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Jewish, Hebrew, Israelitic: What’s in a Name?

Klaus J. Herrmann
Winter 1996

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as  
sweet," wrote William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet) and Gertrude Stein’s  
oft repeated statement about a rose being a rose being a rose became conventional  
wisdom. So did that proverb about sticks and stones hurting one’s bones, while  
words would never hurt one. Unhappily though, marketers and psychologists would  
strongly demur, because no florist likely wants to advertise his beautifully stemmed  
roses as "stinkweeds." Nor would even a freshman in Psychology want to deny that  
words do indeed hurt, and often more seriously than do sticks and stones. This  
brings us close to the Jewish issue in all of this.

Father Abraham Was No Jew  

There has been a running battle proceeding on the matter of names assigned to the Jews. Scholars inform us the word "Jew" (yehudi) refers originally to the exiles from the kingdom of Judah as of their return from Babylon in 536 BCE. In the beginning "yehudi" was applied to members of the Judah clan (tribe). Once the other clans or tribes of the Israelites were taken into captivity by hostile nations, an early process of what we now call de-ethnicizataion, they disappeared entirely as distinguishable entities. Some amalgamated with the Samaritan and thus only the clan of Judah remained.  

These "Judeans" were then the only adherents and disseminators of what they regarded as the Law of Moses and of the Judean-Israelitic prophets throughout the period of the Second Temple. The English word "Jew" arose out of Old French giu from the Latin judaeus. Even then, "Jewish" became the third designation for the community that alleges an ancestry to the legendary patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. All the many centuries up to their conquest of Canaanite lands the community was known as "Hebrew" and subsequently as "Israelite" up to the end of what we know as the Babylonian Exile.  

To cite a noted Orthodox scholar, Rabbi Reuven Bulka of Ottawa, you will not find the word "Jew" in all of the Five Books of Moses. Rather were the later-on Jews known by the style and title of "B’nai Israel," i.e., the Children of Israel, that having been the name granted to Jacob and Israel’s (or Jacob’s) children who subsequently bore the names of what later became known as the Israelitic tribes. Obviously, Abraham, grandfather of Jacob, was not even an Israelite. Holy Scripture refers to him as an "Ivri," a Hebrew, or those "from the other side."  

The Prophet Jonah, Isaac Mayer Wise, Soviet Jews and U.S. Dog Tags

There surely seems to be no connecting link as between Jonah ben Amittai or Gath-Hepher in the former kingdom of Israel (about 782-741 BCE), Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Reform Jewish institutions in the United States (1819-1900) and the Jews of the former Soviet Union. And yet, oddly enough, there is such a link and its name is "Hebrew."  

Rather than be know as Jews, which in Russian — zhidov — is allegedly a pejorative, the Jews in the former Soviet Union, who perhaps even now are known officially as Hebrews/yevrei, had the word "Hebrew" stamped in their passports during the Communist period. Denoting not their religious affiliation to be sure but their "nationality" status, inasmuch as Jews were considered such in the former Soviet empire while those who profess Judaism as religion are deemed to be "Mosaists."  

The late Rabbi Robert Gordis referred to the Book of Jonah as the "noblest book in the Hebrew Bible," by which he meant the bible written in the Hebrew language. Yet the great Israelitic prophet Jonah was apparently afraid to state his true national and country allegiance to a group of sailors on his ship: "At last the sailors said to each other: come and let us cast lots to find out who is to blame for this bad luck. So they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. Now then, said they, what is your business, where do you come from, what is your country, of what nation are you? I AM A HEBREW, he replied, `and I worship the Lord the God of Heaven Who made both sea and land.’" (Jonah I/7-9).  

Thus, Jonah the Israelite was too embarrassed or afraid to state plainly who he was and thought it convenient to mislead the sailors, or so it appears. Some 2590 years later, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise and others in all camps of 19th century American Judaism were active in endeavors to replace "Jewish" by the allegedly more genteel and insinuating word "Hebrew" and "Israelitic." Neither the Union of American Hebrew Congregations nor the Hebrew Union College (1873 and 1875 respectively) went by the name "Jewish." "Hebrew" became the very favored term of reference for a whole multitude of organizations, newspapers and other types of Jewishly identified institutions.  

Some examples of this would be the Hebrew Leader of 1850 in New York City,  
later to be re-named the Hebrew Standard. For many decades The American  
held pride of place among American Jewish newspapers. San Francisco’s  
religiously Conservative weekly was called The Hebrew. Philadelphia had  
a Hebrew Education Society, Cincinnati had a Hebrew Review, and in 1886 the Hebrew  
Sabbath School Union of America, a Reform enterprise, was established. In 1885,  
the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was formed and in 1922 the Hebrew Theological  
College of Chicago, an Orthodox seminary, opened its doors. The U.S. armed forces  
identified its Jewish personnel by the letter "H" for Hebrew on its military personnel’s  
identification ("dog") tags. While "Hebrew" in lieu of "Jewish" was essentially  
limited to the U.S., both in Italy and in Spain it turned into a popular designation,  
together with "Israelitic." This call came about despite the fact that "Hebrew"  
ought properly to be used as designation for the particular language by that name.  


The Mosaists And The Israelites

Strangely enough, an attempted re-designation of Jews as "Mosaites" or as "Deists" proceeded under the autocratic government of King Frederick William II of Prussia. In 1790, legislation was signed by which Prussia’s Jews, not as yet even citizens, became Mosaists. That these measures were taken on the pleas of some highly placed and wealthy so-called "court Jews" seems well established. "Jewish" had become a term of opprobrium and Jews were therefore to be transformed into Mosaites. Apart and aside from using "Mosaist" as a designation on court and church tax records, however, Jews continued to be referred to as such. In Sweden, the "Emancipatory Laws" of 1838 declared Jews to henceforth be "adherents of the Mosaic faith," with the Jewish communities re-named Mosaic Communities. Some decades ago there appears to have been a re-renaming back to the "Jewish" characterization.  

In his popularly written book on Isaac Mayer Wise (1959), the late Rabbi Joseph H. Gumbiner reports on a church-state issue in 1869. During the course of a conversation between Rabbi Wise and a Unitarian minister in Cincinnati, the latter is quoted as saying, "Let’s talk about your Moses. It is the equal status of what some call Mosaic Faith that is at stake...."  

The term Mosaic or Mosaist, however, was unknown in the U.S. as a descriptive for Jews/Jewish/Judaism. The term did, quite to the contrary, have much impact in Eastern European lands on two counts. First, in the reconstituted Poland of 1919 an organization of some 400 anti-Zionist Jews found it important to name their group a "Union of Poles of the Mosaist Faith." They wanted to emphasize thereby that they did not regard themselves to be a separate peoplehood entity within the newly established Republic of Poland. After World War II, the term "Mosaist" was re-established within Communist Poland, whose erstwhile three million Jews had been murdered during the Holocaust period. Communists of Jewish descent wanted to retain a type of "Yiddish Culture" association and founded the Union of Jewish Cultural Groups. At the same time, those who wanted to retain (Orthodox) Judaism in post-World War II Poland, became associated in a central organization and in communities of the "Mosaist Faith."  

An entirely different story is that concerning the concerted attempt to replace the words Jews/Jewish by Israelites/Israelitic.  

Ancient Israelites

The ancient Israelites are a separate issue in this context. When in 937 BCE Israel became the northern kingdom’s name and when this kingdom was eventually liquidated and integrated into the Judean Kingdom, "Israel" continued as the national-religious designation of all Judeah/Jews. In eliminating the national component of Judaism (not, incidentally, "Israelitism," a word essentially hardly ever used for religion), "Israel" became the central designation for the theological community of Jews.  

Thus, the core rallying call "Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One" is clearly no longer appended to the Kingdom of Israel, but to the covenanted Community by that name. Both in prayers and in poetic framework "Israel" held pride of place as in reference to the Jewish community.  

With the late 18th century and the dawn of the Jews’ emancipation in a number of Western countries, especially in France, the word "Israelite" came to the fore as a welcome transfer from "Jew." In Napoleanic France and all those countries under Napolean’s administration, "Israelitic Consistories" were emplaced and it seemed for a time this term had substantially replaced "Jews/Jewish." A number of corporate Jewish communities assumed the style and title of "Israelitic Communities." Orthodox Jews were frequently in the forefront of such "re-baptism." Ultra-orthodox (secessionist-orthodox) communities and newspapers throughout the 19th century were quick to re-establish "Israelitic" in all formal and official undertakings.  

In the U.S., a "Board of Delegates of American Israelites" in 1859 was the first attempt to establish a national union of American Jews for the protection of their civil and religious rights. In 1854, Isaac Mayer Wise began publishing "The Israelite," an important periodical that continued in existence until 1942. Rabbi Wise thus set the tone for his continuing effort at eliminating "Jew" in favor of "Israelite."  

Place of "Israel"

All of Judaism’s liturgy is replete with unmistakable averrals as to the chief place of "Israel." In the Union Prayer Book, Jews are consistently called Israel and the same holds true for all Orthodox prayer manuals as well. The marriage ceremony bespeaks a betrothal according to the laws of "Moses and Israel." A massive endeavor in 1921 was mounted by the industrialist and philanthropist Isaac Wolfe Bernheim (1848-1943) in order to re-name Reform Judaism as "The Reformed Church of American Israelites." Bernheim, a trustee of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and benefactor of Hebrew Union College’s library, now the American Jewish Archives, proposed his idea before a UAHC convention in Buffalo, New York, causing both a storm of approval and one of outrage among the Jews (Israelites) of the U.S.  

With the establishment of the Republic of Israel in May, 1948, use of the word Israel/Israelite/Israelitic became increasingly more confusing. While true that the citizens of the State of Israel were and are Israelis and not Israelites, the two letters te became indistinguishable for most of the writers, journalists and the media as a whole. Moreover, while at first the official representatives of the State of Israel so identified themselves, such gave way to eventually leaving aside the "State of," simply retaining ISRAEL.  

As a result of this confusion of terms, the theological term "Israel" has been almost entirely superseded, since overt mention of the word immediately calls forth an identification with the State of that name. It should be noted that eminent Hebraic scholar Simon Rawidowicz (1897-1957), an avowed Zionist, remonstrated in 1948 against naming the nationally-Jewish state in Palestine by the name of the theological "Israel," without success as we know.  

By now the words "Jew" and "Jewish" are universally employed to designate both  
the communicants of Judaism and those who regard themselves (or are so regarded  
by others) as an ethno-religious peoplehood. Within our American Council for Judaism there were endeavors some three decades ago to differentiate the two, by calling ourselves "Judaists," but this remarkable attempt to distinguish one from the other remained an academic annotation to the history of Judaism.

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