A different sort of Palestine makes front-page headlines

For the second time in two months, an American town named Palestine is on the front pages.

Every newspaper in the country reported the joyous celebrations in Palestine, W.Va., the home town of U.S. Army private Jessica Lynch, who was rescued from her Iraqi captors this week.

Two months ago, another town named Palestine was in mourning — when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart in the skies above Palestine, Texas.

The Columbia tragedy sparked some excited chatter in the Arab world about the irony of a space shuttle carrying an Israeli astronaut exploding above a town named Palestine. What will be said in the cafes of Cairo, Damascus and Gaza about the rescue of Lynch remains to be seen.

The spotlight shining on yet another U.S. town named Palestine will naturally leave some Americans curious as to why it has such as unusual name.

The answer is that it's not an unusual name at all.

In Lynch's state of West Virginia, there are also towns named Bethlehem, Canaan and Salem (derived from Jerusalem), as well as two Hebrons and four Shilohs. In Texas, there are towns named Hebbronville and Joshua. There is a Hebron in North Dakota and a Sinai in South Dakota, a Jerusalem in Arkansas, two Shilohs in Ohio, a Jericho in Vermont, a Bethlehem and a Nazareth in Pennsylvania, and a Zion in Maryland. Nearly every state in the union has one or more towns named after biblical sites or individuals. Altogether, there are more than 1,000 biblically-named towns from coast to coast.

That's not because residents of those regions have some special sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs. Towns like Palestine were established by 19th-century religious Christian settlers who chose such names to express their spiritual attachment to the land and people of the Bible. When they thought of Palestine, they recalled the Jewish kingdom of ancient times. In their prayers, they prayed for the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. Palestine, Texas, was named in honor of a Baptist minister from Palestine, Ill., — a name chosen because the beauty of that part of Ill. reminded its first settlers "of the land of milk and honey, Palestine," according to the official account by the Crawford County (Ill.) Historical Society.

Americans were aware that Palestine had some Arab residents. Mark Twain had mentioned them in his account of his visit to the Holy Land, "The Innocents Abroad" (1869), as had Herman Melville in his famous "Clarel: A Poem and the Pilgrimage in the Holy Land" (1876).

But it was common knowledge that the Arab population of Palestine was relatively small and unsettled. H. Allen Tupper Jr. wrote in The New York Times in 1896, after having "ridden on horseback more than four hundred miles through Palestine and Syria," that virtually the only local people he encountered were "merchantmen with their long camel trains" and "wild Bedouin tribes" that "reside in one locality not more than two months."

Moreover, the Arab residents of 19th-century Palestine did not consider themselves Palestinians. They regarded Palestine not as a separate country, but as the southern part of Syria. As the Arab scholar Zeine N. Zeine wrote in 1973: "The world in which the Arabs and Turks lived together was, before the end of the 19th century, politically a non-national world. The vast majority of the Muslim Arabs did not show any nationalist or separatist tendencies except when the Turkish leaders themselves, after 1908, asserted their own nationalism."

If there had been a conflict between the Arab and Jewish residents of Palestine in the 1800s, the original residents of Palestine, W.Va., undoubtedly would have sided with the Jews, whose claim to the land is clear from the Bible that Christians and Jews both cherish. It is for the same reason that Bible-believing Christians today — probably including more than a few residents of Palestine, W.Va. — constitute one of the major sources of pro-Israel sentiment in the United States.