Aharon Reuveni (1886-1972) was a Hebrew writer - and "an important talent," according to Yosef Haim Brenner, one of the most prominent literary figures in the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine. Reuveni was sharp-tongued and highly opinionated, and the literary-political establishment of the early 1930s imposed a "boycott of silence" on him. In 1935, Reuveni stopped writing fiction and focused his efforts on nonfiction. In the 1960s, he won new acclaim from the likes of critics such as Dan Meron and Gershon Shaked, as well as poet Natan Zach. Literary editor and scholar Yigal Schwartz wrote his doctoral thesis on Reuveni. In the wake of the republication of Reuveni's trilogy "To Jerusalem," in 1987, he was described by novelist Ronit Matalon as having been "a very wonderful - and very overlooked - writer."
Reuveni was also the younger brother of Israel's second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who often extricated him from scrapes that he got into with publishers. He was an acerbic commentator who sometimes espoused intolerable opinions, opinions that frequently underwent radical changes. But of one thing Reuveni was certain: It was he who, in December 1947, proposed the name of the embryonic Jewish state. In order to ensure his place in history, he deposited a letter to that effect in the Israel State Archives in 1965. Following is a translation of that document.
Who was the first to publicly suggest the name Medinat Yisrael - the State of Israel? This question was raised once again in the summer of 1965. On Independence Day of that year, a radio announcer stated in a broadcast that when David Ben-Gurion was asked that question he replied: I do not remember. This drew a response from a Mrs. Y. Elitzur in the form of letters to The Jerusalem Post and to Haaretz, in which she stated that her late husband had proposed the name (in English) to The Palestine Post [former name of The Jerusalem Post] on April 12, 1948. However, on that day, the name had already been accepted officially by Minhelet Ha'am [the People's Administration, which later became the provisional government].
A year later, in 1949, on the occasion of the first Independence Day, M. Brilliant, from The Palestine Post, related the following details: The event occurred in Tel Aviv. On May 12, 1948, the People's Administration discussed the publication of a declaration on the establishment of the Jewish state. After the declaration was decided on, the question of a name arose and demanded an immediate solution. Various proposals were put forward.
The assembled found none of these satisfactory. Ben-Gurion was the first to propose "Yisrael" (Israel), M. Brilliant says. [See box with the minutes of the meeting of the People's Administration, on page B6]. Since then, the public has been under the impression that Ben-Gurion not only proposed the name "State of Israel" in the meeting of the People's Administration, but also invented it. Influential circles have diligently cultivated this impression, but it rests on a foundation of error and deception: It was I who proposed the name State of Israel, and I published my proposal five months before it was accepted officially.
The debate over the name of the future state began long before the UN resolution and went on for more than five months afterward. In this period all manner of bizarre, faulty, untoward and tasteless names were put forward in the press. The few who proposed the name State of Israel did so some time after me.
According to the belated proposal by a Mr. A. Elitzur, the same suggestion was made by the late Prof. Samuel Krauss (in the daily Hadoar on February 13, 1948). Before him, in a conversation with a few people, and without making his thinking public (in December 1947), Prof. Naftali Tur-Sinai did likewise.
I began to be vexed by the question in the fall of 1947, and as the date of decision in the United Nations approached, it became ever more pressing. Following the article by M. Brilliant, which reinforced the impression of Ben-Gurion's primacy in this matter, I briefly outlined my part in the matter in The Palestine Post (June 2, 1949) and in the weekly Hed Hamizrach (July 15, 1949). In the latter I wrote: "I will not say that I knew what would emerge from the UN (though I supposed that the partition plan would be approved). Of one thing I was certain: The days of the Mandate were numbered, and after it an open life-and-death struggle would erupt with the Arabs (I did not yet understand the role the English designated themselves in the upcoming struggle; nor did I yet grasp the thought of annihilation that they and the Arabs together plotted for us). If our strength fails us, we will not escape extinction. If we overcome, a Jewish state will arise. What will its name be? After all, a state cannot be without a name for even one day. And if the proper name is not given in time, who knows whether by chance, through haste, it will not be burdened by an improper name. Once done, the act will not be easily corrected."
The differences of opinion that emerged afterward in letters to the newspapers came as no surprise to me. From conversations I held with various people in the fall of 1947, before writing my article, I learned about the terms being contemplated by the public. I discovered that not only was the matter on the agenda, but that it was a matter of necessity and time was pressing.
The feeling of necessity grew stronger within me. After giving the matter thorough thought, both alone and in arguments with others, I realized that conversations with 10 acquaintances, or even with 20, would be of little avail. It was necessary to make the proposal public in a systematic fashion. Accordingly, I wrote a short but concise article, in which I listed the faults with the many names that had been proposed (the name "State of Israel" had not yet been put forward) and the advantages of the name I was proposing.
After the end of the Sabbath on November 29, 1947 (I wrote in Hed Hamizrach in 1949), the UN General Assembly approved the partition plan and the plan for the Jewish state. That was a wakeful night for the capital of Israel - a night of exultant processions, a night of happiness and rejoicing such as Jerusalem had not known in all the 30 years of the British Mandate. On that night I encountered a young acquaintance, an officer who had come on a mission and was returning to Tel Aviv at dawn. I told him: "Here is our state on the horizon, but what will its name be? I have a name for it. Please take this manuscript with you and give it to the Moznayim journal in the morning, but do not delay in delivering it to its destination." The article was published in the weekly Moznayim that very week, in the issue dated December 5, 1947, and the following is its title and content:
"The state," what is its name?
It should be called: the State of Israel, and in short, Israel.
Why not Land of Israel? Or Judea? Or Zion? Or Yeshurun? Or State of the Jews? Or State of the Hebrews? Or Ever?
It cannot be called "Land of Israel," because it will not occupy the whole land, or most of it, or even half of it - and even if it were to occupy half the land, we would not be able to say of it: Land of Israel. The fact of the matter is that even after we have a state in part of the land, we will not cease calling the other parts of the land, and the entire land, by the name of the Land of Israel. And thus we will cause a confusion of terms. Everyone who says "Land of Israel" - will he be compelled to offer an interpretation of what he is referring to: the state or the [entire] land?
If so, why not Judea? For the same reason: Judea is part of the Land of Israel. Judea is set in place by hard-and-fast historical facts, and is not to be budged. How shall we give the name Judea to a state that does not include Jerusalem and Hebron, and leaves the Judean Hills outside its border? Again two different things which cannot be reconciled will flutter around in our midst. What is the point of this duality?
And as with Judea, so with Zion. There is no Zion without Zion-and-Jerusalem. Even though Zion became a symbol among the nations for a nation in exile, it did not have a political or state underpinning. It is fundamentally a rhetorical name, like Yeshurun, and neither of them will metamorphose into a genuine state. In the Land of Israel, the abstract name Zion goes back to clinging to its roots. In the Land of Israel, Zion cannot be separated from Mount Zion, or Zion from Jerusalem.
Well, then, why not the "State of the Jews"? Wherein resides the advantage of State of Israel over State of the Jews? The more so as the phrase "State of the Jews" has been accepted by us from [Theodor] Herzl's day down to our own. Why should we forsake it? The advantage of doing so is double - perhaps more than double. "Jews" is not our nation's primary or principal name. The name spread to some extent after the destruction of Israel's Northern Kingdom. Judea inherited Israel, but not all of it and not eternally. The name "Israel" was not forgotten and not annulled. After Judea collapsed at the hands of destructive Rome, before the destruction of the Second Temple, the name "Israel" necessarily arose again and regained primacy of place. The meaning of this is undoubtedly: the Kingdom of Judea falls but the nation of Israel lives.
This is attested to by the coins. The first Hasmonean coins speak of one thing: The redemption of Zion. The liberation of Jerusalem and Judea is the primary effort in the period of Simon the Hasmonean. The inscription on the coins of Yohanan [John] Hyrcanus I, who reigned after him, states: "Yohanan the high priest and the Council of the Jews," or "Yohanan the high priest, chief of the Council of the Jews." In other words, the resurgent state was a monarchy of Jews. And so it was throughout the period of the House of the Hasmoneans. In the period of the princes from the House of Herod, the Hebrew inscription was replaced by a Greek one, and there is no longer a trace of the nation's participation in the monarchy. Only the name of the ruler and his title. However, during the Great Revolt (66-70 C.E.), the Hebrew inscriptions were renewed. And lo and behold, the name of the shekel minted in the first year is "Israel shekel."
Afterward we find also "Holy Jerusalem" and "Freedom of Zion." But it is clear that the name "Israel" is restored to its former place. The Bar-Kochba coins leave no room for doubt. The inscriptions on the first-year coins are "Jerusalem" and "First year of Israel's redemption" or "Simon nasi [head] of Israel"; from the second year: "Sh'B leher' Yisrael," meaning: the second year of Israel's freedom, and thus also in the generations after the destruction and the dispersion. The communities in the Diaspora are communities of Israel.
True, the individual person is a Jew, but the commonwealth is Israel. The name "Jew" was not abandoned. It has its own roots and validity in the life of our nation. Certainly it was also strengthened by outside influences. The Romans, upon conquering the Land of Israel, found therein the Kingdom of Judea with its inhabitants, the Jews. All the nations of Western and Central Europe took the name from the Romans, and the Jews, who adopted the language of their surroundings, also called themselves by this name. In their own eyes, however, they were, throughout all these generations, the people of Israel, be it in Hebrew or in the languages they adopted (in Yiddish, for example: "das malk Yisrael"). The expression "Jewish people" is new in origin, translated from the Yiddish, which borrowed it from the German and from Western Europe.
And why should we not call our state the "State of the Hebrews," or, for short, "Ever"? [Ever was one of the sons of Shem. The Latin translation of the Bible transliterated his name as Ebreo, and the English translations kept that pronunciation and hence the language is called Hebrew.] Ever is more ancient than Israel: Abraham, the Hebrew [Ivri, from the Hebrew ever]. Joseph, too, is a Hebrew youth, and the prophet Jonah says: "A Hebrew am I." And our language is Hebrew.
All of this is no reason for us to abandon our name, "Israel." "Ever" or "Hebrews" was never our nation's name. The Children of Israel are a branch of the family of the Hebrew peoples, and the language of Israel is one of the dialects of the language that all the Children of Eber spoke. Now it is the only Hebrew dialect that remains, namely the Hebrew language, by right and by justice. But the name of the nation that heard it is not called Hebrews. Abraham was a Hebrew. The people of Israel did not yet exist in his time. Joseph was a Hebrew, the sons of Jacob had not yet become the people of Israel. Jonah called himself a Hebrew when he spoke to gentiles, because this is the name they gave to all speakers of Hebrew, without differentiating one nation from another.
However, the children of Shem and Ever differentiated pointedly between themselves - between Israel and Edom, Moab, Ammon, Midian, the Children of Kedem [the reference is to Genesis 11], the Sidonians, and all the nationalities whose language was Hebrew. Each of these names denoted a nation in its own right.
The Exodus from Egypt, from bondage to freedom, the wandering in the desert, Moses and Joshua (the return and the conquest) showed how many tribes of Eber existed, and illustrated the mixed multitude that went up with them, and they fashioned from them a new national body, the nation of Israel. Our language is Hebrew, as the language of the Americans is English. However, the Americans are not Englishmen; and they do not call their country the "State of the English." Nor shall we call our state by the name of our language. Our name now is "Israel." Thus it was when we became a nation. Thus it is today, and it is inconceivable that the element of Israel should be absent from the name of our state.
Very well, then. Let us assume: the State of Israel. Our name will therefore be Israelis. And how shall the inhabitants of our state who are not Jews be called? Arabs, Armenians, Greeks - are they also to be called "Israelis"?
Yes, of course. What is so remarkable about this? Just as a Jew from England is called an English Jew, from Yemen a Yemenite Jew, a Pole from Russia a Russian Pole, from Germany a German Pole - so, too, shall an inhabitant of the State of Israel who is not a Jew be called "Israeli Arab," "Israeli Armenian," and so on. And its Jewish inhabitants will also be denoted, when the need arises, as "Israeli Jews," to distinguish them from the Jews of the United States.
Will the non-Jews not be incensed to have the name "Israeli" forced on them? By what right or privilege will they be incensed? The Jews who reside in Syria are called "Syrian Jews"; the Arabs who will reside in the State of Israel will be called "Israeli Arabs." This is the custom in every country. Integrity and equity necessitate it. There is no justification for becoming incensed in such circumstances. Those who become incensed from the arbitrariness of their nationalist passion will in any case not be satisfied by any other name. What difference will it make if our state will be called Judea or Zion or Eber? Will they not be as incensed by the appellation Jew, Zionist, or Hebrew as by the appellation Israeli? Are we to omit from the name of our state every allusion to our national name and our historic selfhood? That we shall certainly not do. And even if we did, it would not be of any use, because the truth is that those who become incensed are those who are incensed at the very existence of a Jewish state. The matter of the name is merely a pretext for them. If we gave up the name, it would be a pointless sacrifice.
Another matter: "State of Israel," a two-word phrase (in Hebrew: Medinat Yisrael) presents a difficulty. What shall a citizen of the state be called: a "citizen of the State of Israel [ezrah Medinat Yisrael]? - a slightly longish appellation. Can we not find him a one-word name? There is no need for one word. The Hebrew language is fond of collocations such as "State of Israel." In the Bible we have the Kingdom of the Chaldees, the Kingdom of Persia, the Kingdom of Greece; the Kingdom of Ararat, the Kingdom of Canaan, the State of Babylon. And there is the Kingdom of Judah, the Kingdom of Israel, the Kingdom of the House of Israel. We will choose medina, because, like the word "state" in English, the word signifies every type of political regime: republic, kingdom, alliance of autonomous bodies.
As for the adjective, we have already constructed it: Israeli. This has been our way of abridging a country's name since time immemorial: Babylon in place of Kingdom of Babylon, Assyria in place of the Kingdom of Assyria, and so on. And so, too, for Judea and Israel.
Israel has the meaning of abiding with God. It is a symbolic name: It hints at man's war with the forces of nature, which is the basis for all human progress. Our nation perceived itself from its genesis as struggling with God and with people. Struggling without flinching. But this symbolic name is not symbolic, or is not only symbolic; it is our concrete, historical name. The one we have been known by since we left Egypt, and the one we are known by today.
And now, if Israel is a social element in the name of our state, and if the explanatory word "state" is also indispensable, then, it seems to me, the one name that is acceptable is "Medinat Yisrael" - "State of Israel."
At a meeting of the People's Administration on April 25, 1948, an agenda was proposed for convening the Moetzet Ha'am (People's Council). In addition to the five items on the agenda, administration member David Remez said, "Similarly, a name for the state must be decided on. The absence of that decision is presently holding up the implementation of a number of essential preparatory actions." According to the minutes, Aharon Zisling "would not suggest rushing into the matter of deciding the name of the state." At a meeting the next day, a committee was chosen to decide the name, consisting of Remez and Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit. The minutes stated: "The proposal to be brought before the council - 'Yisrael' [Israel]. The committee will clarify the name in other languages."
The committee, to which Moshe Asaf was also co-opted, submitted the following opinion: "A meeting of the members, M. Asaf, D. Remez, B. Sheetrit, considered the question of how to translate the name 'Yisrael' (as the name of the Jewish state) into Arabic. We reached the conclusion that it should be translated verbatim and not 'Palestine.'
"The grounds for the decision:
"(A) The translation into Arabic must not be discriminated from the translation into all the other languages.
"(B) The name is natural, rooted in the Arab tradition, and will be understood and accepted.
"(C) Geographically, 'Palestine' is liable to arouse all the same apprehensions and problems that are entailed in the name 'Land of Israel.'
"(D) It is possible that the Arab state in the Land of Israel will continue to be called 'Palestine' in the future, and this is liable to cause confusion.
"At the same time, we must remark that the name 'Yisrael' in Arabic, which is used specifically for Jews of the [Middle] East in order to distinguish them as a special (religious) group, which is not identified with Zionism, will aggravate the situation of our brethren, so this matter requires policy consideration.
"The committee also considered the suggestion to call the state 'Zion,' but in its opinion this name, in its Arabic translation, is liable to make matters very difficult for the Arab citizen in the Jewish state."
In the meeting of the People's Administration on May 12 - two days before the declaration of the state - on the subject of "Deciding the name of the state," David Ben-Gurion said: "We have decided that the name of the state will be 'Israel,' and if we add the idea of the state, then the 'State of Israel.' A committee was chosen consisting of Messrs. Sheetrit, Remez and Asaf, and they submitted conclusions, after examining the matter, that in Arabic it will be 'Israel,' and they cited their reasons. They found one impediment: that in the jargon, such as among the French, 'Israelite' relates to Jew. But nevertheless they said: 'Israel.' Every construct can be attached to this: army of Israel, community of Israel, people of Israel.
"We will take a trial vote. Who is in favor of 'Yisrael' in Hebrew? Seven votes.
"The name 'Israel' has been accepted as the name of the state." [The People's Administration consisted of 13 members, 10 of whom attended the May 12 meeting.]
A. Zisling: "I am against a name that will compel every Arab to bear a name against which he should rise up."
D. Ben-Gurion: "In other words, you are suggesting that further consideration should be given to the translation into Arabic?"
F. Rosenbluth [later, Rosen]: "I do not know Arabic, but maybe it is possible to suggest that in Arabic it be called 'Arab Palestine'?"
M. Shertok [later, Sharett]: "I do not think it should be called 'Israel' in Arabic. All along I sought a way around imposing on Arabs identification with the Jewish people, but I do not find it."
D. Ben-Gurion: "We will co-opt Moshe Shertok to the committee that considered the matter of the name in Arabic, and the committee will reconsider the matter."