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What's in a (Country's) Name?

By       Message Uzi Silber     Permalink
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'What's in a name?' was the rhetorical question Juliet posed to her lover Romeo. The implied answer? Why, nothing of course.

But insofar as national identity in the Middle East is concerned, name is everything, especially for the State of Israel, whose official style should be modified with a single word as profound as it is modest.

Some background: on Friday, May 14, 1948, the nascent state's founders led by David Ben Gurion had one final task before affixing their signatures to its declaration of independence: coming up with a name.

The finalists were Ever (derived from the word Hebrew), Zion (one of Jerusalem's historic names) Judah or Judea (the arid hilly region south of Jerusalem once home to the biblical tribe after whom Jews were named), Eretz Israel (Land of Israel), Jewish State (the original suggestion of Theodore Herzl, Zionism's founder) and finally State of Israel.

While vigorously debated that momentous evening, the decision was logical: Biblical in provenance, Israel is the 3,000 year-old ancestral name of the Jewish People. Originally known as Jacob, Israel was the grandson of Abraham, the legendary founder of monotheism. Israel would sire twelve sons who begat twelve eponymous tribes (of which Judah was one).

In time the twelve tribes came to be known collectively as the sons of Israel, or Israelites.

At its height in tenth century BCE, the Israelite kingdom comprised much of what is today Israel and sections of western Jordan. Its historic heart, however, lay in the region that until 1948 was labeled on maps as Judea and Samaria.

In wake of Ben Gurion's declaration of independence, the new country was invaded by surrounding Arab armies, ushering in the 1948 war, resulting in the Palestinian Arab refugee debacle that persists to this day.

In the conflict's wake, Jordan seized Judea and Samaria, which now became clinically known as the West Bank of the Jordan River, effectively erasing the enduring Jewish ties to the area.

In any case, the selection of 'Israel' as the name of the emergent country was understandable at a time when it was widely acknowledged that 'Israel' and 'Jews' were essentially synonymous, and that the new country was to revert to what it had been historically -- in the words of British Foreign Minister Lord Balfour, the Jewish National Home.

But as events and people of the 20th century recede into oblivion, the country's name has become a source of confusion. So here's a clarification: though Israelis are citizens of Israel, the state was established as a homeland for Jews -- not 'Israelis'. In other words, Israelis are citizens of the Jewish State.

This may be obvious to some, yet the issue is crucial for an Israel facing the hostility of cynical foes who have repeatedly lost on the battlefield but now seek elusive victory through demography.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President and Fatah party leader forever touted as Israel's moderate and indispensable peace partner, plans to establish a Palestinian Arab homeland in the West Bank, but rejects the notion of Israel as a Jewish State.

"I do not accept it," declared Abbas in a Reuters-reported speech in April 2009, adding dismissively that, "It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic it is none of my business".

And at the Fatah party congress taking place in Bethlehem this week, Abbas reportedly intends to reaffirm his refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

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Uzi Silber writes the 'Jew's Muse' column in Ha'aretz. His work also appears in The Forward, Jerusalem Post, and The New York Times.

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