Hebraization of Jewish surnames
I’ve been doing this work on social media for about three years at this point, and as such, I’ve noticed a few cyclical patterns. One of these patterns is that anti-Zionists seem to recycle the same old tired arguments. Every few months, they try to argue that Jews Hebraizing their surnames in the early-to -mid-twentieth century was an act of “colonialism,” in order to “appear” Indigenous to Palestine. This not only makes zero logical sense, but it can also be easily debunked.
So let’s debunk it.
COLONIALISM & LINGUICIDE
The Indigenous-led United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues defines Indigenous Peoples as the following: (1) self-identification as Indigenous Peoples; (2) historical continuity with pre-colonial and pre-settler societies; (3) strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources; (4) distinct social, economic, or political systems; (5) distinct language, culture, and beliefs; (6) non-dominant groups of society; (7) resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.
To reiterate: Indigenous Peoples have their own distinct ancestral languages. For Jews, who are the direct descendants of the ancient Hebrew tribes, Hebrew is our ancestral language. Samaritans, who are the only other group directly descended from the Hebrew tribes, speak what is known as Samaritan Hebrew.
Colonialism is the practice of a country or empire imposing control and power over other peoples or territories through the establishment of colonies. Colonizers impose their religion (e.g. Christianity or Islam), language (e.g. Spanish, English, and Portuguese in the Americas, Arabic in Southwest Asia and North Africa), economic systems, and more on the colonized population. Imperialism is the practice of a country or empire extending power and control through conquest, usually by military force.
“Linguicide” refers to the extermination of a language; that is, language death is caused by human intervention (e.g. colonialism, imperialism, language discrimination) as opposed to natural causes (e.g. natural disasters that decimate communities). It is considered a form of cultural genocide.
A common characteristic of linguicide is the imposition of foreign names on Indigenous populations. Linguicide is why, for example, Zhina Amini, who was Kurdish, was forced to have a Persian name, Mahsa. Linguicide is why, for example, up until 2014, Morocco banned Amazigh (Indigenous) names in favor of Arab names.
Hebrew is the ancestral language of the Jewish and Samaritan People, two peoples/tribes Indigenous to the region of the world now known as Israel/Palestine. It is the only Canaanite language to survive to this day. Other long-extinct Canaanite languages include Phoenician, Ammonite, Moabite, and Punic.
Hebrew is among the oldest languages in the world, with a history dating back over 3000 years. The first records of written Hebrew — known as Paleo-Hebrew — date back to the 10th century BCE, though it’s likely that the language was spoken long before then. Recently, archeologists and Assyriologists discovered the ancient Canaanite language — the precursor to Hebrew — inscribed in 3800-year-old tablets.
Irrespective of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, there is no doubt among archeologists and historians that Hebrew is the Indigenous language of the Land of Israel. Almost the entirety of the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] is written in Hebrew.
Like other Indigenous languages, Hebrew experienced linguicide — many times over. The first wave of decline came during the period of the Babylonian Captivity, when, in 587/6 BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered and exiled about 25 percent of the citizens of the Kingdom of Judah. By 200 BCE — around the time period of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (i.e. the story of Hanukkah) — everyday colloquial Hebrew became almost fully extinct.
Another wave of linguicide took place during the period of the Arab colonization of the Levant. Ancient Hebrew names for places (such as Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim in Hebrew) were replaced with Arabic names. By the ninth century, Arabic fully replaced Aramaic and Hebrew.
Traditionally, Jews have used Hebrew names. Hebrew names are — you guessed it! — Hebrew in origin, though some are borrowed from nearby cultures, such as Egyptian, Aramaic, Phoenician (now extinct), and Canaanite (now extinct) names. Among some Ashkenazi communities, it’s not uncommon to use a Yiddish (mixture of Hebrew and High German) name in place for a Hebrew names.
Since ancient times, Jews have used the patronymic suffix “son/daughter [ben/bat] of [father’s name]” in place of a surname. While we were later forced to take on foreign names by our colonizers and oppressors, we continued to use our Hebrew names for liturgical purposes. For instance, when a Jewish person is called up to read the Torah, they are called by their Hebrew name, including their patronymic.
Prior to the Spanish Inquisition, Sephardic Jews used patronymic names, just as Jews did in antiquity, prior to our expulsion(s) from our homeland. Sephardic patronymic names were generally in Hebrew, though some used Arabic versions of their patronymic names. During and after the Inquisition, Jews who were forced or coerced into converting to Christianity were baptized with “New Christian” names, which were indistinguishable from other Christian names.
Ashkenazi Jews were the last group in Europe to adopt surnames — and it was not by choice. Like Sephardic Jews and their ancient ancestors, Ashkenazi Jews also used the patronymic suffixes “ben/bat” [son of/daughter of]. For example, if your name was Judah [Yehuda in Hebrew] and your father’s name was Abraham [Avraham in Hebrew], your name would be Yehuda ben Avraham. However, with the creation of modern nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jews in Europe were forced to adopt non-Hebrew surnames.
Jews resisted these laws, as they (understandably) distrusted the European authorities. However, by 1844, the Jews in Europe had all adopted official surnames.
In the Middle East and North Africa, Jews had to adopt “civic” Arabic names in place of their traditional, sacred Hebrew names in order to participate in trade and other professions. In Iran, Jews did not adopt surnames until they were forced to under the rule of Reza Shah (1921-1941). Many chose surnames indistinguishable from Muslim surnames.
For thousands of years, Jews have tried — usually in vain — to revive our ancestral language, Hebrew, as an everyday colloquial tongue. For example, Simon bar Kochba, the leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE) against the Roman Empire, was determined to bring Hebrew back. Unfortunately, he failed and the revolt ended catastrophically, with the Romans committing a genocide against the Jewish population of the Land of Israel.
That said, one major act of resistance in Jewish history was the preservation of the Hebrew language in the face of language death and linguicide. This preservation happened in three forms: (1) the continued use of Hebrew as our liturgical language (i.e. for prayer); (2) the incorporation of Hebrew in diasporic Jewish languages (e.g. Yiddish, Ladino); and (3) Jews from different parts of the Diaspora continued to use Hebrew as the lingua franca when they interacted with each other, as that was the language that they had in common. For example, an Ashkenazi merchant arriving in North Africa would speak Hebrew to the local Sephardic Jews.
Language revitalization is an attempt to reverse or slow down language death. According to Israeli linguist and language revivalist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, “Language reclamation will become increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve wellbeing.”
Language revitalization projects are common across the world, particularly as it pertains to Indigenous cultures. That said, the only language in the world to be successfully revived as an everyday tongue is the Hebrew language. Other revitalization efforts, such as those for Hawaiian, Welsh, Irish, Cherokee, and Navajo, have enjoyed smaller degrees of success.
The revival of Hebrew as an everyday language took place over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as Jewish refugees arrived to Palestine from Europe, elsewhere in Southwest Asia, North Africa, and Central Asia. By the time the British took control of Palestine in 1920, Hebrew became one of the two official languages.
Many Indigenous Peoples, such as the Sámi of the Nordic countries, have studied the revival of Hebrew in their own attempt to revive their ancestral Indigenous languages.
"We all desire that the in gathering of the exiles should take place from all areas where they have been scattered; and that our holy language will be upon our lips and upon the lips of our children, in building the Land and its flowering through the hands and work of Israel; and we will all strive to see the flag of freedom and redemption waving in glory and strength upon the walls of Jerusalem."
— Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Mandatory Palestine (1880-1953)
Uziel was born in Jerusalem in 1880 and was what people today would call a “Palestinian Jew”
Exile was a deeply traumatic experience for Jews, especially for Jews whose Diasporic experience took place in Europe, where we were relentlessly persecuted for thousands of years. As such, in the early days of the State of Israel, many Jews — particularly Ashkenazi Jews — chose to discard their forcefully imposed Diasporic/exilic surnames in favor of Hebrew names.
Many returned to their original Hebrew patronymic names. Others used patronymic names with Zionist or Indigenous themes, such as ben Ami [“son of my people”] or ben Artzi [“son of my land”]. Others used Hebrew names that were phonetically similar to their Diaspora names.
Some Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews chose to Hebraize — and thus de-Arabize — their Diaspora names for similar reasons.
Rabbinic authorities largely encourage the Hebraization of Diasporic surnames, as spiritually it is considered a return to our ancestral roots.
It’s important to remember that our oppressors forced us to take foreign names that meant nothing to us at best and triggered our trauma at worst. There is no planet in which returning to our Hebrew roots could be understood as “colonization,” unless you are willfully mischaracterizing and/or revising extensively recorded and corroborated Jewish (and world!) history. Hebrew is not only the Indigenous language of the Land of Israel, but it is the ancestral language of the Jewish People, a language that we continued to use for 3000 years. Reclaiming our very own ancestral language is not colonization; in fact, it’s quite literally the definition of decolonization.
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