Why are so many Jewish things named “Israel”?

People walk by Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. (Photo: Getty Images)

The term Israel pre-dates the forming of the modern country. In fact, the Jewish people are commonly referred to as b’nei Yisrael, “children of Israel,” and many synagogues are named “Beth Israel,” meaning “house of Israel.”

How did the Jewish people end up getting called Israel?

The name “Israel” first appears in the Torah in Bereshit/Genesis 32:29 when Jacob (Abraham’s grandson) is renamed “Israel.”

As the story goes, one night, “Jacob was alone, and a man wrestled with him until the coming of dawn.” There are various interpretations of who the “man” wrestling with Jacob was, but he is commonly assumed to be an angel.

At dawn, Jacob tells the angel he will not let him go unless the angel blesses him. The angel responds by asking, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he replies. Then the angel gives Jacob a new name: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

“Not lightly does the Torah give the name Israel to our people,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l explained. “To be a Jew, to be a member of the people Israel, has always been a struggle, sometimes with God, sometimes with our fellow human beings…Yet in that very name a momentous hope, a promise, was born…though the people Israel must struggle, it will always prevail.”

Jacob (or Israel’s) descendents go by the name Israel too: collectively, they come to be known as the Israelites or the people of Israel. 

Jacob has 12 sons and they are the ancestors of the 12 “tribes of Israel”: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh.

When the Israelites enter the Land of Canaan, they establish a monarchy under the kings Saul, David and Solomon called the “kingdom of Israel.” Upon Solomon’s death and the reign of his son, Rehoboam, the kingdom is divided into two — the northern kingdom is called “Israel” and the southern kingdom is called “Judah.”

According to Elon Gilad of Haaretz, “While the Bible usually uses ‘Israel’ to mean the northern kingdom, elsewhere the name is commonly used to refer to both Israel and Judah together, and less commonly, to Judah alone.”

He added: “Thus it is that Jews in the Diaspora refer to themselves as ‘[Children] of Israel’ and sometimes just Israel, in addition to the more common name Yehudim (“Jews”), which derives from the name of Judah, the southern kingdom.”

Of course, the Bible also refers to the land as Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared statehood in the old Tel Aviv Museum with the words: “We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, to be known as the State of Israel.”

According to Martin Kramer, professor of Middle Eastern history at Shalem College in Jerusalem, “Until that moment, very few people knew what the state would be called.”

The vote was decided by the “cabinet-in-waiting” a couple of days earlier. “The protocol doesn’t give the details of the debate,” Kramer wrote. “It simply records Ben-Gurion as saying:

We have decided that the name of the state will be Israel. And if we say state, then the State of Israel…. To this can be added every word in the grammatical construct state: army of Israel, community of Israel, people of Israel.