This Week in Haaretz 1950 / The Government Tells the Country to Hebraicize Names

A laconic report in Haaretz on March 16, 1950 told of the decision by the prime minister's bureau "not to issue diplomatic or service passports to Israeli government officials if their surnames, and also their first names, are not Hebraicized."

A heated discussion lay behind the announcement: to take a Hebrew name or not?

It began during the War of Independence, when army headquarters issued an order in July 1948 to "all unit commanders at all levels," ordering them to "change foreign sounding names [the order specified Russian, French, British, etc.] to Hebrew names."

In this way they were requested to serve as "a model to their soldiers, who will also change their foreign names to Hebrew ones." It worked on the soldiers and trickled down to people from all walks of life: In the year following the announcement, no fewer than 17,644 people Hebraicized their names, only half of whom were soldiers.

Those looking for ideas could find them in "Choose a Hebrew Name," written by the head of the name-change committee, Mr. Mordechai Nimtza-Bi (originally Nimtzavitsky ), and containing suggestions for Hebrew substitutes for the most common foreign names.

But among the people who sought to change their names were those with less common ones who made intriguing choices. Someone named Kojak asked to change it to Rashi, to the chagrin of Hechal Rashi in Tel Aviv, which asked that all requests for the moniker of the medieval French rabbi be rejected. There was no legal grounds for the rejection and Kojak got the name he chose.

Mahmoud Hassan of Hadera changed his name to Haim Mizrahi. Someone else's new name raised the hackles of several Haaretz readers, including Zeev Ben-Shlomo of Haifa who wrote: "In the 'To the Editors' column of May 18, 1950, a letter appears by T. A. Agnon. I do not know who penned the letter, but the fact that he chose the name of one of our greatest authors is somewhat astounding ... could it happen in France, for example, that a man would assume for himself the name of Balzac, Hugo or Flaubert?"

In March 1949, at the height of what he called name changing fever, Haaretz columnist Ron recalled "a story about the late writer K. Silman, who, sometime after the British occupation, lectured to an audience in Jerusalem and preached the changing of names. A man in the audience asked, 'My name is Wildman, how should it be translated into Hebrew?' Silman answered immediately: 'It's simple: Pariadam!!' [literally, wild man in Hebrew]."

But as time went on, and the hunger quieted down, people spoke out against the taking of Hebrew names.

"For Jews, name changes have always been always accompanied by a very bitter taste," wrote Dr. Walter Moses in Haaretz in August 1952. "It was a phenomenon typical of conscious assimilation. The problem was that name changes entailed more than the individual's assimilation into a foreign people among whom he dwelled. Betrayal of the father was always at the bottom of it. It was a shying away from the father's name due to contempt and hatred," because of what was known as "Jewish anti-Semitism."

In Israel too, Moses pointed out, name changes stem from anti-Semitic feeling against names that are "too Jewish, and so must be replaced by Hebrew names."

"This chauvinistic purism is a worrying sign of a degeneration into intolerance," he warned, recalling such a period in Germany in the 17th and 19th centuries, in which "barbarian reformers" sought "to Germanize everything," even the names of Greek gods.

"In a time of authentic humanism," Moses pleaded, "there is no contradiction between national and international. They are natural poles of the same spirit."

When the government calls on people to change their names, he wrote, "it is time to beware of the spirit of madness, which heralds a return to the Middle Ages."

Another prominent opponent was then-Education Minister Prof. Ben-Zion Dinburg.

"I oppose, in principle, public pressure to change names to Hebrew ones," he announced to the Knesset in July 1952. A short time later, Prof. Dinburg became Prof. Dinur. (Lital Levin )