An acquaintance in Jerusalem recently made an interesting observation. “We, Jews, put Palestine on the map,” he wrote. We were quick to change “the nomenclature of the calendar,” he noted, because we “were uncomfortable saying BC, which implied belief in Jesus, and so we changed it to BCE, before the common era.” We showed no such discomfort, however, when it came to Palestine. Before 1948, Jews donated to the United Palestine Appeal; Jerusalem’s English-language Jewish newspaper was the Palestine Post; and so on.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day “We Jews,” my acquaintance concluded, “did as much, or more, to create the impression that the Roman name, based on Philistia, the home of the Philistines, was more authentic than the name Judea or Eretz Yisraelâ€¦.”
He was aiming at the wrong target, I wrote back, adding that he himself was falling into an identity trap. We were content with accepting the name “Palestine” because we have been running away from “Israel” ever since the last years of the First Temple.
Nearly a decade ago, I began a column with these words: “I am a ‘Jew’ hater. No, I do not mean that I hate Jews. My brief is with the word ‘Jew’ and its cognates – Jewish and Judaismâ€¦.Israelites are who we really are. We even call ourselves that when we do not know what we are saying (meaning, when we use words in that ‘foreign’ language called Hebrew): We are Ahm Yisrael, the People Israel; Beit Yisrael, the House of Israel; B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel; and K’lal Yisrael, the Community of Israel.”
The word Jew, I noted in that 2001 column, has been around for perhaps only a millennium or so. It is derived from the name Judah (the tribe), or Judea (the geopolitical entity). It also is derived from “Yehudi,” meaning Judahite, a designation we began to give ourselves probably near the end of the First Temple period. The “Ten Tribes of Israel” were supposedly lost by then, leaving only the Kingdom of Judah.
That does not mean, though, that only the Judahites remained. Many in Judah were Benjaminites; some were Manassehites. Others were Levites, including those Levites designated as kohanim, or priests. And some were Simeonites, meaning members of the Tribe of Shimon. Simeon may be counted among the 10 “lost” tribes, but it began its tribal life in the Land of Israel as the hole in the doughnut called Judah. So says Joshua 19:1-9.
Then again, some of us may be from the Ten Tribes, because “Jeremiah brought them back,” according to the Babylonian Talmud tractate Megillah 14b, although this would seem to be a minority opinion, given all the midrashim about where these tribes ended up and when they would return.
Almost certainly, the “Jews” of Kurdistan, all of whom immigrated to Israel 60 years ago, are not “Jews,” because the tradition is too strong that they are descended from the Ten Tribes. The Kurdish Jews themselves believe that they are descended from Dan and Naftali.
On general principle, then, the designation “Jew” is a misnomer. “And these are the names of the Children of Israel,” the Torah tells us (Exodus 1:1); it says nothing about our being only the children of Jacob’s fourth son.
There is a broader problem, however, with the words “Jew” and “Judaism”: They refer to a member of a religious group and to the religion itself. We are not a religious group, we are a people – and while religion is a significant part of who we are, it does not define our entire identity.
Israelite, on the other hand, defines a member of Ahm Yisrael (or Beit Yisrael, B’nai Yisrael, or K’lal Yisrael; they all amount to the same thing). It does not merely designate a people who share a common belief in God, but a people who share a common national/ethnic origin. Israelite covers the gamut of our identity.
As a religion, we are a variation on a theme at this point, and a minor one, at that. “They” worship Him their way; we worship Him our way. Otherwise, we are indistinguishable from our neighbors.
As a nation, we are a people with a mission from God (which is the only justification for our existence separate from the other God-fearers). “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself,” God declares in Exodus 19. “Now therefore, if you will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words that you [Moses] shall speak to the people of Israel.”
Of course, it is not “P.C.” to say that we are anything but a religion (the concept of chosenness makes people uncomfortable, mainly because they misunderstand the concept), and certainly not that we are a unique national/ethnic group with all that implies. That is a pity, because adopting such an attitude is not only dismissive of Torah lore, it dismisses science, which is also not the P.C. thing to do. Over the last 15 years or so, there have been numerous DNA studies that prove that we share a familial origin – and this is true regardless of whether we are Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Mizrachi, or some other grouping.
Yisrael â€“ Israel – shall be your name, Jacob is told (see Genesis 35:10).
“Jew” and “Judaism” have served us ill. They have limited our sense of identity over the millennia. There are so many varieties of “Jew” and so many divisions. Some Jews even question the validity of other Jews. You can do that in a religion; it is a lot more difficult to be dismissive of national/ethnic identity.
“Jew” and “Judaism” also have served to distance us from the State of Israel. Fewer than a quarter of American Jews, for example, have ever set foot there, or plan to do so. We are Jews, not Israelis, they say, and our families come from places other than Israel.
We are not Poles, or Germans, or Yemenites, or Argentines by origin. And we are not Jews. We are Ahm Israel, Beit Yisrael, B’nai Yisrael, and K’lal Israel.
Some of us are Jews.
All of us are Israelites.