The Palestinians, the Philistines and Anti-Semitism Today

A Series by World Mizrachi Director-General, Rabbi Doron Perez

Part 3 – The Ghost of the Ancient Philistines

Part 1 – Anti-Semitism of the Third Kind

Part 2 – A Deeper Look at Palestinian Nationalism

The Palestinians and the Philistines – No Genetic or Nationalistic Connection

The Palestinians of today are not the biological descendants of the ancient Philistines.

This is beyond doubt, and agreed upon by all mainstream historians.  This is clear from both biblical literature and external historic sources.  It is well known, as recorded in both the book of Kings II and Isaiah that King Sancheriv of Assyria conquered this region as he did the entire civilized world.  In fact, the only city in the Middle East that he was not able to conquer was Jerusalem which was miraculously saved in the times of King Chizkiyahu and Isaiah the Prophet.  All other cities and nations were subdued.  He developed a unique theory and practical plan for dealing with his subjects, which would have far-reaching consequences for all nations as well as the Jewish People: population transfer and national intermingling.  He was the one who exiled the 10 northern tribes of Israel as he did with many other nations by exiling them from their land, dispersing them to different locations around the world, and mingling them with some of the other conquered peoples. In this way he would curb rebellions by watering down over the years the nationalistic impulses over the years of the vanquished peoples.  He was so successful that the 10 northern tribes of Israel who he exiled over 2500 years ago are still considered to be the ‘Lost Tribes’.

A consequence of this initiative was the fact that the nations of antiquity no longer exist.  In the words of our sages in Masechet Yadayim (4, 4):

“אמר לו רבי יהושע… עלה סנחריב מלך אשור ובלבל את כל האומות.”

“Rabbi Yehoshua said…Sancheiriv the king of Assyria arose and muddled up all the nations of the world”

This is based on a passuk in Isaiah (10, 13), quoting the declaration of Sancheriv as follows:

“וְאָסִיר גְּבוּלֹת עַמִּים וַעֲתוּדוֹתֵיהֶם שׁוֹשֵׂתִי וְאוֹרִיד כַּבִּיר יוֹשְׁבִים”

“And I remove the boundaries of peoples, and their positions have I plundered, and I lowered many inhabitants.”

He caused the intermingling of all nations, so much so that the initial 70 nations that existed from antiquity effectively do not exist anymore.  The ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Moabites and Canaanites were no longer. This was also the fate of the Philistines of old who were conquered by Sancheriv, and since the 6th century BCE disappeared as a people from the annals of human history.  Hence the name of their land Philistia, or Palestine in English, also no longer appeared on the map of nations.

We clarified in the previous article in this series that it was Hadrian who revived the name Palestine as the Latin adaptation of Philistia in the aftermath of the Bar-Kochva rebellion.  The name lay dormant for many centuries and was given a new life by the British in 1917 as this land became known as the British Mandate of Palestine.  While the Arabs in this part of the world eventually became known as the Palestinians, there is no resemblance whatsoever from a historic, nationalistic and cultural point of view to the ancient Philistines.  The majority of Palestinian Arabs originated from the Arabian region, and over the centuries settled in this area.  It is an issue of fierce debate between modern-day historians as to the timing and quantity of Arab immigrants over the last few hundred years.  One thing, though, is clear – the Palestinian Arabs have no genetic, national or cultural connection to the ancient Philistines.

The Palestinians and the Philistines Are Not Indigenous To This Land

Just as the modern Palestinians were not indigenous to this land, so too do all historians agree that the same is true of the Philistines.  They were not part of the indigenous Canaanite tribes, but rather came from elsewhere.  Based both on many biblical verses as well as the view held by all mainstream historians, the Philistines were part of what became known as the ‘Sea People’ and were invaders who came to Israel via the Mediterranean sea over different periods of time from the years 1800 BCE to 1200 BCE. In both the books of Jeremiah and Amos it is clear that the Philistines came from the Island of Caphtor.

Jeremiah (47, 4):

“עַל הַיּוֹם הַבָּא לִשְׁדוֹד אֶת כָּל פְּלִשְׁתִּים לְהַכְרִית לְצֹר וּלְצִידוֹן כֹּל שָׂרִיד עֹזֵר כִּי שֹׁדֵד ה’ אֶת פְּלִשְׁתִּים שְׁאֵרִית אִי כַפְתּוֹר:”

“Because of the day that is coming to plunder all the Philistines, to cut off from Tyre and Zidon every surviving helper, for the Lord plunders the Philistines, the remnant of the island of Caphtor.”

Amos (9, 7):

“הֲלוֹא כִבְנֵי כֻשִׁיִּים אַתֶּם לִי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נְאֻם ה’ הֲלוֹא אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל הֶעֱלֵיתִי מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּפְלִשְׁתִּיִּים מִכַּפְתּוֹר וַאֲרָם מִקִּיר:”

“Are you not like the children of the Cushites to Me, O children of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and Aram from Kir?”

The Prophet Tzefania refers to them as the Nation of Cretim, or Cherethim.

Zephaniah (2, 5):

“הוֹי יֹשְׁבֵי חֶבֶל הַיָּם גּוֹי כְּרֵתִים דְּבַר ה’ עֲלֵיכֶם כְּנַעַן אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים וְהַאֲבַדְתִּיךְ מֵאֵין יוֹשֵׁב:”

“Woe to the inhabitants of the seacoast, the nation of Cherethites! The word of the Lord is against you, Canaan land of the Philistines, and I will destroy you so that there shall not be an inhabitant.”

It is hard to identify with certainty the places of Caphtor and Cretim.  They do, though, seem to be islands in the vicinity of Crete, and/or islands of the Greek isles in the Aegean Sea area.

It is beyond the scope of this article to attempt to identify exactly which lands and islands these are.  What is most relevant for us is that the Philistines did not originate from this land, but settled in these areas during and after the Canaanite period.

The Palestinians – the Spiritual Heirs of the Philistines

While it is crystal clear that the Palestinians are not the genetic or cultural descendants of the ancient Philistines, it is equally clear according to the definition of the Vilna Gaon that they are indeed their spiritual heirs.  Just as we clarified in the previous installments of this series, modern-day Palestinian nationalism is an oppositional nationalism, a negative kind focused not on an ancient love of a land but rather an opposition to others who desire it, so too is this the identical genre of Philistine nationalism.  Their very raison d’etre of the Philistines according to the Gaon, as we have mentioned previously, was:

“הצרו להם במאד ולא הניחו להם שום ממשלה ושלטון”

“They harassed Israel very much and did not allow them any form of government or sovereignty.”

As we examine the nature of Philistine history and their relationship to this land and the Jewish People, we will see how they did not forge any positive national identity, but rather what sporadically united them was their opposition to the tribes of Israel forming and establishing a national entity in the land.  Let us explore this particular feature of the ancient Philistine nationalism which will shed light on the Palestinian reincarnation of today.

The Philistine / Israeli Conflict

The Philistines reached their military zenith at the very time of the first declaration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel with the establishment of the first united State of Israel.  The books of Samuel (both I and II) deal with the birth of Kingship: Jewish collective governance in the Land of Israel for the first time – the first sovereign leaders to unite the 12 tribes of Israel – King Saul and King David.  The uniqueness of this biblical book is better understood when it is juxtaposed to the book which immediately precedes it, the book of Shoftim – Judges.

The book of Judges spans a 350-year period, post the years of Joshua’s conquest.  What is fascinating to note is that at the culmination of the years of conquest and division of the land amongst the tribes of Israel, they were not able to unite around one sovereign leader.  Joshua died leaving behind a leaderless people made up of 12 different segments.  For the next 350 years that followed, 13 different tribal leaders, known as Shoftim or Judges – ruled sporadically over either some or all of the tribes.  These leaders emerged from almost all the different tribes of Israel, and none were accepted by all of Israel as the king – their sovereign leader.  So much so, that a crucial expression which is repeated four times during the book of Judges, and culminating with the final verse of the book states as follows:

Judges (21, 25):

“בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם אֵין מֶלֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו יַעֲשֶֹה:”

“In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his eyes.”

This is the book of Shoftim in a nutshell.  Since there was no collective political leadership for the Jewish People in the form of a king, it was a time of spiritual turmoil lacking a clear purposeful direction.

This brings us to the critical transition made by the final Judge, Samuel, and hence to the uniqueness of the books which were named after him.  These two books bear his name as it was he who managed this transition from sporadic disunited tribes into one united People.  It was he who coronated the first two kings of Israel and effectively established the reality of the first united Jewish state, creating one commonwealth out of the previously disunited tribes of Israel.

It should be no surprise to us that during the entire books of Samuel, the archenemy of the Jewish People is none other than the Philistines.  Twenty separate battles including some major wars were fought against the Philistines throughout this book. Two battles were fought by the last two Judges (Eli in chapter 4 and Samuel in chapter 7), four by King Saul and fourteen by David culminating after decades of war when David finally subdues them. The long and protracted period from the latter part of the book of Shoftim during the time of Samson and his battle with the Philistines until the latter part of David’s kingship, spanning around 100 years, can effectively be termed the ‘Philistine Israel Conflict’.

Just as in the modern era, with the return of Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel, we find ourselves in the midst of an almost century of the Arab and Palestinian Israeli conflict today, so too do we discover a biblical antecedent of remarkable similarity.

We will complete this article with an analysis of the first war between the new King of Israel, Saul and the Philistines which can aptly be termed the first War of Independence.

The First War of Independence

Let us begin the analysis with the very verse that the Gaon of Vilna cites as a proof of his thesis that the Philistines were committed to denying the Jewish People any form of self-governance and sovereignty in the land.  This verse describes the developments leading up to the first War of Independence:

Samuel I (13, 19):

“וְחָרָשׁ לֹא יִמָּצֵא בְּכֹל אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי אָמְרוּ פְלִשְׁתִּים פֶּן יַעֲשֹוּ הָעִבְרִים חֶרֶב אוֹ חנית”

“Now, not a smith was to be found in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make sword or spear.”

Some background is vital to better understand this verse and the seemingly helpless political and military position within which Saul’s Kingdom was forged.

It is mentioned soon after the coronation ceremony in the town of Gilgal (Samuel 1, chapter 11 verse 14) of the first sovereign leader of Israel, King Saul. In the opening verses of chapter 13, Saul appoints the first permanent force of the Kingdom, a standing army numbering 3000 men. In attempting to break the pervasive stranglehold of the Philistines over the Israelites, King Saul’s son Yonatan successfully attacks a Philistine garrison which sparked a massive mobilization of the Philistine Army of 30,000 chariots , 6000 horsemen and ‘people like the sand of the sea in multitude’ ( 13,5 ). There was such widespread fear for their lives that the Israelites were literally running for their lives where many ‘hid in caves, in thickets in rocks, and in strongholds and in pits. Some crossed the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilad’ (verse 6 and 7). Only 600 soldiers of Saul and Jonathan remain to face the onslaught of the Philistine might.

Samuel I (13, 15-23):

טו. וַיָּקָם שְׁמוּאֵל וַיַּעַל מִן הַגִּלְגָּל גִּבְעַת בִּנְיָמִן וַיִּפְקֹד שָׁאוּל אֶת הָעָם הַנִּמְצְאִים עִמּוֹ כְּשֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אִישׁטז. וְשָׁאוּל וְיוֹנָתָן בְּנוֹ וְהָעָם הַנִּמְצָא עִמָּם ישְׁבִים בְּגֶבַע בִּנְיָמִן וּפְלִשְׁתִּים חָנוּ בְמִכְמָשׁ: יז. וַיֵּצֵא הַמַּשְׁחִית מִמַּחֲנֵה פְלִשְׁתִּים שְׁלשָׁה רָאשִׁים הָרֹאשׁ אֶחָד יִפְנֶה אֶל דֶּרֶךְ עָפְרָה אֶל אֶרֶץ שׁוּעָל: יח. וְהָרֹאשׁ אֶחָד יִפְנֶה דֶּרֶךְ בֵּית חֹרוֹן וְהָרֹאשׁ אֶחָד יִפְנֶה דֶּרֶךְ הַגְּבוּל הַנִּשְׁקָף עַל גֵּי הַצְּבֹעִים הַמִּדְבָּרָה: יט. וְחָרָשׁ לֹא יִמָּצֵא בְּכֹל אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי אָמְרוּ פְלִשְׁתִּים פֶּן יַעֲשֹוּ הָעִבְרִים חֶרֶב אוֹ חֲנִיתכ. וַיֵּרְדוּ כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל הַפְּלִשְׁתִּים לִלְטוֹשׁ אִישׁ אֶת מַחֲרַשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת אֵתוֹ וְאֶת קַרְדֻּמּוֹ וְאֵת מַחֲרֵשָׁתוֹ: כא. וְהָיְתָה הַפְּצִירָה פִים לַמַּחֲרֵשֹׁת וְלָאֵתִים וְלִשְׁלשׁ קִלְּשׁוֹן וּלְהַקַּרְדֻּמִּים וּלְהַצִּיב הַדָּרְבָן: כב. וְהָיָה בְּיוֹם מִלְחֶמֶת וְלֹא נִמְצָא חֶרֶב וַחֲנִית בְּיַד כָּל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אֶת שָׁאוּל וְאֶת יוֹנָתָן וַתִּמָּצֵא לְשָׁאוּל וּלְיוֹנָתָן בְּנוֹ: כג. וַיֵּצֵא מַצַּב פְּלִשְׁתִּים אֶל מַעֲבַר מִכְמָשׁ:

15. And Samuel rose and went up from Gilgal to Gibeah of Benjamin; and Saul counted the people who were present with him, about six hundred men.16. And Saul and his son Jonathan and the people who were present with them were staying in Geba of Benjamin, while the Philistines were encamped in Michmash. 17. And the raiders emerged from the camp of the Philistines in three companies; one company turned to the road (leading) to Ophrah, to the land of Shual. 18. And one company turned to the road leading to Beth-horon, and one company turned to the road leading to the border, which overlooks the valley of the ‘zeboim’, toward the wilderness. 19. Now, not a smith was to be found in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make sword or spear.” 20. And all Israel went down to the (land of) the Philistines to sharpen each man his plowshare and his colter and his axe and his mattock. 21. And there was a file for the mattocks and for the colters and for the three-pronged pitchforks and for the axes, and to set the goad. 22. And it was on the day of war, that neither sword nor spear was found in the possession of all the people who were with Saul and with Jonathan, but Saul and Jonathan his son had them. 23. And the garrison of the Philistines went out to the other side of Michmash.

We now have a clear understanding of the absolute stranglehold of the Philistines over Israel.  What is outlandish is the fact that the Philistines, in their opposition to any sovereign Jewish presence in the land, had outlawed the existence of any blacksmiths in the land.  The Blacksmiths were at the time the main producers of modern military arms, i.e. swords and spears for close combat.  Not only was there only a tiny army of 600 men but only two soldiers –Saul and Jonathan possessed swords!

Here we come to an incredible fact about the above verse that the Gaon cites regarding the Philistine monopoly on military production. When the verse states that ‘there was no blacksmith in all the land of Israel – ארץ ישראל’, this is the first time in Tanach, biblical literature that this term ארץ ישראל; Land of Israel appears. The context is telling and the implication clear- the Philistines were dedicated to preventing any possibility of a political or military Jewish presence in this land – No to statehood, no to sovereignty and no to independence. Breathtaking.

It seemed as if the new kingdom would be a stillborn and squashed before it began.  Somehow with miraculous courage and commitment and the Grace of G-d they were able to repel the Philistine attack and the kingdom would survive its birth while continuing to fight for the years ahead against almost impossible odds.

It is remarkable how similar this initial War of Independence is to the modern War of Independence in 1948.  Just as the modern State of Israel was declared and the Arab states immediately invaded, so too as King Saul was declared king, the Philistines invaded.  Just as then we hardly had any arms in the beginning of the war and were outnumbered by the military might of the Arab armies of five nations, so too in the time of the Philistines were we fighting with barely a sword and a spear against the powerful warring armies of the Philistines.  This prolonged War of Independence would also include the famous confrontation between Goliath and the young David, which in many ways was the symbol of the disproportionate military matchup between Israel and the Philistines.

The battles that would ensue thereafter were so fiercely fought that they claimed the lives of not only many Jewish soldiers, but also of King Saul himself and his three sons, Yonatan, Malkishua and Avinadav.  With the coronation of David as the next king, the conflict continued with many battles until the Philistines were eventually subdued and Israel’s sovereign independence was secured.


It is interesting to note that once the reality of King David’s kingdom of Israel was firmly established, the Philistines were no longer a significant threat. Directly proportional to the Jewish people’s desire to establish sovereignty in the land was the Philistine will to prevent it.  Yet amazingly as soon as the Kingdom became a political fait accompli and an established fact on the ground the Philistine threat would proportionately wane. The reason for this is the main thesis of this article –that their main spiritual purpose was to oppose any Jewish sovereign presence in the land, and essentially once this became an irreversible fact, they began to fade away from world and Jewish history. Their mission had been completed.

Just as in the world of physics for every action there is a reaction, so too in the world of spirituality.  As the Jewish People began to establish themselves as a sovereign regional power, incredibly it was the Philistines who opposed them every step of the way, as an oppositional contrary force.

It is almost 70 years since the establishment of modern day Israel and yet she continues to fight on the political, military and diplomatic fronts for her right to exist. Consistent military threats from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, relentless criticism at the UN and growing sanctions and deligitimization campaigns of the BDS and others who refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish country in this land. Just like in earlier times they refuse to allow the War for Independence against Israel to end by keeping the Palestinian-Israeli conflict alive and thereby breathing new life into the ghost of the ancient Philistines – ‘in those days and at this time’.

In the next article in this series we will complete the analyses of the Biblical Philistines by returning even further back in history to their birth and initial early settlement in the land in the time of our Forefathers in the Book of Bereishit (Genesis). This will allow as a deeper peek at their true spiritual identity and to better understand it’s relevance for today.

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