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Opinion

Palestine: Genealogy and etymology

HISTORY MATTERS - Todd Sales Lucero - The Freeman

While not his only accomplishment as governor-general of the Philippines, Narciso Claveria’s 1849 surname decree remains his lasting contribution to the Filipinos today. In honor of this decree and to shed more light and attention on the ongoing conflict in Palestine, I would like to contribute to the unfolding narrative by writing about the genealogy and etymology of the name “Palestine.”

I started with my copy of the Catalogo, the list of words and names prepared by Spanish authorities which accompanied the surname decree. The Catalogo didn’t just contain Spanish last names, but also proper and common nouns, verbs, adjectives, and other term that do not always appear as surnames. You can thus find Hispanized toponyms (place names) or racial terms like Africano, Zebuano, Yndiano, Alemania, Aleman, and even Filipino. “Palestine” did not make it to the list, nor the terms Palestino or Palestina. I then consulted FamilySearch, an online database of Church of Jesus of Christ and Latter-Day Saints and found 50 people with the last name of Palestino or Palestina. Based on my extensive experience studying Filipino surnames, if a surname isn’t in the Catalogo, it is likely a derivative of another name in the list. I validated these Palestinos and discovered that only one was legitimate while the rest were any of the following: Celestino, Pelegrino, Polestico, and Valentino but misread as Palestino.

Palestino is an uncommon name and only 4,080 people carry it as a surname worldwide as of 2014, with Mexico (3,666), United States (289), and Brazil (93) having the most number. In the 2020 Philippine Statistics Authority surnames data, only two Filipinos carry Palestino as a surname: one in San Mariano, Isabela, and another in Inopacan, Leyte. There are three Palestina in San Mariano plus another in Palompon, Leyte. Both Palestino and Palestina were probably from one source and these surnames were most likely mistransliteration of other similar-sounding surnames. At least in the Philippines then, Palestino was never a surname and whatever appears today is clearly misspelling of similar surnames. Despite this, the word Palestine does have a very long history. Recently, various disinformation claims that the term is exclusively Arab, that it was only coined recently by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, or that only Arabs have lived in Palestine. But was this really the case?

The term Palestine comes from the Latin Palaest?na, derived from the Greek Palaist??n?, first coined by Herodotus in the 5th century BCE. Etymologists have postulated that there is a similarity between Palaist??n? and palaistês, the latter having the same origin as the Hebrew word “Israel”, with scholars believing that the term is from the Biblical Hebrew “P?l?št?m.” An 1849 dictionary defines “palestino” as natural ó propio de la Palestina, or naturally or typically of Palestine. An earlier dictionary published in 1837 defines Palestine as a part of Syria, in turn a part of the Ottoman Empire.

A.B. Tristram’s “The Land of Israel: A Journal of Travels in Palestine” in 1865 puts Israel and Palestine within the same geography. The 1869 article “The Spanish Exiles” states that the Sephardi Jews returned from Spain (to Palestine) in the fifteenth century and formed a permanent colony in Jerusalem… were allowed to live on Mount Zion and have been spared from wholesale massacre and persecution…yet their condition was one of extreme wretchedness, they in sufferance, and were at the mercy of a tyrannical government and a fanatical populace...they were downtrodden and barely allowed to live for the sake of the money which was extorted from them by the Muslims. An 1841 article in “The Scottish Christian Herald” estimated the three major ethno-religious groups in Jerusalem as Muslims at 4,500; Jews at 3,000; and Christians at 3,500.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is complex and cannot be defined in sound bites on TV or social media nor by articles on newspapers. I prefer to consult pre-1948 books about Palestine because these were written without the biases that the world developed since the 1948 partition. These old books and articles clearly indicate that the present-day Palestine was inhabited by both the ancestors of Jews and Arabs alike. To say that the Jews only came to Israel in 1948, and that the Palestinians of today have exclusive rights to Palestine, are both historically erroneous.

In closing, I would like to share one interesting note: though “Palestino” isn’t in the Catalogo, both Arabe (Arab) and Judias (Jewish) are.

 

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