Translatable but Debatable — Israel versus Israeli

I don’t know who decided that over here we’re Israelis, rather than Israelians or Israelese, or Israelites like our ancestors, but I’m happy with the decision.  I like the brevity and the distinctiveness, and I’m glad that the English-speaking community has spared us in its tilt toward standardization.  The word “Bosniak” had scarcely flickered on the news pages, back in the nineties, before a sweeping consensus settled on “Bosnian” instead.  The people who can be called Chadi, fellow bearers with us of the “i” suffix, are more often termed “Chadian.”

I worked as a copywriter for Scitex, which I would think of as an Israeli corporation, but the late Arthur Low, vice president there, said no, people are Israeli but institutions are not.  It’s the Israel Defense Forces, not the Israeli Defense Forces.  The Israel Export Institute.  Israel Bonds.  Our CEO is an Israeli but our company is an Israel corporation.  Attached for official purposes, the country appears as an attributive noun.

Not all over the world, though.  On the one hand it’s the Iowa General Assembly, not the Iowan General Assembly.  On the other hand it’s the French Parliament, not the France Parliament.  It’s the Russian Duma.

What counts is that our government doesn’t use the “i” suffix in referring to bodies under its auspices, said Arthur, and our government makes the rules for the country.  Years later I heard a rumor that the order had originally come down to linguistic leaders such as The Jerusalem Post from Prime Minister Moshe Sharett.  I wrote more than once to the Sharett Foundation, but either my questions or their answers got lost in cyberspace.

I did receive a reply from Dr. Avraham Avi-Hai, a veteran of the Jerusalem Post (the JP or TJP, as he calls it), who wrote that he “cannot confirm that information regarding Israel (the country and the adjective describing official bodies — as if it were in place of the State of Israel’s) and Israeli.”  He continued:

However, I assume that this was an instruction at least on the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and perhaps issued through the Cabinet Office to all ministries.

I also assume that Sharett was involved in such a decision, knowing that he was so pedantic about language usage.  I also assume he consulted with English language experts inside the Ministry like the Ministry DG, eg (Dr.) Walter Eitan and other native English/British speakers, and perhaps with JP Editor Gershon Agron.

I am sure that The Jerusalem Post followed official rulings about State bodies.  Quite likely the Editor of the Post — if not originally involved in the decision — checked with Sharett if an official ruling had not yet been published.

The model may have been a term like the United States Army (Navy, Air Force), using the name of the country and not “American Army.”

Israeli is a noun and adjective, and I am an Israeli, my citizenship is Israeli, but I am an Israel citizen (= citizen of Israel).

I was taught that usage at TJP and used it throughout my work years in whatever capacity I filled, and have done so always. 

The Google hits for the phrase “Israel citizen” are sparse, appearing mostly in headlines and tweets, but they include this interesting footnote from Coexisting Contemporary Civilizations, by Guy Ankerl:

According to the Law of Citizenship “any Jew who … emigrates to Israel …. becomes an Israeli citizen automatically.” (art. 1); “any person born in Israel is an Israel citizen if his mother or father is an Israel citizen” (art. 3); finally the law allows double allegiance for the Jews: “Israel citizenship does not require giving up of any former citizenship.” Book of Law No. 96 of 8/4/52 quoted by The 1987–88 Jewish Almanac edted by Ivan L. Tillem. (New York: Pacific Press, 1987, 156).

So the official translation (assuming that’s what the Jewish Almanac was quoting, and assuming accuracy) does say “Israel citizen.”  Well, two out of three times.  And Israel citizenship.

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Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.