Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Did Ben Gurion Have a Dictatorial Urge?

Here's the second, and probably last, installment about the efforts to have Israelis use "Hebrew names" instead of "Diaspora names." It's also about the limits of the power of government, of integration policies, and probably another few things. Citizens corresponding with Ben Gurion often got more than they'd expected.

On April 30, 1961, Prof. Allon Talmi (a good Hebrew name, that) wrote to Ben Gurion (previous name: Gryn) with a suggestion that the government pay 10 Lira to each individual who gets rid of their non-Hebrew name for a Hebrew one.
The sum, the rough equivalent of a day's wages for many people, wouldn't entice the well-off, but might be a consideration for many. When he, Talmi, used to be the manager of a large section in a chemical company and he offered an unofficial day off for anyone who changed their name, you'd be surprised how many did so. The government could explain that the sum is to cover the hassle of the name-changing. How many people would likely accept? 100,000 at most? Isn't the investment of 1,000,000 Lira in promoting national unity worth it?
 Ben Gurion replied on May 7:
I liked your idea. Indeed, all these German and Slavic names detract from the Jewishness of the nation. It was also a fine thing you did at that factory. But a government can't do things like that. The government should pass a law that everyone should have Hebrew names.
To which Talmi then replied:
Thank you for answering.
I don't think the government can force people to change their names. It would be unpopular, and give credence to the claim that you've got dictatorial tendencies. The government needs to force people to do things that are essential for the economy and security, but in spite of my dislike of foreign names, I don't think they affect the national security.
Parallel to the correspondence, Tikva Issacharoff, a secretary in Ben Gurion's office, had sent a couple of notes to Talmi, along the lines of "he'll get back to you shortly." Issacharoff, of course, isn't any more a Hebrew name than, say, Abramowitz, yet there she was, sitting down the hall from Ben Gurion, signing letters with her unkosher name. This may have been because Ben Gurion wasn't being irked by Sephardi names, only "German and Slavic" ones. (A distinction Talmi doesn't seem to have been making). Or perhaps he grumbled but saw the limits of his power - that by 1961 he'd been in power for more than a decade and had never passed that law he was wishing for.

So far as I know, diplomats in Israel's foreign service are encouraged till this very day to have Hebrew-sounding names, or at least they were until recently. Some don't - Avigdor Lieberman, for example, to name a recent prominent diplomat. The rest of us are left alone with whatever name we happen to have around. Someday someone should try to figure out which names were more likely to have been jettisoned, the Ashkenazi or the Sephardi ones.


  1. "Issacharoff" seems to be of slavic origin to me, isn't it?

    1. Yes, the "-off" at the end is the French version of spelling Russian-origin last names that in English usually get the ending "-ov" (e.g. Ivanov, Kuznetsov). I, frankly speaking, don't see much of a difference between Abramowitz and Issacharoff. The only difference is that Abramowitz (with that spelling) is a Jewish last name from Poland, while Issacharoff is a Jewish last name from the region of modern-day Azerbaijan or Uzbekistan.

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  3. Yes, Issacharoff is the French spelling (notice the final "ff") of the last name formed by the Biblical name Issachar and the frequent Russian last name ending "-ov" (cf. Ivanov, Kuznetsov, Sacharov, etc.). I, frankly speaking, do not see much of a difference between Abramowitz and Issacharoff.