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


The Reasons for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Staying Power

Nov. 20 2018

This week, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have narrowly avoided the collapse of his governing coalition despite the fact that one party, Yisrael Beiteinu, withdrew and another, the Jewish Home, threatened to follow suit. Moreover, he kept the latter from defecting without conceding its leader’s demand to be appointed minister of defense. Even if the government were to collapse, resulting in early elections, Netanyahu would almost certainly win, writes Elliot Jager:

[Netanyahu’s] detractors think him Machiavellian, duplicitous, and smug—willing to do anything to stay in power. His supporters would not automatically disagree. Over 60 percent of Israelis tell pollsters that they will be voting for a party other than Likud—some supposing their favored party will join a Netanyahu-led coalition while others hoping against the odds that Likud can be ousted.

Opponents would [also] like to think the prime minister’s core voters are by definition illiberal, hawkish, and religiously inclined. However, the 30 percent of voters who plan to vote Likud reflect a broad segment of the population. . . .

Journalists who have observed Netanyahu over the years admire his fitness for office even if they disagree with his actions. A strategic thinker, Netanyahu’s scope of knowledge is both broad and deep. He is a voracious reader and a quick study. . . . Foreign leaders may not like what he says but cannot deny that he speaks with panache and authority. . . .

The prime minister or those around him are under multiple police investigations for possible fraud and moral turpitude. Under Israel’s system, the police investigate and can recommend that the attorney general issue an indictment. . . . Separately, Mrs. Netanyahu is in court for allegedly using public monies to pay for restaurant meals. . . . The veteran Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman maintains that Israelis do not mind if Netanyahu appears a tad corrupt because they admire a politician who is nobody’s fool. Better to have a political figure who cannot be taken advantage of than one who is incorruptible but naïve.

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Read more at Jager File

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel & Zionism, Israeli politics