The Evolving Meanings of “Gentile”

Dec. 11 2015

Although it has become less common, the word “Gentile” was once a standard way to refer to non-Jews. A long time ago, however, it was a Christian term for pagans. Marilyn Cooper explains:

Gentile came into the English language by way of the 4th-century Vulgate, the Roman Catholic Church’s authorized Latin translation of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. In the Vulgate, St. Jerome translated the biblical word goy . . . and the Greek word ethne into the Latin term gentilis, which means “nation” or “people.” . . . [I]n the 17th-century King James Bible, . . . gentilis was anglicized into Gentile, as in I Corinthians 10:32: “Give none offence, neither to the Israelites, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the Church of God.”

For the next two centuries, gentile mainly referred to those who were not of an Abrahamic monotheistic religion—that is, someone who was not a Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian. . . . This began to change after the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent century of religious wars in Europe caused the Christian Church in the West to splinter into innumerable denominations. With widespread disagreement about who should be called a Christian, a neutral umbrella term was needed. Gentile filled the void.

From this period until the early 20th century, Gentile was most often used by Christians, usually in the context of missionizing activities or when writing about Old Testament texts.

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More about: Bible, Jewish-Christian relations, Language, Translation

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East