Wright Is Wrong

October 29, 2014 Topic: Politics Region: Palestinian territoriesUnited States

Wright Is Wrong

 The influential author Lawrence Wright gets the Camp David accords badly wrong in his book Thirteen Days in September.

Wright also attacks Israel and the Zionist narrative from another angle, this one at least equally propagandistic. He tells us, buying into the Arab narrative about Palestinian origins, that “most scholars” believe “the Philistines . . . to be the ancestors of today’s Palestinians.” This is sheer nonsense. It is true that there is a linguistic nexus: the Latin name “Palestine” (Palestina) derives from the Latin “Philistia”—or the land of the Philistines, roughly the coastal area between Gaza and Jaffa. The Arabs later adopted the Roman-Christian name “Palestine” to designate the whole territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and, still later, the name “Palestinians” for those Arabs who lived in the area.

But, in terms of political, cultural and religious substance, there is no connection between the Philistines, the mid-second-millennium-BC sea people from the Greek islands, and today’s Arabs of Palestine. They do not share a common or even proximate language, religion, culture or historical consciousness. In fact, the Philistines simply dropped out of history sometime after the start of the first millennium BC and vanished. The Arabs, who were Muslims, and came from the Hejaz, in Arabia, entered the world stage and conquered Palestine in the seventh century AD.

Today’s Palestinians are descendants of those Muslim conquerors, some of whom settled in Palestine and intermingled with and married and converted, forcibly or otherwise, the local population, which was largely Christian-Byzantine and Jewish at the time. That local population, no doubt, over the previous nineteen centuries had acquired genes from the pre-Joshua Canaanite tribes, with whom the Israelites had intermingled and married, and from the various other conquerors who had washed over the country during those centuries—Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and so on. After the seventh century AD, Palestine’s Arabs also acquired genes from the European Crusaders who ruled Palestine in the Middle Ages and from the Mamluks, Turks and Britons who came afterwards. Similarly, the Jews who lived in Palestine throughout the past three thousand years acquired genes from all they came into contact with, including Arabs. But to say that the Palestinians are descendants of the Philistines is rank nonsense.

At one point, Wright even calls Procopius a “sixth-century Palestinian historian.” Well, it is true that Procopius, a Christian, was a native of Caesarea, which was located in the Byzantine province of Palestina Prima. But if “Palestinian” today means anything, it means an Arab, a speaker of Arabic, usually a Muslim, who regards himself as part of the greater Arab nation and the Islamic ummah. So defined, Procopius definitely wasn’t a “Palestinian.” To say so is about as true as calling Herod the Great a “Palestinian King” or Jesus a “Palestinian Prophet (or Son of God).” Perhaps Israelis should start calling Procopius one of the first “Israeli historians.” The Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian school systems may twist history and definitions to burnish their claims to Palestine, but there is no reason an intelligent Western intellectual should join in.


Benny Morris is a professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben Gurion University of the Negev. He is the author of 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (Yale University Press, 2008).