The Last-Minute Decision That Gave Israel Its Name

April 29, 2020 | Martin Kramer
About the author: Martin Kramer teaches Middle Eastern history and served as founding president at Shalem College in Jerusalem, and is the Walter P. Stern fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

When David Ben-Gurion declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel” 72 years ago today (according to the Jewish calendar), very few people were aware of the decision, made just four days earlier, to call this new country “the state of Israel.” Most assumed its name would be Judea, although other contestants were Zion, Ever (the root of the word Hebrew), or simply “the Land of Israel.” In an essay drawn from a lecture in his new online course on Israeli independence, Martin Kramer writes:

From its outset, Zionism had talked about creating a Jewish state. . . . As Jewish was a derivative of Judea, this name might have seemed a logical choice. But according to the UN partition plan, virtually all of the traditional geographic area [historically known as] Judea was supposed to be either internationalized—Jerusalem and its environs—or part the Arab state. Calling a state Judea that didn’t include the geographic Judea would have been an anomaly.

But even if the state did wind up possessing a chunk of Judea, it would include much more than it—for example, the Negev. And how could the state be called Judea, when most of it was something else? It was problematic in another way. What would its citizens be called? Y’hudim, [i.e., Judeans, but also the Hebrew for “Jews”]? How would that comport with the Arab citizens of the state, projected in the partition plan to number half a million? So Judea was ruled out.

Erets Yisrael, [the Land of Israel], the biblical Hebrew name for Palestine, was ruled out because of the dangers involved in its irredentist flavor.

Ben-Gurion was the first to push for “Israel,” and managed to garner seven out of ten votes in favor of his suggestion from the provisional cabinet. Thus, writes Kramer, “the name ‘Israel’ came to the state by a process of elimination, [and] because there wasn’t time to come up with anything better. A majority voted for it—unenthusiastically.”

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