“What is Palestine?” Jeopardy! and Alex Trebek

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Language matters. Many of us have heard that the Inuit (indigenous people of the Arctic) have at least 50 words for snow (though that idea is a bit overstated). We also know that politicians sometimes leverage word choice for marketing purposes, be it motivational or manipulative. For instance, the idea of being “pro-life” or “pro-choice” was the work of competing marketing strategies. Last week, in our Unpacked for Educators webinar, we debated the usage of the term “Zionist” vs. “Pro-Israel.” Regardless of where you fall out on any of the debates, one thing remains true. Language matters. How we speak matters.

  • Are the territories “occupied,” “disputed,” or “liberated”? 
  • “Did you just say ‘East Jerusalem’ when referring to the Old City?” 
  • Is it the “Yom Kippur War,” the “Ramadan War,” or the “October War”? 
  • Is the 1967 War called the “Six-Day War” or the “June War” or even the Naksa?
  • Should Israel’s 1948 war be called the “War of Sovereignty” as Ben Gurion preferred, the “War of Liberation,” the “War of Independence,” the “1948 War,” or, for some, the Nakba

When Alex Trebek provided the hint, “Built in the 300’s A.D., the Church of the Nativity is in which country?” two thoughts emerged: 

  1. “Why would Jeopardy want to step into a geo-political storm?” 
  2. “What would most people think is the correct answer to that question?”

In a remarkably unscientific way, I proceeded to ask 10 or so people – some educators, lay leaders, and just friends what their answer to the second question would be.

I received no less than five answers:

a.Israel b. Judea and Samaria c. Palestine d. Palestinian Territories e. West Bank

How would YOU answer that question? How would YOUR students, friends, colleagues and children answer that question. What is the history? Why is it so complicated? 

We’re here to unpack all of this for you. 

Best,

Noam

What Happened?

The popular American TV trivia show Jeopardy! aired a question that caused controversy: “Built in the 300s A.D., the Church of the Nativity [is in what country]”? The church, built on the site where Jesus is believed to have been born, is located in Bethlehem – but where is Bethlehem, technically? Katie Needle, the first contestant, answered “Palestine,” which was deemed incorrect, and the next contestant, Jack McGuire, answered “Israel,” which was accepted as the correct answer. He received the points with no explanation given. After facing backlash on social media, Jeopardy! producers issued an apology explaining that the question was aired erroneously; during the taping they had realized that “the clue was flawed as written and that determining an acceptable response would be problematic.” After the show, Katie Needle tweeted: “Palestine should be free.”

Why Does This Matter?

The history and current reality here are extremely complex, and that’s EXACTLY why we exist. Visit our Unpacked for Educators website and watch our videos to gain a complete understanding of the history and political questions surrounding this region. Watch the videos, explore the resources, and you will come out saying, “I actually get it!”

Cultural literacy: history of the area – Bethlehem has a strong Jewish history. It is an ancient Biblical city, home to the resting place of the Jewish matriarch Rachel as well as the birthplace of King David. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem was part of “Judea,” the area named after the Biblical Kingdom of Judah and from which the Jewish people take their name. Though once a distinct kingdom from the Kingdom of Israel, which was just to its north, the terms Judah and Israel are often used interchangeably, and Jews call themselves both “Yehudim” from Judah and the “Children of Israel,” and their ancestral home the “Land of Israel.” After the Romans took over in 135 C.E., Emperor Hadrian renamed the area “Syria-Palaestina” (after the Jews’ ancient foe, the Philistines, who had long died out) “in an effort to wipe out all memory of the bond between the Jews and the land” (H.H Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People).

What is the origin of the term “Palestine”? Believed to be derived from the ancient “Philistines,” the term Palaestina was first used by the Romans, as mentioned above. Under the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917), “Palestine” referred the entire region south of Syria (some called it Southern Syria and not Palestine). Under subsequent British rule, “Palestine” referred to present-day Israel as well as to Jordan. The beginnings of a separate national identity for Palestinians can be traced back to the 19th century, and picked up speed in the 20th century as Jews returned to the area and hundreds of thousands of local Arabs fled or were forced out in 1948 and 1967. The people called Palestinians today did not have an official state of their own before 1948, nor after (although this might be confusing for many, since 138 countries currently recognize “Palestine” as a country, though it is missing defined borders and other requirements of being a country). The United Nations does not consider Palestine a state; however, the organization voted to grant Palestine non-member observer status. However, the cultural arm of the United Nations, UNESCO, admitted “Palestine” with full member status in 2011; in the last year, both Israel and the United States have fully withdrawn from UNESCO due to its anti-Israel bias. 

Words create reality – While it might be fun to play a game of You say tomato, I say tomahto, when it comes to Israel and geo-politics, it is not that simple. As mentioned in our introduction, words carry weight. And in Israel, words can feel like a ton of bricks. Should it be called the West Bank? This term was first coined by Jordan after the 1948 War of Independence when Israel became a state. Many consider this term the most neutral because it is describing the region in a geographic way. Or, should it be called Judea and Samaria, referencing the biblical namesake of the region? What should the wall Israel built in the wake of the Second Intifada be called? Should it be called a security barrier, as it was created to prevent terrorism, or a separation barrier? Pay close attention to the words people choose to use. Typically, people who support the idea of the fence/wall will call it a security barrier, and people who oppose it might use the term separation wall. Often, people signal where they stand on issues based on their word choice.

The way we talk about things can shape reality. When news articles or institutions use particular language, they enforce certain biases and impact how the public thinks about these issues. In one article, writer Mitchell Bard argues that the world “Palestine” “can imply that the conflict is over an area where the Palestinians were once sovereign,” which “feeds the narrative of Israel as an occupier.” Words create reality, and both Israelis and Palestinians are constantly fighting this war of words. 

Diversity of Perspectives – Where is Bethlehem? What is the correct answer, Jeopardy?!

Option 1 – Bethlehem is in “Palestine.” When people turned to social media after this Jeopardy! episode aired, there were some who were outraged that “Palestine” was not the correct answer to the question. Al-Jazeera writer Usaid Siddiqui states, “The Church of the Nativity, a World Heritage Site, is located in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, which is internationally recognised as part of Palestine.” In fact, 138 countries officially recognize Palestine as a state. The problem is, there is no state ofPalestine. Journalist David Harsanyi explains: “Although one day it might, Palestine doesn’t exist today. An independent Arab Palestine has never existed” whether under Ottoman or British rule, or after repeated offers and negotiations since 1947.

Option 2 – Bethlehem is in Israel. “Israel” was accepted as the correct answer on the show (though “Palestine” was also awarded in the end). Yet, Bethlehem’s being officially in Israel would present some hairy problems due to the fact that the Palestinian Authority controls the city, and residents of the city do not have Israeli citizenship. While some Israelis view the West Bank as part of greater or Biblical Israel, and would like to annex it as part of the State of Israel, as of today, it is not technically part of the State. 

Option 3 – Bethlehem is in the Palestinian territories. In Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War, it captured areas like the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. These areas remain “disputed,” as they were offered to the Palestinians in 1948 and declined, and when Israel captured them from Jordan it never claimed sovereignty over those areas (as the large Arab population would have jeopardized Israel’s Jewish majority). After the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority became the governing body in predominantly Palestinian areas of the West Bank, and has been governing those areas ever since. These areas are neither part of Israel proper, nor an official state of Palestine recognized by the U.N. Bethlehem sits in the central West Bank, about 10 km from Jerusalem.

Discussion Questions

  1. After learning about this topic, how would you answer the Jeopardy! question? Explain your answer.
  2. There are currently 138 countries that recognize the State of Palestine, and the UN gives it the status of an “observer state.” Is the fact that some countries have ventured on their own to recognize “Palestine” constructive or detrimental to the peace process? How does the UN’s “observer” status complicate matters?
  3. In 1988, Professor E.D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia published the best-selling book Cultural Literacy, in which he argued that people must possess a certain body of knowledge in order to understand and participate fluently in a given culture. Why is studying history imperative to achieving cultural literacy? Why is cultural literacy itself an important value? 

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Use the videos and articles listed above, with their discussion questions and classroom tips, to delve deeply into this topic.
  2. Watch this TED talk about how language shapes the way we think. Have your students write down two examples of how language can shape our thoughts and come up with two examples of this from their own lives. Bring the class together to share their answers and thoughts.
  3. Read this article about how modern Israel got its name. What other names were considered? If you had been present, would you have gone with “Israel” or something else? Why?

In Other News…

  1. This week google listed Tel Aviv as the #5 top travel destination for 2020. Tel Aviv joined cities like Tokyo, Vienna, and Middle Eastern neighbor Dubai on the list. This ranking came as no surprise as Israel continues to see record growth in tourism in recent years.
  2. What country comes to mind when you think of baseball? Probably not Israel, yet it is precisely this country that will be one of six countries represented (mostly made up of American Jewish players) in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 
  3. The Concenter Biopharma of Jerusalem is working on developing a pill that could fix the root cause of diabetes, which will hopefully work to prevent Type 2 diabetes by restoring the body’s insulin sensitivity.
  4. Although it may have been a crazy thought a few years ago, Israel is now officially an exporter of natural gas; Egypt is its first customer. This deal will work to further strengthen the economic bond between the two countries. 

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President of Education at Jerusalem U. Noam holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design. Before joining Jerusalem U, he was the principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where he spent 9 years actively engaging and empowering students to find meaning in their Jewish learning.

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