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


Palestinian Leaders Fight Economic Growth

Jan. 15 2019

This month, a new shopping mall opened in northeastern Jerusalem, easily accessible to most of the city’s Arab residents. Rami Levy, the supermarket magnate who owns the mall, already employs some 2,000 Israeli Arabs and Palestinians at his other stores, and the mall will no doubt bring more jobs to Arab Jerusalemites. But the leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are railing against it, and one newspaper calls its opening “an economic catastrophe [nakba].” Bassam Tawil writes:

For [the PA president] Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah officials . . . the image of Palestinians and Jews working in harmony is loathsome. . . . Instead of welcoming the inauguration of the shopping mall for providing job opportunities to dozens of Palestinians and lower prices [to consumers], Fatah officials are taking about an Israeli plan to “undermine” the Palestinian economy. . . . The hundreds of Palestinians who flooded the new mall on its first day, however, seem to disagree with the grim picture painted by [these officials]. . . .

The campaign of incitement against Levy’s shopping mall began several months ago, as it was being built, and has continued until today. Now that the campaign has failed to prevent the opening of the mall, Fatah and its followers have turned to outright threats and violence. The threats are being directed toward Palestinian shoppers and Palestinian merchants who rented space in the new mall. On the day the mall was opened, Palestinians threw a number of firebombs at the compound, [which] could have injured or killed Palestinians. The [bomb-throwers], who are believed to be affiliated with Fatah, would rather see their own people dead than having fun or buying attractively-priced products at an Israeli mall.

By spearheading this campaign of incitement and intimidation, Abbas’s Fatah is again showing its true colors. How is it possible to imagine that Abbas or any of his Fatah lieutenants would ever make peace with Israel when they cannot even tolerate the idea of Palestinians and Jews working together for a simple common good? If a Palestinian who buys Israeli milk is a traitor in the eyes of Fatah, it is not difficult to imagine the fate of any Palestinian who would dare to discuss compromise with Israel.

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Read more at Gatestone

More about: East Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority, Palestinian economy