How was 'Israel' once 'Palestine'? New books and old coins

In a world of nation-states, names are very important and those responsible for choosing the name Israel for the world’s newest state in May 1948 knew what they were doing. 

 The writer’s bronze coin dated 1946. (photo credit: JACOB SIVAK)
The writer’s bronze coin dated 1946.
(photo credit: JACOB SIVAK)

As a young boy growing up I was proud of my stamp and coin collections, and while my collecting activities died off when I was older, the two collections remained with me for many years. I still have the coin collection, and in looking through it recently to remind myself of its contents, I came across a coin from the period of the British Mandate of Palestine. In looking closely at the coin I discovered an unusual feature that led me down a path related to the history of modern Zionism and its connection to Jewish identity.

Coins for Mandatory Palestine were minted from 1927 until 1946 and were based on the Palestine Pound. One Palestine Pound equaled 1000 Mils. My coin is a bronze two Mils one dated 1946. (Coins for 1947 were minted but not distributed because the Mandate was coming to an end. These were supposed to have been melted down, but a few did get into the hands of collectors and museums and are considered to be very rare.)

The side of the coin indicating two Mils, in English Arabic, and Hebrew, is decorated with an olive branch. The obverse side has the date of 1946, as well as the Arabic date, along with the name Palestine in English Arabic, and Hebrew. 

The Hebrew lettering, which reads as ‘Palestina’, from right to left, of course, is followed by the Hebrew letters aleph and yod in parenthesis. The two letters are separated by two Hebrew typographical marks that look like double quotation marks. These are gershayim, and are used to indicate an acronym or abbreviation. For example, a״h (aleph heh) after a man who died, means alav ha-shalom (peace be upon him). If a woman, it is aleha ha-shalom (ayin-heh). Gershayim are also used as cantillation marks to indicate how to vocalize a certain word when chanting the Torah. 

The aleph yod abbreviation on the coins stands for Eretz Yisrael, the name used by the Jewish people from biblical times to the present for the geographical area that made up the lands of the ancient kingdoms of Judea and Samaria, and later the British Mandate of Palestine, and still later the State of Israel. 

The back story to this unusual aspect of the Hebrew name is provided by Israel Cohen in A Short History of Palestine (1951). While the Jewish representatives to the Mandatory government objected to the transliteration of Palestine into Hebrew and preferred the traditional Hebrew name of Eretz Yisrael, there were Arab objections. The compromise, suggested by Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commissioner to Palestine, who was a Jew and a Zionist, was the addition, in parentheses, of the Hebrew initials for Eretz Yisrael. The aleph yod abbreviation was used on all official documents, stamps, and coins until the end of the Mandate. 

During the Mandate the term Palestinian applied both to Jews and to Arabs and Jewish institutions such as today’s Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and The Jerusalem Post newspaper were then called the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra and The Palestine Post, respectively. In fact, until the early 1950s, when the world press referred to Palestinians they more often than not meant Palestinian Jews. Moreover, in his autobiographical book A Tale of Love and Darkness, the late author Amos Oz describes the slogans used by antisemites in Europe during the 1930s as saying; “Jews, go back to Palestine.”

When the State of Israel was declared by David Ben-Gurion and his provisional government in May 1948, a name for the new state had to be chosen. It is not clear how the name of the new state was decided, but it has been reported that the primary choices were Judea or Israel and that Israel was chosen by a vote. It appears that Palestine was not considered at all, leaving that name, more or less by default, to the people who now call themselves Palestinians. 

The name Israel, which first appears in recorded history on the Mernepteh Stele, dated 1300 BCE, represents Jewish continuity and indigeneity in the Holy Land and this was the reason behind the opposition to its use in mandate times, even if only expressed in Hebrew. For reasons related to politics in the case of Arabs and replacement theology in the case of Christians, opposition to the concept of Jewish continuity and indigeneity persists to this day.

For example, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that in a 2018 speech to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denied a Jewish connection to Israel saying “Israel is a colonial project that has nothing to do with Jews,” while a 2019 resolution of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa states that “The current political nation-state of Israel and Israel in the Bible should not be confused with each other, and neither should the ideology of Zionism and the religion of Judaism be conflated.”

When Juliet says “What’s in a name?” as part of her soliloquy in Romeo and Juliet, she is trying to say that names are not important and that she should be allowed to be with Romeo, regardless of his name. In a world of nation-states, however, names are very important and those responsible for choosing the name Israel for the world’s newest state in May 1948 knew what they were doing.