader is that it was originally called Danav and it dates from the time of the Second Temple.
Al-Hamma is also claimed as having been an Arab town that was depopulated by Israel who then turned it into the national park Hamat Gader. Khalidi is quoted in Wikipedia:
The deserted mosque still stands, and its minaret and marble columns are intact. Five buildings east of the village site are built of black basalt. The railroad station still exist and the name of the village is inscribed on its entrance. There are three more deserted buildings next to the station, as well as the remains of destroyed houses.
Khalidi does not inform the reader that Hamat Gader is the original name of this Second Temple site nor that an ancient synagogue with its well-preserved mosaic floor with inscriptions has been excavated and studied by archaeologists.
There is no argument that Israel’s War of Independence resulted in the emptying of many Arab villages. However, residents of these villages were either descendents of settler-colonialists from the Arab Conquest or more recent economic migrants to the Land. It is important to combat the falsehood that claims that the Arabs are indigenous to the Land of Israel and to reassert as strongly and as often as necessary that it is the Jewish People who are indigenous to the Land and the Arabs are the occupiers. Michal Eshed’s map of ancient Jewish sites helps us set the record straight.
If you are interested in the topic of indigenous versus colonial place names you can consult the following articles and books:
- Australia: This Land is a Map is an open access book.
- Global: This map is a work in progress. It shows indigenous peoples around the world.
- Another international mapping project in progress.
Feature Image Credit: Screenshot of map on eretzil.net