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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TERMS FOR "JEW"
Strictly speaking, it is incorrect to call an ancient Israelite a "Jew" or to call a contemporary Jew an "Israelite" or a "Hebrew." The first Hebrews may not have been Jews at all, and contemporary Palestinians, by their own definition of the term "Palestinian," have to include Jews among their own people--although in choosing the name "Palestine" for their homeland, they have picked a name that originally signified the opposite: an enclave of foreigners. A "Zionist'' in the strict sense is not an expansionist: the original "Zion" was only a single hill in Jerusalem, not a whole land, much less "from the Nile to the Euphrates," as the maximalists maintain.
How these curiosities of terminology evolved is a complicated and interesting bit of history. In a general sense all of these terms---"Hebrew," "Israelite," "Jew," "Palestinian," and "Zionist" -- are essential ingredients in both Jewish and world history, and understanding their knotty interrelation can shed much light on contemporary events in the Middle East. But let the definer beware: original meanings of these loaded words are no guide to subsequent meanings. How people misconstrue a word is as much a part of its meaning as the "correct" meaning, and the history of these five terms has included a number of creative--and sometimes tragic--misconstruals.
The word "Hebrew" ('Ivri) occurs in the early narratives of the Pentateuch to refer to an Israelite, but only in those narratives, such as the Joseph story (Gen. 39--48) and the Exodus story (Exod 3-10), that are set in Egypt, where Israelites are regarded as foreigners. There "Hebrew" is either used by Egyptians to refer to Israelites or by Israelites to refer to themselves in the presence of Egyptians--among themselves, the
preferred term is bene Yisrael, "children of
Israel," or "Israelites." A similar usage of "Hebrew" is found in the
stories of the interaction between Israelites and Philistines in 1
Samuel and the interaction of Abram (Abraham) with Canaanites and
other non-Israelites in Gen. 14 (see Gen. 14:13, where the Greek
translator renders the term 'lvri by a word meaning "man of the
yonder region''). Jonah, likewise, at sea with a crew of
non-Israelites, refers to himself in their presence as a "Hebrew."
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