What is the most correct, current term for Palestine?
February 22, 2014 7:25 AM   Subscribe

I have a student who is writing a thesis in which she mentions Palestine. Recently, one of her readers expressed surprise that she was using the term as she did. In the following context, what is the most correct and least offensive term for her to use, and what precisely is at stake with each term?

She uses the word in two ways: once, to describe a visit that a group of writers took to the region, and once to describe a person's country of origin. Her reader (another undergrad) described that decision as "controversial." I don't feel I know enough about what's at stake here to give good advice.

The term that occurred to me as a replacement was "Palestinian territories," which seems a little more precise, but I don't know if it has a political valence that is escaping me. She offered "occupied territories" as a replacement, which struck me as an even more charged term. Since this is not the focus of her thesis, and we don't know who her readers will be, I would like her to use the word that is least likely to upset people on either side of the debate.

So, the question is twofold:

1. What word would you suggest?

2. What precise set of implications come along with each term (Occupied territories, Palestinian territories, Palestine, etc.?)

I know this is a touchy topic, so thanks in advance for sticking to the question.
posted by pretentious illiterate to Education (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Since 2012 Palestine (the State of Palestine) has been recognized by the United Nations as a "non-member observer state" There is probably no way to really be both accurate (now and in the future) and non-offensive. I would say Palestine if it were me. Here's an article in the Telegraph talking about the tricky nomenclature surrounding this area and which people tend to use which terms. Hope it's helpful. I do not suggest reading the comments.
posted by jessamyn at 7:35 AM on February 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

She offered "occupied territories" as a replacement

That's a bad idea. That's a very bad idea.

The first question I have is if the person's country of origin is actually Palestine. The term "Palestinian territories" is not legally defined, and can have quite deferring meaning depending on what time frame we're talking about - see this map. The current "State of Palestine" as recognized by the UN has defined boundaries (again, note the map). So, if the writer's origin is in the current State of Palestine, I would use Palestine. I would disregard the "State of" prefix because it's a formalistic construct for the same reason one wouldn't refer to the Federal Republic of Germany when describing where a writer is from. If the writer's origin is not in the current State of Palestine, but is part of historically contested regions, I would simply say where the writer is actually from as a location rather than a country.

Describing a writer as being from Palestine is only controversial if the writer was from a location that is currently recognized as being controlled by Israel, but historically has been part of Palestine. If that is the case, you should not use the term Palestine, as Palestine has legally recognized boundaries.
posted by saeculorum at 7:41 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the person, if they described themselves as being from Palestine, I would respect that choice. You could also side-skirt it a bit by saying, for example "A Palestinian (wo)man from Ramallah", or whatever city s/he was born in. This will also work around any controversies about where that city actually is/was and if it's Palestine or not. Saying "West Bank" or "Gaza" would work in the same way- in these cases, being more, not less, specific with location tends to be better, as in that case, you're not saying what particular political entity you think does/should control that region.

What ever she decides, long footnote or two might be in order in describing the choice of nomenclature, noting that X, Y and Z groups prefer other terms for various regions, but that they're sticking with what they picked for whatever reason. I run into similar problems in my own work: often times, names for various languages or varieties that linguists use differ from those that the speakers themselves use, or from what the varieties are popularly known as. So, I just pick one, and footnote away.
posted by damayanti at 7:44 AM on February 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

For the first use of the word, maybe the best solution is just to acknowledge the controversy: "...a group of writers took a trip to Palestine (the name of the region has been disputed; some refer to the region as the State of Palestine, while others refer to it as [x])." Another solution would be to be more precise -- where, exactly, did they go on the trip? What cities, monuments, rivers, etc.?

As for the second use of the word, I don't see an issue with referring to someone as Palestinian, or being from Palestine.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 7:45 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

A further thought: the fact that Israel contests the existence/legitimacy of Palestine in no way makes the term illegitimate. The same contention exists between North Korea/South Korea, China/Taiwan, South Ossetia/Georgia, and Armenia/Pakistan (these are from my memory - Wikipedia has more). If one were to acknowledge country border discrepancies when the border discrepancy is not relevant to the paper, then papers would be littered with caveats that don't add to the academic value of the paper.
posted by saeculorum at 7:48 AM on February 22, 2014 [14 favorites]

A further thought: the fact that Israel contests the existence/legitimacy of Palestine in no way makes the term illegitimate.

While that may be true, the point of this person's paper is not to make a statement about the legitimacy or lack thereof of a country called "Palestine." The point is simply to describe a region in the least contentious way possible.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 7:51 AM on February 22, 2014

Is there a nation that is at present called Palestine? Gaza and the West Bank, for example, both have people who are "Palestinians," but these two areas are not yet one national state.
Many Palestinian schools use maps etc that refer to israel as Palestine of "occupied Palestine," --offensive to Israel--so imagine the best solution is to refer to Palestinian people in a specific are, ie, the West Bank or Occupied West Bank.
posted by Postroad at 8:17 AM on February 22, 2014

"Palestine, with the boundaries it had during the British Mandate, is an indivisible territorial unit." —The Palestinian National Charter, 1968.

There is nothing "controversial" about describing lands within Palestine as being in Palestine. People get really squicky about this in various ways, of course.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:26 AM on February 22, 2014

There is nothing "controversial" about describing lands within Palestine as being in Palestine. People get really squicky about this in various ways, of course.

You cannot claim there is nothing controversial about saying "Palestine" when you also link to a document that explicitly declares the very existence of the State of Israel to be "illegal." This is precisely where the controversy arises and precisely why, in a document that wants to avoid that controversy, the word "Palestine" can be so fraught.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:33 AM on February 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

[This thread needs to not become a debate over the politics or proper borders of Palestine. Please just stick to the "what is the most neutral, non-position-taking term" question. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:54 AM on February 22, 2014

She uses the word in two ways: once, to describe a visit that a group of writers took to the region, and once to describe a person's country of origin.

In addition to the question of whatever that particular place is called now, you need to think about what it was called exactly when and where that visit took place, and exactly when and where that person was born.

It's usually appropriate to write, "[Person] was born in [city], [whatever country it used to be in] (present-day [whatever country it's in now])."

If you really want to sidestep all of that (which might be worth it, frankly) you can just say "in the Levant."
posted by Sys Rq at 8:55 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

It would help to know the years you are referring to. Prior to 1948, for instance, the region would have only been known as Palestine (under the British mandate).
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:57 AM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

And before that it was Southern Syria in the Ottoman Empire. And then there are a bunch of other complications.

That's why (unless it was then and is now called Israel) I say just go with the generic, apolitical name of the geographical region -- "the Levant" -- in the same way one can gloss over all kinds of history and political baggage elsewhere by saying "the Balkans" and "the Caucasus."
posted by Sys Rq at 9:19 AM on February 22, 2014

I am a pretty well-read person but I have actually never heard the term "The Levant" (although I am quite familiar with The Balkans and "the Caucasus"). I would use Palestine over the more formal "The State of Palestine". With disputed names in academic papers I choose whatever the people living in that area call the place, rather than what their neighbours may call it.
posted by saucysault at 9:51 AM on February 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

"The Levant" would be a wholly wrong word to describe what the OP wants. It is both a far bigger area, taking in the whole of the eastern shore of the Mediterranean from Iskenderun to Gaza, and is now most often used in historical context.
posted by Thing at 10:15 AM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Levant is kind of too big of an area though I think, probably far too general for the context. Honestly I think Palestinian region or Palestine is fine, I think any choice is going to be either
as controversial or awkwardly nonspecific
posted by hejrat at 10:26 AM on February 22, 2014

This is a situation where you can't win. Palestine/Palestinian is fine. It never hurts to get more specific, as "Palestine" doesn't really tell you whether it's West Bank or Gaza.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 11:03 AM on February 22, 2014

Okay, as someone who lived there for five years (there being East Jerusalem), there are two questions here with different answers (Location vs. identity). The link Jessamyn provided to the Daily Telegraph article is a pretty good summary. As some people have been indicating, there is always someone who is going to get upset at which words your student uses, so it is probably best to choose words based on generally accepted terms in academia, diplomacy, and journalism.

1) For the writers' visit to the region, if they went to the West Bank or Gaza, those could be called Palestine without controversy if one is basing lack of controversy on the validity of UN decisions, but your student is correct that the "[Israeli-]Occupied [Palestinian] Territories" is the most typical term recognized by international law and most international and national organizations (such as the British Foreign Office mentioned in the article). If they went to areas that are also in the internationally-recognized State of Israel, write "Israel-Palestine" or "Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories".

2) If the person claims their country of origin as Palestine, just write that they are Palestinian. To do otherwise would be disrespectful to that person's self-identity, although you can also write the specific place(s) they were born and raised in and note where those are currently located ("she identifies as a Palestinian writer born in and living in Haifa [now part of Israel]"). Being Palestinian is a complicated identity and could refer to someone born in:

a) the West Bank or Gaza (which are internationally recognized as "Israeli-Occupied Territories" since the 1967 War, despite there no longer being any Israelis in the Gaza Strip, although Israel still controls access to the Gaza Strip - Israel would prefer that these territories be called "Disputed Territories" or similar terms but those are not internationally recognized terms and would be controversial)
b) someone born in East Jerusalem (which would be considered part of the West Bank but is internationally recognized as having been illegally annexed by Israel in 1967 - almost all Palestinians in East Jerusalem refused Israeli citizenship)
c) someone born in what is now the internationally recognized State of Israel (Israel uses "Israeli Arab" for Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel)
d) someone born outside of historical Palestine (neither the state of Israel, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza) descended from parents or grandparents (etc.) born in what was historical Palestine.

Haven't discussed Bedouins or Golan in this answer, but I don't think they are relevant for this answer.
posted by Gnatcho at 11:23 AM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

If your student is preparing her thesis for potential publication, dropping a footnote at the beginning to briefly outline the controversy with citation to an academic discussion of same would help keep things as neutral as possible (much like you see in academic discussions of the gender binary, etc), and allow her to choose a placeholder word for ease of discussion.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 6:14 AM on February 23, 2014

"Palestinian" is non-controversial as a reference to non-Israeli Arabs descended from families which lived pre 1948 in what is now Israel, the West Bank or Gaza. The economic, political and social situations of Gaza, East Jerusalem, settlement/industrial zones of the West Bank, and PA-administered zones of the West Bank differ so significantly that referring to them as such has the double benefit of being more accurate and having less ideological freighting.

(I honestly don't know whether Israeli Arabs can/should be referred to as Palestinian. My guess is not, unless they specifically give themselves that label.)
posted by MattD at 10:04 AM on February 23, 2014

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