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What does “Pro-Israel” mean?

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josh avatar
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The term “pro-Israel” is used routinely to describe Americans who are sympathetic toward the state of Israel. Increasingly, however, one hears questions raised as to what this term really means. The “pro-Israel” community was never monolithic, but the number of critics of Israeli policy and the volume of their complaints have grown to the point where some people are confused about the definition.

Does it mean support for the people of Israel and/or the government? Can someone be pro-Israel and criticize Israel?

Historically, there have always been American Jews (and non-Jews) who believed they knew what was best for Israel and argued that their views, despite their divergence from the mainstream of the pro-

Israel community or the policies of the government of Israel, were “pro-Israel.” What may be called the “chutzpah lobby” treats Israelis like children who don’t know what’s good for themselves and substitutes its judgement to save Israel in spite of itself.

Someone is “pro-Israel” if he/she:
  1. Believes the Jewish people are a nation entitled to self-determination in their homeland, which is Israel.
  2. Respects Israeli democracy and does not substitute their judgment for Israeli voters.
  3. Emphasizes the good in Israel while acknowledging the faults, rather than emphasizing the faults and ignoring the positive aspects of the nation.
  4. Criticizes Israel within the family. Israel may be the only country whose Prime Minister regularly meets with citizens from other countries to hear their views. The easiest way for a Jew to get attention – the man bites dog story – is to be the Jew who publicly castigates Israel. Israel’s best interests should trump personal ego.
  5. Rejects the idea that it is okay to publicly criticize Israel just because Jews in Israel censure their government. America is not Israel; Israelis have a common narrative and shared experiences. Americans, even American Jews, do not have the same level of knowledge or experience with regard to Israel so criticism is interpreted differently. Criticism is also not justified by Israeli encouragement as they do not understand the American context and they typically only bless critics who agree with them (leftist Israelis are happy to encourage American Jews to speak out against rightist governments but are furious with criticism of leftist governments and vice versa).
  6. Respects Israeli military judgements. Israelis are not infallible, but arm chair American generals typically have no qualifications for challenging Israeli military experts (even U.S. military generals can be wrong as proved by George Marshall’s prediction the Jews would be routed in 1948).
  7. Believes in trying to act by consensus. Sometimes this leads to a watering down of positions, but unity is one of the principal advantages the Israeli lobby has over the Arab lobby.
  8. Knows the history and facts about the contentious issues, including the Palestinian narrative.
  9. Doesn’t substitute wishful thinking for reality. Everyone wants peace, but objective conditions cannot be ignored (e.g., hoping Hamas will change won’t make it so).
  10. Does not join forces with Israel’s enemies. Some organizations claiming to be pro-Israel find common cause with groups that have long records of hostility toward Israel and trying to undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship. By doing so, they bring peace no closer and only weaken the political strength of the pro-Israel community.
  11. Knows their audience and recognizes that as a Jew their words are magnified. Comments made before an audience that shares their feelings about Israel are likely to be understood one way while the same remarks may be misconstrued by an audience that has mixed or anti-Israel feelings.
  12. Supports Israeli government efforts to make peace even when the risks seem high from the comfort of America.
  13. s pro-peace; however, being pro-peace does not necessarily make you pro-Israel as many groups and individuals who say they favor peace advocate positions that are damaging to Israel. In fact, those who believe Israel should disappear can claim that is a pro-peace position.
Undoubtedly some people will take exception to this list, especially those who believe that the “establishment,” which accepts these criteria, does not represent the majority of American Jews. They are free of course to call themselves pro-Israel or anything else they want, but those who do not subscribe to these criteria are more likely to weaken the U.S.-Israel relationship than to help it and to become pawns of Israel’s enemies.
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James avatar
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Pro Israel means shut up about Palestinian people. Screw the Muslim world so they can fall into Chinese hands 🙄 

FILIPINOS need to shut up before the Indonesians and Malaysia join the Muslim brotherhood 

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@james the arab world and especially arab muslim world are not happy until the state of Israel cease to exist. So any time anyone shows support for Israel, they get thoroughly skewered.

James avatar
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@athena The US support of Israel over the Muslims is handing China the opportunity to influence the region. Westerners are so

short sighted 🤔 
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@james what do you think the US should do in this case?

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@athena how about leaving the Muslims to themselves 🤣 just get the oil and get out. westerners need to understand, there is no solution to the middle east.

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@james you mean stop giving aids? That's what we are doing right now.

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@athena I don't think so  🤔 

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@james I meant aids to Palestinians. How much have the US and the world given them. What benefits have we received at all from Palestinians other than the Hadid sisters?

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very long but you can read over time:


Israel and Gaza are at it again in a war. This post is not about that war. This post does not answer what rules for use of force Israel should use, what the appropriate legal standards for indigeneity determinants are, or anything like that.

This post explores one straightforward question: what is the population history of religious groups in…

… well, what do we call this area?

What’s in a name? 3,000 years of naming the Land Between

I can’t talk about population until we decide what to call this area. I will be calling it the Land Between. If you want an account of that name, buy and read this nice archaeo-geographic reference book for your coffee table. But broadly, “Land Between” refers to the important fact for understanding this region: it is between other things. It is between the Mediterranean, Dead, Red, and Galilee seas, for instance. It is between Anatolia, Mesopatamia, Arabia, and Egypt. It is between cultures. It is torn between religions. This name is neutral, and it highlights the important liminality of the space. Crucially, it is not a historic name assigned by any group in the region. I considered the archaeologically precise “Cisjordan Southern Levant” but rejected it because both “Cisjordan” and “Levant” as terms presuppose an eastward-looking-orientation, which already biases us into seeing the Land Between “from the outside,” with the gaze of the conqueror. For those in the land, the relevant geographic fact is they are sandwhiched between — everything.

But you know a different name. This region has several other names. The major names I will discuss are:




Where do these names come from?


We start with Canaan because it’s old. The oldest name for the Land Between you might have heard of is probably Canaan. The Egyptians in the 1300s writing letters to their Canaanite subjects in Akkadian cuneiform called it 𒆳𒆠𒈾𒄴𒈾, or ki-na-aḫ-na. This most literally means “humble subjects,” suggesting the etymological root for “Canaan” is in reference to its subordination to Egypt as its hegemon. But this etymology is contested: some of the Phoenician city states were also called by this name, and they produced a famous purple dye that made them rich. The Hurrian (eastern Anatolian/northwest Mesopatamian) word for this dye was Kinaḫḫu. The Greeks largely called the area “Phoenicia,” which also means “land of the purple dye.”

However, “subjugated lands” is probably the best candidate meaning for “Canaan.”

Did anybody live in Canaan? Yes. They are sometimes called “Canaanites.” Recent genetic studies tell us a lot about these people.

Canaanites (blue and green dots in B) are largely clustered close to the light-blue dots, which are human remains excavated from the Land Between 10,000 BC-4,000 BC. So basically, the Canaanites are mostly descended from very ancient populations in the region. But they are pulled up and to the left, towards the red dots (people from eastern Anatolia and Armenia) and the purple dots (people from western Iran). This implies that sometime between 5,000 BC and 1,500 BC (when these Canaanite genomes approximately originate), Canaanites acquired a lot of genetic material possibly from eastern Anatolia and western Iran, or “greater Armenia.” In the C Admixture plot, this “ancient ancestry” is probably that big blue bar. The green and red bars you can think of as the “greater Armenian” ancestries. We’ll get to what the yellow bar means.

By and large, Canaanites were an interbreeding population, except for Phoenician Canaanites, who stand apart:

And here you can see how the Iranian ancestry component changed over time:

This tells us that the period 2400 BC to 800 BC saw continuous, ongoing inflows of new migrants from the northeast. This may be the arrival of the Amorites and then the Arameans, two historically documented migration events. But the Bible also tells us the region was populated by many different “-ites.” The Bible even claims there were Hittites and Hurrians living in the region, a fact scholars lampooned for generations.

But remember the yellow bar here?

In Megiddo, a garrison town associated with Egypt where we have historic-textual evidence of Hurrian names outside the Bible, the study found a cluster of individuals (those yellow outliers) with MUCH more recent ancestry from the northeast — most likely they were the children of immigrants. Given their elite burial in an Egyptian garrison town, the answer is obvious: they were the children of Hurrian (chariot?) mercenaries hired by Egypt.

I want to emphasize how insanely cool these findings are. What are the odds that the handful of named Hurrians in the scraps of surviving texts we have would yield us actually finding genetic evidence of recent northeastern migrants in Megiddo? This is like picking up a dart at one side of a football field during a hurricane, throwing it across the field, and hitting a bullseye.

So, who were the Canaanites?

They were an admixture of very-deeply-rooted indigenous people and a persistent inflow of other genetic material from the Caucasus and Zagros regions.

So, do any Canaanites survive today?

Kinda, yes. The study I keep citing also looked at modern ancestry groups and modeled them as fractions of Canaanite, Zagros, African, and European ancestry.

Probably the most important comparison for understanding this graph is to look at Ashkenazi Jews, Iranian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and Moroccan Jews as a group: you can see the blue bars (quasi-Canaanite or Canaanite-migrant-origin-pool groups) are over 50% for all but Ethiopian Jews.

Now compare to English or Tuscan people: they are both under 50% blue bars, overwhelmingly European.

Now compare to Bedouin A and B, Jordanian, Palestinian, Saudi, and Syrian. Those groups are all >80% blue bars. The “most Canaanite” group is Saudis, followed by Bedouin B, then Bedouin A, then Palestinian, then Egyptian, then Jordanian, then Lebanese. The fact that Saudis and Bedouin outscore Palestinians and Lebanese and Jordanians, and Egyptians also outscore Jordanians and Lebanese, should give us pause: the “Canaanite” genetic signal is really just “ancient Levantine” as a genetic signal. It isn’t telling us really about Canaanites specifically.

Regardless, we can say this: all Jews other than Ethiopian Jews show extremely clear signs of ancient middle eastern and generally Levantine/Canaanite ancestry. They show a stronger European admixture than Palestinians do, but it is undeniable that modern Ashkenazi Jews and modern Palestinians both have major contributions from ancient Levantine populations.

Okay. So what have we learned?

Canaan probably is a term given by Egyptians to conquered subjects, similar to why southern France is still called “Provence” based on the Roman conquest. Canaanites were a mixture of Zagros/Caucasian migrants and ancient Levantine farmers. Quasi-Canaanite ancestry is a major genetic source for Jews and Palestinians alike, though Palestinians have had less European admixture over time.

Canaan is the oldest plausible name, and Canaanite DNA is with us today.

So, why don’t we call the region Canaan?

The answer is that Canaan was abandoned as a name by what came next. This is why I believe Canaan meant “subject:” because the people who moved in 1300 BC-900 AD were extremely Canaan-averse in terms of place names. They insisted on other names. Phoenicians continue to refer to their homeland as Canaan, but the other groups all bail on the name. The last time the Egyptians call it Canaan is in the late 900s AD, and the Assyrians never call it Canaan. Beyond the Phoenician enclave, the term “Canaan” is done.

We now turn to those other post-Canaanite groups.

Israel, Judah, Judaea, Yehud

You’ve heard of Israel. How far back does this name go?

The earliest textual reference to Israel is in 1208 on the Merneptah Stele, a monument in Egypt by the Pharaoh Merneptah documenting his military defeat of Israel, which appears to be a people group in the hilly interior highlands of the Land Between. It is unlikely that an entity called Israel came into existence exactly when Merneptah arrived, so Israel definitely existed before 1208 BC. Scholars debate this extensively. I won’t bore you with the details or get into a debate about origins. Suffice to say, there is absolutely a people group called Israel in 1208 BC. In 1208 BC, they are already worshipping a God who is associated with the letters Y, and H, and W, and H, at a cult site on Mount Ebal, a worship cite specifically named in the Bible as an early worship site. At Mount Ebal, there is no evidence as far as I know of gods other than YHWH being worshipped. However, it is incontestably true that around the highlands of the Land Between where Israel existed, numerous gods were worshipped. The historic debate on this question is like this:

Almost all scholars agree that YHWH was the most important deity of worship in late-Bronze and early-Iron Israel.

Almost all scholars agree that lots of other gods were also worshipped, and in many cases worshipped by people who worshipped YHWH.

Scholars disagree about whether this means YHWH-ism was normatively polytheistic, or if there was intra-YHWH-ist debate about polytheism. The Bible says that “orthodox YHWH-ism” was monotheistic, but that the Israelites were constantly worshipping other gods in breach of orthodoxy. Many scholars contest this account and claim that the Bible is recasting a late-developing minority view as the historic orthodoxy. Especially given the findings at Mount Ebal and the extreme rarity of archaeological finds of names in an Israelite context containing references to non-YHWH deities, my bias is strongly towards the view that monotheism is more-or-less original and “orthodox” to YHWHism, and polytheism was a syncretistic practice likely facing condemnation or taboo by at least some important sects of the YHWH-ist priesthood. But YMMV. Regardless, the existence of YHWH-primacy by 1100 BC at the latest is not at all disputed by anyone, even if the exact question of monotheism is somewhat contested.

By 733 BC, we have clear textual evidence from Assyrian monuments of a kingdom called Judah or Yehud in the southern highlands of the land between, though as early as the 900s we have clear archaeological and textual evidence of an unnamed YHWH-ist kingdom in those lands associated with the “House of David.” Again, scholars extensively debate how to interpret all this.

The Bible tells a story where there is a tribal confederation (Joshua-Judges-Ruth-Samuel) which fuses into a primitive monarchy through personal union in the person of an elevated chieftain named Saul. On his death the personal union breaks and conflict ensues. A new chieftain, David, arises, marries into Saul’s family, and restores the personal union of the tribes. David expands the bureaucratic depth of the kingdom by empowering the YHWH-ist priesthood and passes the personal union onto his son Solomon. Solomon further deepens the state capacity of the kingdom, but does so at the cost of irritating important tribal leaders. His son Rehoboam tries to continue statebuilding, but alienates the tribal leaders, who break the personal union and elect their own monarch. Rehoboam’s descendants govern the smaller, poorer, weaker, but orthodox-YHWH-ist Judaean monarchy, while the richer, bigger, non-orthodox northern Israelite monarchy goes through a cycle of dynasties.

The archaeology has a mixed relationship with this story. In particular, many, perhaps most, archaeologists are skeptical that a united monarchy ever existed. They are certainly skeptical of the specific personal stories about Saul, David, and Solomon. From Rehoboam onwards though the archaeology is pretty consistent with the Biblical story. That said, archaeologists often suggest their findings contradict the Bible, largely because many people (including archaeologists) erroneously read the Bible to be claiming that Judah was the wealthier and more powerful state. The Bible does not claim this; it claims Judah is the more orthodox state. Once you accept that the “united monarchy” was a personal union of two states not a centralized state and that the Bible’s Judah-focus is due to Judah’s orthodoxy not its power, the Bible and the archaeological record go together reasonably well, though complexities always exist.

Okay, so, by 733 BC at the latest, we have “Israel” and “Yehud.” Here’s how this stuff looks ~830 BC:

How long do these names last? Well, the northern kingdom of Israel came to be known as “Samaria” after the Hebrew name for the highlands at its center. The Assyrians and Babylonians when they conquered these areas established provincial governments called “Yehud” and “Samaria.” So here, the name “Israel” is pretty much dead. The northern kingdom’s lands are hereafter “Samaria.” I’m not totally clear on when/why/how that happened, but we don’t see “Israel” reappear as a place name for, well, you’ll see when.

“Yehud” or “Judah” sticks around. The Babylonians call it that. When the Persians allow deported Judaeans to return, they also call the province “Yehud” or “Judah.”

The name Yehud mostly vanishes, however, when Alexander the Great conquers the region. In the Hellenistic period, the Land Between is truly a Land Between. See this funzies map for a sense of the chaos:

Between 319 and 302 BC Jerusalem changed hands seven times, and it remained contested until 200 BC when Seleucid control solidified. The Land Between was part of a larger Seleucid province called “Coele Syria,” but they appear to have referred to the areas around Jerusalem at least as “Judaea” or something like it, though I’m unclear on exact administrative status.

When, in response to various Hellenistic sacrileges, a group of Jews revolted and established the Hasmonean Dynasty, as best I can tell they referred to their state as Judaea, I think.

The Hasmonean kingdom got pretty big!

But, it devolved into civil war. The Romans took their shot, and made it a client kingdom. Over time, the Hasmonean dynasty was supplanted by a Jewish regional governor of Arab-Nabatean descent: Herod (the putatively “Great”). Under Roman auspices, the talented and ruthless Herod expanded his Kingdom of Judaea (four provinces marked below) quite a lot:

After Herod died, his realm was split between 4 of his kin:

Over time the tetrarchy gave way to more direct roman rule, especially after a major Jewish revolt in the 60s AD. The successor Roman province was called “Judaea.”

But then in the 130s AD, there was a huge revolt in Judaea. Given the frequency of Jewish revolts, the Romans were extremely ticked off. So they butchered a huge share of the population. Many scholars have argued that this was a genocide of the Jews. Jews were totally ethnically cleansed from Jerusalem. Contemporary source claim hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred in droves. We’ll talk more detailed numbers later, but suffice to say, it was really really bad.

But as part of that, the Roman emperor (Hadrian) combined Judaea with other nearby provinces and renamed it Syria Palestina.

That was the last time that the ancient territory of Judah/Yehud would ever be recognized as such. Same with Samaria; there would never again be an administrative unit called “Samaria” (though Palestinians today still use a related word to refer to some of the hill country). The Romans butchered a huge quantity of Jews, provoked a massive diaspora, and successfully ended what was at that point perhaps as much as 1,400 years of Yehud-ish administrative etymology.

That’s where the story of Jewish political power in the region seems to end (except for a brief interlude in the early 600s when Jews in Syria Palestina exploited an opening when the Byzantines were distracted by war with the Parthians to revolt; Jewish de facto control lasted about 3 years until the Parthians turned on them too and handed the province over to Christians again).

Until, famously, 1947, with the established of the state of Yehud, sorry, I mean, Israel.

Curiously, let’s take a moment to look at two maps. First, here’s the UN proposed partition of the Land Between into Israel and Palestine:

And here’s the map of classical Judah and Israel again:

See the weird thing?

Most of the Kingdom of Judah and the heartland of Israel-Samaria are all allocated to Palestine, while most of modern “Israel” was in areas only periodically controlled by Iron Age Jewish states! It’s such a bizarre map quirk I can’t help not mentioning it. The map of Jews in the Land Between today is almost the exact mirror image of what it would have looked like in, say, 700 BC or 200 BC.

So that’s where the Israel/Judah name comes from.

But what about Palestine? It cropped up there a few times. Where does that name come from?


The world was on the move around 1200 BC. The period is part of what is sometimes called the “collapse of the Bronze Age world.” Without dwelling too much on it, the short version is: for a variety of reasons, every major empire except Egypt went belly up, and Egypt barely scraped through. Egypt survived because when they got invaded by one of the various warrior-migrant groups sweeping through, they eked out a victory. Their defeated enemies had to go somewhere though. They settled in the fertile lowland coasts of the Land Between. Their name?

The Peleset. But you haven’t heard that name. You know them by their more famous name: the Philistines. The difference here is basically which ancient language you pull from for the source, but it’s all the same word.

The Philistines settle on the coasts. Let’s look at our familiar Iron Age map again:

See the bright red? That’s the Philistine states. It’s often called “Philistia.” There are famously “5 cities of the Philistines,” but archaeologists have only conclusively identified 4: Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, and actually the most important one, Gath, more inland and not shown in this map.

The Philistines come down to us from the Bible as the arch-enemies of the Israelites. Powerful warriors, fearsome raiders — they even have a giant, Goliath!! Although note that Goliath is actually not a Philistine; the Bible says he’s a “son of Anak,” which if you take it literally refers to a unique ancient lineage within Canaan with persistent giantism in their genes because, and there’s not a modern-rationalist way of saying this, but the Bible suggests that their ancestors included some wayward angels. Okay, whatever, that’s neither here nor there, but the point is the most famous “Philistine,” Goliath, is actually attested to be Canaanite, telling us that the Philistines are not monolithic.

And we have another genetic study for the Philistines too!!!

This one is a bit hard to read. The bigger circles are remains from Philistine sites. The brownish little dots to their lower-right, as well as the light and dark blue to their lower right, you can think of as basically “Canaanites.” The orange diamonds to the left are remains from Spain. The light brought diamonds to the lower left are Greeks.

So the Philistines are a mix of Canaanites, Greeks, Spainiards, and some Iranians and Armenians? Huh?

Here’s Philistine-sited remains by period, with a simple admixture of basically “Canaanite,” “Iranian,” and “European (WHG).”

In the Late Bronze Age, we see little or no European ancestry. Then in the Iron Age I, European ancestry spikes. By Iron Age II, it has diminished again.

What happened?

Well, right at the transition from Late Bronze to Iron I, the Philistines arrived. With European ancestry. They were not extremely numerous; probably fewer than 20,000 total migrants. But they had a deep cultural impact. I won’t go into too much depth, but basically, they introduced a dramatic increase in the adoption of Aegean-style pottery and agriculture, and even introduced genetically different kinds of pigs, which is why Israel’s boars are genetically distinct from the rest of the middle east.

So what happened? A group of largely Aegean-origin migrants tried to invade Egypt. They lost. They settled in Egypt’s recently-abandoned frontiers in the Land Between. They brought their culture and genetics. But they came into conflict with locals, and by the middle iron age had lost the cultural (and genetic) struggle for relevance. They essentially went extinct by the 700s. The Philistines probably initially spoke an Indo-European language related to Mycenean Greek, but they rapidly adopted a variety of Canaanite, though with loanwards from their original language.

I want to note here, for decades scholars opposed migrant-origin hypotheses. These hypotheses are associated with very contentious racial politics in many cases, and historically Nazi archaeologists were huge proponents of these theories. The latter 20th century really saw a huge turn against migration as an explanation for cultural change. But modern genetics are leading to a turn back: while migration isn’t always the explanation, sometimes it is. Thousands of Philistines really did migrate into the Land Between, bringing their culture with them, creating a hybrid Aegean-Canaanite culture we now associate with Philistia.

Genetically, the Philistine migrants are Europeans. Very rapidly, Philistia becomes an ethnically hybrid society, but regardless, Philistinism qua Philistinism is a European (Aegean) phenomenon which arrives in the Land Between from the west, by sea.

Why am I talking about Philistines? This is supposed to be about Palestine!

Well, remember: they’re “Philistines” to us. They’re “Peleset” to cultures that actually knew them. The P and F sounds are very malleable, linguistically speaking.

The Assyrians called the region they lived in “Palashtu” or “Pilistu.” The Egyptians sent an ambassador to “Canaan and Peleset.” Herodotus refers to the whole of the Land Between as Συρίη ἡ Παλαιστίνη καλεομένη, “district of Syria, called Palaistinê.” From there, Greek and Roman writers almost universally adopted that formulation: Palestine, which is a region of Syria. When the Seleucids and Ptolemies governed the area, yes, they had provinces of Yehud and Samaria, but at least the coastal areas under the Ptolemies were referred to as “Palestine.”

So Greek and Roman writers accepted the notion of “Palestine” as a geographic region containing polities like Yehud and Samaria, even if in actual governance they created distinct districts. The first time that “Palestine” is used in a political sense to refer to an entity governing beyond the coastal lowlands of Philistia is… Hadrian, when he renames the combined province of Judaea “Syria Palestina.” The reason he named it “Palestina” was as part of the general campaign of cultural erasure of Judaism.

So let’s be clear. The Philistines were the storied arch-enemy of the Jews. As a seafaring people living on the coast, their name became known to the Greeks, who applied that name to the whole region. When Greeks and Romans actually conquered the region they discovered, oh, actually the interior is not Peleset, it’s something else. They applied those names (Yehud, Samaria, Judaea, Idumea/Edom, etc). But then, as part of a genocidal campaign against the Jews, the Romans applied the shorthand geographic name “Palestine, part of Syria” to the whole region, naming it “Syria Palestina.”

Got it? Good.

The Byzantines absorb those province names. When the Arab/Muslim Caliphate conquers in the 600s, they name the province “Jund Filastin.” Philistine Province, basically continuing the Byzantine administrative regions for convenience. Because the Rashidun Caliphate called the region Filastin/Philistia/Palestine and thus associated that name with Caliphal legacy and control, that name has ever since been inexorably tied to Arab-Muslim claims on the region.

When the Crusaders conquer the region, what do they call it? Well, they still sometimes use Palestine as a shorthand, but since Palestine/Filistin is the actual jurisdictional name for the Caliphate’s government, they can’t use it. But the crusaders are also bigtime anti-Semites, so “Kingdom of Israel” or “Kingdom of Judah” is, uh, not gonna fly. So they go with “Kingdom of Jerusalem.”

After the crusaders come the Ayubbids. I’ll admit, I have no idea what the Ayubbids called the region, but my assumption is some version of Palestine. Likewise, I don’t know what the Mamluks called the region. My familiarity with the Islamic historical literature is limited.

But after the Mamluks came the Ottomans. Here’s what the Ottoman system looked like in 1593:

The whole region was just part of Syria. So did they call the Land Between part of Syria “Filastin” or “Palestine”? Nope. The Eyalet of Syria included sanjaks (subdivisions) named Damascus, Beirut, Sidon (Sidon-Beirut), Acre, Safad, Nablus, Jerusalem, Gaza, Hauran and Ma’an. This doesn’t precisely map the borders on that map because exact sanjak lists changed over time. Now, it’s true that some Ottoman maps include a shorthand region “Ard Filistin” or “Arz Filistin” which groups together a few of these sanjaks and sometimes also Lebanon, but it was not in any sense a legal administrative unit. Likewise, in Ottoman official letters and correspondence, they often use the name Palestine to refer to lands west of the Jordan regardless of exact legal definition of those lands, but again, this is in the same way that Americans talk about “the midwest” or “the south,” or “New England”: these are casual definitions for convenience, not actual governments (and definitions are often contested!).

The point is, none of the actual administrative names are cognates of Palestine. Or Canaan. Or Judah. The Ottomans were just not having it with deep historic place names. They went hard on just using the names of the biggest city in the sanjak.

By the 1890s, here’s what the Ottoman administration looked like:

The green and yellow are part of the Beirut Vilayet (new top-level system post-1864). The Land Between is divided between the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem (VERY cool name, btw), and the Nablus, Nasra, Acre, and Beirut sanjaks. No Palestine in sight. This system more-or-less continued until the end of WWI.

That said, the Ottomans weren’t ignorant of the term “Palestine,” and did eventually make some official use of it, if belatedly. A 1915 military survey of several of these regions was called the “Palestine Survey.” This document is the first definitive usage by an Ottoman government treating Palestine as a unit for actual governance, in this case as military district.

When WWI ended, because the Ottomans had sided with Germany and lost, their empire was dismembered. The Brits drew the straw for getting the territory of the Land Between. They got to pick a name for it. It’s not entirely clear why they chose “Palestine,” other than that it was a convenient designation. This theory of convenience makes sense, look at the other mandate names:

To the extent they could, the League of Nations borrowed old Greek and Latinate names: Transjordan, Mesopotamia! Where not available, they chose boring descriptive names: South West Africa, Japanese Pacific Mandate, etc. They made every effort to pick names that were “boring geographic designators.” They presumably thought Palestine was one such. Here are some more details:

So in 1926, at a time when there were still really not many Jews in the Land Between, Arabs were already trying to find a way to limit Jewish salience. “Southern Syria!”

So the region is called Mandatory Palestine until 1948 when the mandate ends. The State of Palestine declares independence in 1988, bringing the name back into administrative usage.

What’s in a name?

Putting this all together, we can get this:

From 1300 BC to the present, the colored bars represent periods in which a given name was plausibly used as the political or administrative label for some actual polities, states, or districts. Here I am assuming that the Islamic states I didn’t have information on continued using the Filastin name.

Let’s recall what these usages signify.

Canaan- Subjection to Egypt

Judah et al- YHWHist religion

Palestine- Greek invaders who fought YHWHists, then Roman anti-YHWH-ist genocide, then Caliphal/Islamic rule, then British Mandate

Palestine is obviously the most complex designator here. So let’s untangle it a bit more by regimes that used Palestine as a term:

Philistia- Hated YHWH-ists, tried to conquer

Hadrian- Genocided Jews

Byzantines- No genocide, but definitely anti-Semitic, including forced conversions

Islamic regimes- Relatively tolerant of Jews, but for later Islamic states continued use of “Filastin” was not “because the Romans did it” but “because the caliphate did it,” i.e. a confessional claim, so hardly a neutral geographic label

British Mandate- Fairly pro-Jewish before 1936–39 (getting to that below!)

State of Palestine- Major parties call for genocide of Jews, multiple intifadas, etc

I would argue, the Brits made a mistake in choosing “Palestine.” Every regime using it besides the British had either an overt anti-YHWH-ist stance, or they used it as part of making Islamic confessional claims.

So as I see it, there are no neutral popular name options. Canaan is silly to use and pejorative. Judah/Israel clearly favor the claims of modern Jews. Palestine, however, is clearly a confessionally Islamic label, even if Europeans in 1920 didn’t see it that way.

That’s why I go with “Land Between.” Because it’s a name nobody uses.

Having now written 4,500 words on my choice of terminology, let’s get to the actual post.

Historic Religious Demography in the Land Between

The recent war in the Land Between got me thinking about demography. The fascinating thing about the Land Between is because the region is so monumentally historically important, there is extremely extensive scholarship about it and the people who live there. That scholarship includes really high quality efforts to estimate historic populations.

How do we estimate historic populations? Let’s discuss methods:

Direct Count- Definitely the best way to measure population is to conduct a census. Count the people. Although censuses have been conducted in the Land Between for about 3,000 years (the Bible records several, the Greeks and Romans conducted some, Ottomans did, etc), we only actually have data from Ottoman-and-later censuses. Alas. So this can only get us so far.

Indirect Count- Even where censuses weren’t conducted, governments or other entities often count people without being strict censuses. The usual reasons are for military service or taxation. We have estimates of army sizes (of dubious reliability) going back to 2000 BC. More optimistically, we have Ottoman tax registers back to the 1500s. This gives us things like “counts of sedentary male householders.” That allows us to make guesses about the uncounted people.

Settled Landscapes- One method of population estimation which has arisen in the last century is doing extensive assessments of archaeological sites. How many sites have we found? How big are they? How many not-yet-found sites probably exist, guessing from settlement patterns and archaeology of thorughly-excavated areas? etc. These methods can give us something like “total acreage of sites settled with substantial construction.” It gives us a basis for our guesses.

Historical Figure Density- One that’s rarely used but fun is to say: for a given linguistic region and time period, we probably have a similar density of surviving names of people in textual documents. If we know population of subregion X and the number of named people in subregion X and Y, we could infer the population of Y. This method is very rare, but I think it should be tried more.

Radiocarbon Dates- We can date radiocarbon finds that indicate human activity. As we do this across hundreds of sites, we will start to discover that some periods have waaaaaay more evidence of human activity than other periods. We can infer those were periods of higher population.

Pollen Samples- Nowadays, archaeologists can do wild stuff. They can excavate old dirt and see what kinds of pollen are in it. If they see lots of pollen for “wheat” and not very much for “oak,” that means farming was relatively intense. Across lots of pollen types, they can get a good picture of what was growing in a given landscape.

Historic Texts- We have historic texts that estimate populations. Figures who say “Such and such a king carted off 50,000 people into slavery” or “The city had 500,000 people,” etc. These figures may not be reliable, but if an author says one city had 10,000 people and another 100,000, we can assume they didn’t totally invent the second city being bigger. Some historic texts are more credible than others.

Genetic Diversity- Through some fancy whizz-bang science stuff, geneticists can actually use current and historic gene sequences to make pretty credible estimates of the number of breeding males and females in a given time period and lineage. So far nobody has done this for the Land Between, but it’d be very nifty.

Total Population

So, what kinds of estimates exist for the Land Between? Some particularly important sources I have relied heavily on are this review, which relies on this older review. I’m also influenced by this landscape archaeological study, and this fascinating new study of radiocarbon densities. To the best of my ability, what I have done for total population is straightforward. I have chained Finkelstein’s landscape estimates (+some extra nomadic populations he undercounts) to the time-trend from radiocarbon densities for the very ancient period. For the more recent 2,000 years, I have tried to use whatever estimates already exist in recent credible studies. I prefer direct counts or indirect counts, but where not available accept other methods.

I have also made some significant assumptions about time trends. These assumptions relate to known historic events, like the Bar Kochba Revolt, which most historians agree led to a major loss of population, or the Justinianic and Bubonic Plagues, etc. To the best of my ability, major destruction episodes (plagues and conquests) have been added in, trying to yield century-average populations similar to the estimates coming from long-term population-trend models. So without any further ado, what is the population of the Land Between in the long duree?

As you can see, population gradually rose from ~1250 BC until ~500 AD. Then it crashed from then until ~1000 AD. It was stagnant until around 1750, then began to rise, with especially fast increase after 1850, until the modern population rocketship takes off.

Because of that population rocketship in recent decades due to falling mortality and migration, it can be hard to see the population trends before 1500. So let’s zoom in and cut the graph at 1 million people.

Throughout the early Iron Age, population in the Land Between rose persistently. This was partly due to natural population growth, but also migration. We already discussed one such migration: the Philistines. We actually also discussed another: Canaanite genomes show ongoing migration from the northeast. A third migration could be the Biblically-attested migration of Hebrews. I won’t get bogged down here in the details on that, suffice to say, we absolutely know this population growth was fed by at least two major migration processes; and there is some argument for a third one as well.

From the 900s to the 300s, there was little or no long-run population growth in the region, not least because of some major destruction events, in particular the Assyrian conquest of Israel and the Babylonian conquest of Judah. These events left the land scarred, taking generations to recover. Then the Hellenistic and Roman period saw a massive population increase. This was probably due to the introduction of new technologies as well as incorporation into wider trade networks, allowing substantial grain imports into major coastal cities. The revolt of the 60s led to some deportations and episodic population loss, but then the Bar Kochba revolt was truly ruinous. I estimate that, after Bar Kochba, the population of the Land between fell from approximately 750,000 to 450,000 through deaths, deportations, and diaspora alike.

Nonetheless, Roman and Byzantine sources and the archaeological evidence all support a huge population increase through to the 6th century. This implies that although Bar Kochba was ruinous, repopulation proceeded very rapidly. By the early 500s, the region had over 800,000 people in it.

Then came a century of disasters. Historic textual sources tell us the Justinianic plague was ruinous, but we actually have quantitative mortality data from tombstones in Byzantine Palestine. We know it was super bad.

There was some modest population recovery after the plague, but recurrent plague episodes and strife within the empire all curtailed growth. Then in 614, the Sassanids conquered the region, leading to another round of destruction and chaos. The concurrent Jewish revolt likewise didn’t help population growth. The Byzantines reconquered the region, but then in 636 the newly-emergent Islamic Caliphate defeated Byzantine armies and took the region. We know from archival sources that many Christians fled in the face of Islamic armies; deportations also occurred.

The long decline is basically the de-Christianization of Byzantine Palestine. We know that after 700 Christian migration out of Palestine was quite significant, even as Arab migration in was pretty modest. There is debate among scholars of Islam about how much conversion happened exactly (more on that below), but the fact that population declined dramatically under Islamic rule is not seriously in dispute.

There was some recovery in the late 1200s as the worst of the crusades died down, but this recovery was shredded by the Black Death in the mid-14th century, which hit the Land Between quite hard. Real population recovery doesn’t commence until the later 1500s, after which persistent growth sets in. That growth continues until the 1800s, when it accelerates rapidly. Growth then explodes in the late-1800s and 20th century, leaping off our chart. Here’s growth 1860–2020:

You can see there’s really a takeoff after 1920, and again in the late-1940s. What’s going on there? Simple answer: immigration. Mostly of Jews (however, Christian immigration into Palestine also rose during the British mandate; the end of Ottoman rule allowed many non-Muslim minorities to imagine a future in the Land Between).

You can see there’s a huge spike in the early 1930s with the rise of fascism, then a decline 1936–1939 during the Arab revolt which made the Land Between not seem like such a compelling destination, then even lower levels 1940–1942 as Britain cut quotas.

But mostly, for the modern period, the overall population graph is kinda boring. Persistent growth.

Aggregates, however, can conceal differences. What was happening to specific religious groups?

Historic Population by Religion

Just like we have various sources for population, we have various sources for religion. These include direct counts, like if a census or tax list asks about religion, or if a religious community conducts a count of its members, as well as extremely indirect methods, like historic travel diaries or counts of identifiable religious sites in the archaeological record.

Religion is also very internally variable. For my purposes, I count all pre-Christian YHWH-ists in the same group as modern Jews. But obviously, religious practice has changed a lot in this group! There used to be temples, now there aren’t. There used to be pharisees and sadducees, now there aren’t. The role of animal sacrifice, the prevalence of syncretistic polytheism, all have shifted over time. By treating this as one group, I am not arguing that there is perfect uniformity over time; just that there is a meaningful thruline. That thruline for Jews is the name of God. Christians also espouse that name, but of course we also have the Trinity. Christians and Jews agree that we are different from each other on the questions of Jesus and the Trinity. That wasn’t always so; in the 1st and 2nd centuries “Christian” identification as such is complex. Based on the available textual evidence and archaeological and epigraphic evidence, Christianity was pretty thin on the ground in this region for a century or two. Within Christianity of course there is major variation; for my purposes, I am not trying to untangle heretics. I’m counting Arians as Christians. Anybody who is sociologically within a Christian community, I count.

Likewise for Islam: sometimes the region had Sunni rulers, sometimes Shi’a. I’m not going to wade into that battle. There’s also debate in early Islam about what share of “Islamic” Arab armies actually understood themselves to be advancing a new religion, or even identified as “Muslim” at all. Not my concern!

However, because most historic sources separate the Druze community from Islam in reporting data, I am compelled to separate them too. Although the Druze are clearly an Islam-related sect (though some have argued the Druze are much more than just an offshoot of Islam, an argument I find compelling!), I have to count them in my “other” category.

That “other” category is problematic. It includes Baal and Moloch worship if it wasn’t associated with YHWH-ism, but would not include Baal-worship in syncretism with YHWH-worship. In this region, in many periods, religion is not strictly exclusive; people practiced multiple. I’ve done my best to incorporate what seems like the general view of scholars about the relative populations of “cultures,” and assigned those cultures the normative religion. So residents of Judah and Samaria are YHWH-ist in my count, even if they also did some Baal worship on the side. This is especially contentious if you take the Biblical account that some kings fully abandoned YHWH-ism literally. But for simplicity, if you lived in a normatively YHWH-ist community, I count you as YHWH-ist. Same for the classical period and classical paganism.

In modern data, the “other” category would also include people who don’t identify with any of the groups. In Israel, even secular Jews are counted in my data as Jewish, but there are some people who do not identify with any label assignable to a religion. So true “nones” (not just secular Jews) fall in my “other” category too.

In terms of variation over time, I have done my best to incorporate what scholars seem to suggest happened. When major disasters seem likely to have disproportionately impacted one group based on time, place, or target, I try to reflect that. Once the Ottoman period begins around 1500 the data becomes very reliable, because Ottoman tax lists record the religion of the household head, giving us quite reasonable inferences about population share. But before 1500, I begrudge nobody the right to question exact scale or timing. That said, I think you will be hard pressed to argue the major historical arcs pre-1500 are wrong…

… except in one case. As I’ve worked on this, there seems to be major disagreement among scholars about the timing of conversion to Islam. Some scholars seem to think the Land Between had become majority-Muslim as early as the 900s. They present some reasonable evidence of this.

Others argue Islam didn’t become a majority until the 1300s or 1400s. They also present a lot of really compelling evidence. I am more swayed by the late conversion, but not totally. I’ve tried to adopt a sort of intermediate position.

Personally, I think the rise of Sufism and a period of Fatimid persecution in the 11th and 12th centuries have a compelling case for being when conversions really took off. That’s also when the Druze religion really got going, suggesting it was genuinely a period of major religious foment. So I have opted for a “Fatimid conversion” approach. But if you prefer an Abbasid conversion or a Mamluk conversion story, I can’t prove you wrong.

So, with all that said, here’s my estimates of population by religion:

Once again, the modern population explosion is pretty frustrating in terms of seeing the old data. So let’s cut the data again, now at 700,000 people in a religious group.

So what do we see here?

Well, paganism was dominant early on. Then YHWH-ism rose, and by the 900s BC had achieved local dominance. This dominance was dramatic while the northern kingdom lasted, but after its destruction paganism made a comeback. Judah kept the lights on until its destruction in the early 500s. After that various paganisms dominated the region.

However, the return from exile under the Persians led to the beginning of a renewed rise in Judaism, a rise which continued persistently until around the new millennium. However, while Judaism grew in absolute and relative terms under Hellenism and the Hasmoneans, under the Romans paganism began to rise, especially after the revolts of the 60s and 130s. Throughout the pre-Constantinian empire, Judaism and paganism vied for demographic dominance.

Then a new player burst onto the scene: Christianity. After a strong performance in its first couple decades, for its next 2 or 3 centuries, Christianity’s growth rate within the Land Between was quite modest. But in the 300s and 400s, a Christianized empire poured money and resources into converting the Land Between. Enormous numbers of churches were built, imperial offices went exclusively to Christians, and Syria Palestina’s status as a vital imperial conduit between Anatolia and Egypt and a key frontier vs. (and recruiting ground for mercenary) Arabs to the south led to rapid conversion.

The Justinianic plague ended the period of population growth, but it hit the various communities about equally. Subsequent wars and conquests were a bit harder on Christians perhaps, but then the Muslim conquest was much harder on Christians. This wasn’t because of Muslim violent persecution. The Muslims did engage in activities that today would be called “ethnic cleansing,” but so did every other country. Special extra taxes on non-Muslims especially encouraged conversions. In Egypt, conversion was very rapid (from the links above):

Likewise in Bosnia:

In both cases, 60% conversion occurred within 1 century.

However, most scholars do not think that the Land Between converted that quickly. I won’t bog down in why, but suffice to say, it doesn’t seem like the process of conversion happened as fast in the Land Between. One key reason is that the region was depopulating pretty quickly as Christians in particular fled to the Byzantine Empire.

It’s crucial to realize here that the Sassanids had captured this region just 20 years earlier, and then the Byzantines took it back. Many Christians probably figured that the Muslim rule would be temporary. They may have fled in anticipation of returning. Historic accounts attest to exactly this in some cases. In others, we know that groups of Christian rebels were deported to the Byzantine Empire. More broadly, the shift in employment opportunities from “Christians who speak Greek get the good government jobs” to “Muslims who speak Arabic get the good government jobs” meant that there was just a lot of structural unemployment among elites in particular. So, they left. Christians, having a viable refugee-recipient in the Byzantine Empire, a polity they perhaps hoped would eventually restore Christian control, were especially likely to leave.

So a mixture of persecution (usually not violent), deportation, and diasporan dynamics combined to de-Christianize the region. But total population fell: Arabs did not move in in droves. The reason was that there were better lands available. The new conquerors also conquered Iraq, Syria, and Egypt: the Land Between did not offer nearly as lucrative of land grants as those regions did, and so it didn’t attract as much settlement and Caliphal administrative attention. As various Muslim factions warred over the next several centuries, the Land Between was, well, often caught between them. Those aren’t great conditions for growth.

But, starting in the 1000s, something changes. First of all, while Sufis (a subset of Islamic practice involving mysticism and intensified personal devotion) had long existed within Islam, the 1000s and 1100s saw Sufi orders formalize themselves and expand dramatically. Virtually everything I’ve read suggests Sufi orders were just a lot better at achieving conversions than prior Islamic attempts. One reason was that Sufis were less directly tied to Islamic states. Why would that help? Simple.

Those two papers I cited about Egypt and Bosnia study conversion in response to the jizya, a tax on non-Muslims. The jizya was one of the major revenue sources for Islamic states. This created a problem: if non-Muslims all converted, state revenues declined. So Islamic states actually had incentives not to press for conversions. They faced a tradeoff between piety and tax revenue. Sufi orders, however, had no such constraints: all piety, all the time.

The second major factor is Caliph al-Hakim of the Fatimid Caliphate, which controlled the Land Between. What you need to know about al-Hakim is summarized well by wikipedia:

When you’re life’s legacy is that people call you “the Nero of Egypt,” when the debate about you is between people who think you’re a murderous madman and people who think you are a divine messiah, you’ve really accomplished something with your life! Maybe something awful, but something. And what al-Hakim did was, on that “revenue vs. piety” scale, he maxed out the piety side of it. At first he continued the Fatimid tolerance of minorities (most Fatimid rulers actively promoted Christians, since, as the Fatimids were Shi’a Muslims, they actually shared a common enemy: Sunni Muslims!). But around 1004, he started banning Christian holidays, and even banning the use of wine in Christian communion. Christians and Jews were forced to wear distinctive clothing to mark them out, and banned from some public spaces. In 1009, the Holy Sepulchre (the church over where Christ was crucified) was razed. Numerous monasteries were destroyed. It was a significant persecution.

Ultimately, al-Hakim would be instrumental in the launch of a new faith: the Druze religion, which continues to view him as an ideal and inspired ruler. The Druze faith grew rapidly under al-Hakim, and remains significant in Israel and Lebanon.

My view is that the reign of al-Hakim was probably the turning point for conversion into Islam. Although he did not increase the jizya (insanely enough we actually know the tax rates for this whole period!), he heaped a whole new kind of persecution on top, and in particular broke the institutional power of Christianity within the Land Between. Destroying churches and monasteries led to further flight of the religious elites who had been holding Christianity together.

Why didn’t Copts flee at this time? Well, because they couldn’t. See, most Christians in the Land Between followed bishops who were more-or-less aligned with the official imperial church in Rome, or part of Oriental Orthodox churches with friendly ties to Muslim powers further east. They had options about where to go.

But most Egyptian Christians were Coptic — part of a church not aligned with the Byzantine Imperial church. Had they moved to Constantinople, they would have been just as persecuted. Thus, Copts emerged as a stable religious community because they had nowhere to go, whereas Christians in the Land Between had exit options, and used them.

Over the next several centuries, Christianity and Judaism continued to decline. The Crusades did little or nothing to reverse that.

The late Ottoman period saw some increases in non-Muslim populations. A series of pogroms in the Russian Empire led to a burst of Jewish emigration, a little bit of which went to the Land Between, despite Ottoman efforts to curtail this. Christian populations grew in part due to migration of Armenians, continuing the millennia-long trend of people from the Zagros and Caucasus regions moving southwest into the Land Between.

Modern Population by Religion

But for the post-1860 period, where we have quite good data, let’s get a new graph:

You can see the rise in Jewish population in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Then a huge jump in the late 1940s with the surge of post-war immigration. That’s also when we get the rise in “Other,” because that’s when modern statistical sources kick in, and modern sources mostly refuse to accept the idea that “Everyone has a religious category,” so they always have an “other” category, and it turns out, there are always some people in it!

But let’s jump back to the 1920s and 1930s. I already showed how Jewish immigration rose in that period. But, what actually happened?

The assassination of Czar Alexander of Russia initiated a massive series of anti-Jewish pogroms and laws. Russia was home to a huge number of Jews at the time, and the Ottoman Empire had a reputation for being extremely friendly and hospitable to Jews, even welcoming them. So Russian Jews assumed the empire would be open to them. Not so: the Ottoman Empire decided almost immediately to ban Jewish migration into the Land Between. They allowed it into Anatolia, but they restricted even migration into Syria and Mesopotamia. This was a big surprise. The Ottoman Empire had two reasons for this change in policy towards the Jews. First, Ottoman toleration of the Jews had been based on two facts: first, that most Jews they encountered were Mizrahim, that is, of some Middle Eastern or related descent, and so were not considered to pose a serious threat as a different nationality; second, they were scattered around the Ottoman Empire, not concentrated in one place, and so did not represent a problem of national self-determination like the Armenians or Kurds. In other words, Jews were seen as non-threatening because of their diasporality and ethnic similarity. But European Jews from Russia were seen as, well, European, and the Ottoman Empire was having a bit of a racist one that particular day; moreover, the prospect of hundreds of thousands of European Jews settling in Palestine could create a problem of Jewish national separatism, which the Ottomans absolutely did not want. Ergo, they blocked Jewish migration for a combination of “anti-European racism” and “avoiding nationalist movements” reasons.

Nonetheless, many Jews moved to one part of the Ottoman Empire, then relocated into the Land Between. Immigration rose, though not to dramatic levels. This continued through the Ottoman period.

After the Ottomans lost WWIthe British gained the mandate of Palestine, putting them in a position to deliver on the promises of the Balfour Declaration made a few years earlier, namely, to establish a Jewish homeland. They therefore began allowing Jewish (and Christian!) immigration into Mandatory Palestine. But this, of course, was exactly the problem the Ottomans had been trying to forestall: a densely clustered Jewish population would create a problem as they demanded political rights as a nation. The British instead just jumped facefirst into this problem with no plan. It went badly. Jews began moving in, but as conflict began, the British started having to curtail the situation — intercommunity violence kicked off almost immediately. To my knowledge, the first attacks were in the early 1920, by Arabs against Jews. Arabs had formed anti-Zionist political associations as early as 1919; literally the moment the British took over, Agenda Item 1 for the Arabs was “no Jews.” By 1921, over a hundred people had been killed in anti-Jewish rioting.

The British tried to set up self-governing institutions in Palestine. But the Arabs refused to participate, because those institutions included Jews. To be clear, Jews were not a majority. They could not have won any elections. Palestinian Arabs refused to even participate in self-governance because those institutions included any Jews. It’s hard to overstate what’s going on here. In the 1920s, the Palestinian Arab position was that the right number of Jews with political rights was “Zero.” This is not surprising, since that was how the Ottoman system worked. But it’s crucial to recognize that Palestinians chose not to participate in efforts to create a Palestinian state with civil and political rights for all people.

The British set up a 23-person legislature in 1922. It was to have:

High Commissioner- British

10 appointed positions (mostly British colonial officials)

8 elected Muslim positions

2 elected Christian positions

2 elected Jewish positions

Muslims were about 80–90% of the population and got 67% of the elected seats, 43% overall. They were displeased with this, but I want to note that Wikipedia emphasizes their bitterness over “43% overall.” Suggesting they were rejecting not only Jewish positions, but also the appointed British positions. The elections in 1923 were boycotted by Arabs. Jews and Druze districts returned results as normal, but of the 729 Arab Muslim and Christian districts, only 126 ever returned results. The elections were annulled.

Tensions kept simmering. There was a major riot in 1929. Here’s the casualty counts:

Arabs killed 133 Jews; Jews killed 20 Arabs; British police killed 96 Arabs. Overall death tolls were similar, but given the smaller Jewish population their per capita rate of course was higher; and of course, most of the Arab death toll was by the British, not Jewish intercommunity violence. Ultimately, 3 Jews and 70 Palestinians were convicted of murder (174 Palestinians and 109 Jews were charged).

But what was this all about? Simply put, the Palestinians, from Day 1, wanted to forestall any Jewish political influence, and especially to prevent the formation of a Jewish homeland. This meant preventing immigration of Jews. They wanted the return to the Ottoman restrictions on immigration. The late 1920s and 1930s saw the beginning of Palestinian insurgencies against British forces as the British continued to allow migration. Then, in the early 1930s, Jewish migration jumped upwards. Reminder:

The reason for that jump is named “Adolf Hitler.” More broadly, things were Getting Very Bad for Jews in Europe, and they headed for the exits. Some went to Mandatory Palestine. This huge surge in migration led to major Palestinian protest, culminating in a major revolt 1936–1939.

This is also right about when the Land Between finally had population considerably in excess of its 5th-century peak. The long depopulation was over. Jews, building new settlements in marginal and swampy lands they had purchased, focused on capital-intensity in their new farms. They built power plants, drained swamps, bought tractors, etc. Palestinians had far fewer resources, and decades of Ottoman mismanagement had not yielded highly productive agriculture. As a result, just as Jews were escaping Malthusian dynamics, Palestinians were being bought off their land and finding nowhere to go. The Palestinians faced a kind of subsistence crisis as their agricultural productivity couldn’t keep up. As a result, there were a lot of unemployed Palestinian men in the mid-1930s seeing huge numbers of Jews move in, buy land off poor farmers, turn that land into a garden, and then keep the money in the Jewish community.

An astute observer would note that if Palestinians had helped set up a government 1920–1923, the revenues from those Jewish farms could have been taxed to provide education and social welfare for Palestinian Arabs; alas, it was not to be.

Finally, in 1935, a Palestinian terrorist shot up some British police pursuing fruit thieves. They returned fire and killed the terrorist. But it turns out, he was a popular guy. His funeral turned into a protest. Wikipedia’s summary of the ensuing revolt is pretty good:

TL;DR, the Palestinians took massive casualties in the revolt. And in the process, they convinced the British to arm and train thousands of Jews as a paramilitary, setting the stage for eventual Israeli victory in the long term.

But, medium term, they won a key victory: after 1939, the British government DID restrict immigration, and ALSO prohibited the sale of land to Jews in 95% of the territory of the mandate. When Jews tried to immigrate after 1939, the British would put them in internment camps. British and Soviet vessels even fired on and sank Jewish refugee boats trying to cross from Cyprus or Turkey, in a shocking reversal of modern refugee management in nearby waters. Hundreds of Jews died in the Mediterranean from Allied guns during WWII. Yes folks, the Allies didn’t just turn away Jewish refugees; they opened fire on them and sank their boats. It’s exactly as insane as it sounds and has been memory-holed to a bizarre extent.

But after the war ended, the jig was up. The British were having to station, by 1947, almost 100,000 men in Palestine to keep the peace. Jewish illegal immigration was turning into a flood. The US was withholding development loans to the UK until the UK allowed immigration. Britain finally just threw up their hands and decided to walk away from the Mandate. With no real plan for what came next, the Brits announced they were leaving.

The newborn UN tried to make a plan. Here was their plan:

Now the key thing to do here is compare that map to this one, a map of actual Jewish existing landholdings:

Most of the land the UN was “giving” to the Jews was land they already owned (Negev-excepted). The proposed plan basically gave Jews sovereignty over land they already had legally purchased from voluntary sellers, and left Palestinians in control of the rest.

The Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body representing Jewish interests, accepted this plan.

Every Arab country rejected it, as did Palestinians.

Why? Because they were not willing to concede a single acre to Jews. Remember how they refused to participate in setting up a government if it included Jews? Here it is again. Arab countries believed the right number of Jews with political rights was zero Jews.

Now let’s pause here: did the Palestinians have a point? Most people believe in some kind of “national self-determination,” and most people believe states arising from such processes have a right to control their borders. If they choose Zero Jewish Immigration, so be it. Whether what the Palestinians wanted was immoral is going to depend on:

  1. Your views of restrictionist immigration policy generally
  2. Your views of whether “Palestinians” in 1919 were in fact an ethnic group/nation of the sort which could exercise self-determination
  3. Your views of if Jews have any competing claim to the land arising from either historic lineage ties, British promises, the seriously depopulated nature of Palestine in 1920, or Jews’ then-recent victimizations in Europe post-1881, post-1933, and especially post-1939.

I’m not going to answer those concerns. My views are probably obvious here, I’m not great at hiding my opinions, but the key point is that under a very specific set of assumptions, the Palestinian position here has coherence to it. And for strategic plausibility, it rests on two additional assumptions:

  1. That the British can’t sustain the Mandate indefinitely (true!)
  2. That once the British leave, Arab states will support an independent Palestine and militarily crush Jewish resistance (seemed super obvious in 1920–1945, but, turned out to be false!)

Anyways, with the partition plan rejected, the board was set for war. It was an internal conflict in 1947 between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. After a rough start, the Jews won the civil conflict. Then in 1948 other Arab countries intervened and invaded. Shockingly, the Jews won the war. Here’s the population graph again for more persective:

Notice that in 1948, the Muslim and Christian populations actually decline. That’s the because during the 1947–48 conflict, many Arabs in the Land Between fled the conflict into other countries, especially Jordan and Lebanon. I do not count Jordan and Lebanon in any of my estimates, and so these refugees fall out of my sample. This is the period that Palestinians today refer to as the “Nakba,” meaning “disaster.” Since 1950, Muslim and Jewish populations have both risen dramatically, keeping a roughly stable numeric gap between them in favor of Jews.

Population Shares by Religious Group

We’ll conclude with one last tidbit, showing the population graphs now as shares instead of numbers.

Here you can see the historic ebb and flow of religions more easily. Paganism had a strong position in a few early periods, but YHWH-ist groups dominated for long stretches of time as well. Christians had a good run of it, but ultimately couldn’t sustain for the long game. Muslims saw their population share rise persistently for 1,000 years, then lose most of that gain with dramatic speed.

But let’s zoom in post-1860 again, to get some interesting dynamics.

You can see that the Jewish share of the region’s population actually peaked around 1970, and has since declined. They remain a majority, but only barely. This helps explain why after victory upon victory 1920–1975 or so, in recent decades Israel has faced increasing pressure and challenge to its control: because Muslims are expanding their footprint in the region.

This isn’t happening via conversion, but fertility. Throughout the 20th century, Muslims in the Land Between had much higher fertility than Jews. But today, that’s changing. Using data through 2019 because I have it on hand and Israel’s statistics bureau is limiting foreign traffic during the ongoing war, here’s how fertility looks for Jews vs. Muslims in the Land Between:

Now, you may have seen versions of this graph showing that Jewish fertility has already surpassed Muslim — and that’s true, looking at just Muslims within Israel. But for our purposes, we have to include Palestinian Muslims, who have somewhat higher birth rates.

Anyways, whereas the 20th century saw Muslims in the Land Between enjoy a massive demographic advantage in fertility (offset by the Jewish advantage in immigration), that’s no longer true. If Muslim fertility continues falling in the Land Between as it has in other Muslim countries, the 2030s could see Jews begin to have demographically meaningful higher fertility rates. Only time will tell.

Who Has Claim? A Brief Conclusion

I wrote this piece because as the war has gone on I have gotten curious about these questions. Why do we call the region the things we call it? Who lived there, and when? Who has claim?

Without litigating the actual claim question, here are some things I’ve come to believe as I research this question:

  1. Far from being a neutral geographic label, “Palestine” as a term has a normative historical usage which has almost always been confessionally opposed to whatever form of YHWH-ism happened to exist at the time. While it is not necessarily an anti-Semitic term, it is not a neutral geographic reference.
  2. While Muslim rule of the region has existed for a very long time, most of that period coincided with population decline or stagnation at levels far below what the region could sustain; Muslim rulers drove out most of the inhabitants indigenous when they arrived, converted a modest number of the residual who stuck around, and then left the land underpopulated for centuries.
  3. This then meant that when Jews had an opportunity to return, there were copious amounts of marginal lands available for purchase. Had Ottoman rule yielded a bustling economy with productive agriculture, Jewish immigration would simply never have worked. Mismanagement by Islamic states is the proximate factor that enabled Jewish migration to be so dramatically effective as a strategy.
  4. Modern Palestinians and modern Jews both bear unmistakable genetic marks of ancient ancestry in the southwest Levant. Palestinians have more commonality, but Ashkenazi Jews remain >50% “quasi-Canaanite.” If genetics create claims, then they have a pretty good one.
  5. Palestinians bet the farm on the idea that, in the words of their own generals in the 1948 war, they could “sweep the Jews into the sea,” i.e. successfully genocide them. The Palestinian political strategy 1919–1948 was entirely based on the idea that, bereft of British support, the Jews would be easy prey. This was the strategic calculus motivating repeated Palestinian choices to reject compromises, forego participation in political processes, and engage in destructive conflicts. This calculus was catastrophically wrong.
  6. Had Palestinians in the 1920s participated in government, things might have still gone badly. But as it is, setting aside the question of legitimate claims, the record of Palestinian political conduct 1919–1948 is mind-bogglingly egregious: rampantly anti-Semitic, forthrightly genocidal, carried out repeated actual massacres… very bad!
  7. Israel is sometimes critiqued as an apartheid state. Regardless of the truth or accuracy of this, I was struck that in 1939, Britain implemented actual racial residency zones similar to actual apartheid. Britain made it illegal to sell land to Jews in 95% of the land area of the mandate. This extraordinary choice effectively created today’s battle lines, as the critical period of massive Jewish migration saw them clustered ever-more-densely into their enclaves. It was Palestinians who “benefited” from apartheid-like rules 1940–1948. Turnabout is not fair play, but, in combination with Anglo-Soviet treatment of Jews fleeing Nazis, I was astonished just how badly the British treated Jews 1939–1948.

So who has claim? This post isn’t going to give you some “scientific empirical measure of claim.” My view is that all these people have lived in the area as far back as we can sequence DNA, there’s always been religious conflict and oscillation in the region, it’s unlikely to stop. I’d like all players to benefit from prosperous modern economies and representative governments assuring civil rights. On this basis, my preference is for Israel. But if tomorrow Israel abolished the civil rights of its Arab citizens, my views might change! So far, they have not. Regardless of if you share my views, I hope this post has been informative.


James avatar
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Why can't Jews set up their own state somewhere else 🤔 

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@james where do you suggest?

James avatar
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@athena The Anglo-Saxons settled across 3 continents. brought Chinese to Malay. Africans to the Carribean. Anglo-Saxons just love to disrupt social harmony 🙄 with their Divide-and-conquer tactics 

freedom and democracy in the Middle East are just another sly way of telling dumb people. We Need Israel to get a foothold in the Middle East. Oil Oil Oil. 

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@james that's the way of the world since the beginning big fish eats small fish. As a small fish you have to tread a balance. If you don't go with the Europeans/Anglo then you go with China.