When Jews Became Hebrews and When Hebrews Became Jews

Oct. 18 2018

This week’s Torah reading of Lekh-l’kha (Genesis 12-17) contains the Bible’s first use of the word “Hebrew” (ivri), employed to describe Abraham. The term, the origins of which are uncertain, fell into disuse sometime in the biblical period, and was replaced entirely by variations of “Jew” or “Judean” by the time of the Second Temple. Yet so often did Christians use Jew as a slur that when European Jews began seeking emancipation and social integration toward the end of 18th century, many wished to replace the word, as Jonathan Sarna relates:

One ancient rabbi had playfully connected [the Hebrew ivri] to Abraham’s fierce non-conformism: “All the world was on one side (ever) and he on the other side,” [as the two words share a three-consonant root.] . . . . Whatever the case, by the time of King David, some 3,000 years ago, the word meaning “the Hebrew” had largely disappeared. . . .

Since the word Israelite conjured up far more positive associations [in modern times], it became the term of choice in several countries [in the early 19th century], especially France. . . . Others looked to rebrand Judaism as “Mosaism” or “the Mosaic persuasion,” hoping to capitalize on the reputation that Moses enjoyed even among non-Jews. . . . The term that won the greatest favor among American Jews, however, was the one borne by Abraham in Lekh-l’kha: “Hebrew.”.  . .

For a time, this well-meaning strategy succeeded. “Hebrew” became the socially acceptable, politically correct, term for Jews. . . With the rising anti-Semitism in the late-19th century, however, the same stigma once applied to “Jew” became associated with the word “Hebrew.” . . . Abandoning the name “Jew” turned out to have accomplished nothing. So young Jews, beginning in the late 19th century, began to take the word back. . . . Within a few years, the Hebrew War Veterans became Jewish War Veterans, many Young Men’s Hebrew Associations became Jewish Community Centers, and “Hebrew charities” became Jewish ones. . . .

The remarkable odyssey of the word Hebrew carries important contemporary lessons as institutions today once again look to “rebrand” and alter their image in a bid to overcome stigma and win over critics. Sensitive politicians may be swayed and temporary benefits accrued by such changes, but history suggests that they may well prove ephemeral. We might do better by learning, as the rabbis did, from that fierce nonconformist, “Abram the Hebrew,” who valiantly stood his ground—even when “all the world was on one side and he on the other side.”

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Read more at Jewish Theological Seminary of America

More about: Abraham, American Jewish History, Anti-Semitism, Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas, Political correctness


Why Israel Pretends That Hamas Fired Rockets by Accident

March 21 2019

Israeli military and political officials have repeated Hamas’s dubious claim that the launching of two rockets at Tel Aviv last week was inadvertent. To Smadar Perry, accepting Hamas’s story rather than engaging in further retaliation is but a convenient, and perhaps necessary, way of aiding Egyptian efforts to broker a deal with the terrorist group. But even if these efforts succeed, the results will be mixed:

The [Israeli] security cabinet has met in Tel Aviv and decided that they would continue indirect negotiations with Gaza. A message was sent to Egypt, whose delegation is going back to Gaza to pass on the Israeli demands for calm. The Egyptians also have to deal with the demands from Hamas, which include, among other things, an increase in aid from $15 million to $30 million per month and an increase in the supply of electricity.

The requests are reasonable, but they do leave a sour taste in the mouth. Israel must ensure that this financial aid does not end up in the pockets of Hamas and its associates. [Israel] also knows that if it says “no” to everything, the Iranians will step in, with the help of their Gazan friends in Islamic Jihad. They are just waiting for the opportunity.

Hamas also must deal with the fallout from a series of massive handouts from Qatar. For when the citizens of the Gaza Strip saw that the money was going to the Hamas leadership, who were also enjoying a fine supply of electricity to their own houses, they took to the streets in protest—and this time it was not Israel that was the focus of their anger. . .

[But] here is the irony. With Egyptian help, Israel can reach understandings for calm with Gaza, despite the lack of a direct channel. . . . In the West Bank, where the purportedly friendlier Fatah is in charge, it is more complicated, at least until the eighty-three-year-old Mahmoud Abbas is replaced.

As evidence for that last statement, consider the murder of two Israelis in the West Bank on Sunday, and the Palestinians who threw explosives at Israeli soldiers at Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem yesterday.

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Read more at Ynet

More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, West Bank