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.”