Errors on a Global And Historical Scale

On Language

By Philologos

Published January 13, 2010, issue of January 22, 2010.
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You would think that Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace & Development and author of “Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East,” would know better. In an op-ed column on “Eisenhower, Truman on the Mideast” in the January 8 Boston Globe, Mr. Cohen takes Israel to task for its “self-destructive policy of putting settlements before peace,” and recommends that “[President] Obama should take the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation out of its bilateral context and into a global one of [nuclear] nonproliferation, including linking it to talks with Iran.”

In plain words, Mr. Cohen thinks the Obama administration should threaten to let Iran go nuclear unless Israel agrees to abandon the settlements. He has a right to his opinion. But in urging the current American president to learn from his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower how to twist Israel’s arm, he brings up Israel’s 1956 Sinai Campaign and writes:

“He [Eisenhower] gave Israel’s prime minister, Ben Gurion [sic!], a clear ultimatum to leave Sinai…. Gurion’s [sic!] weakness vis-à-vis Eisenhower should be the magic key to Mr. Obama’s success to [sic!] bring about a different Israeli policy.”

Let us hurry past my third “sic,” which is only there because in English, one has success “in bringing” something about, not success “to bring” it about. The truly embarrassing part is that the president of the Institute for Middle East Peace & Development seems to think that David Ben-Gurion’s first name was “Ben” and that his last name was “Gurion.” And just in case you’re wondering if this isn’t a typographical error on the Globe’s part, let me assure you that in two other places in Mr. Cohen’s op-ed, Israel’s first prime minister is also referred to as “Gurion.” Since “Ben-Gurion” means “son of Gurion” in Hebrew, this is a little like referring to Lyndon Johnson as “President John.”

Ben-Gurion, of course, was not an inherited last name like Johnson. Ben-Gurion’s father was named Avigdor Grin, and had his son David, who was born in the Polish shtetl of Plonsk in 1886, wished merely to Hebraize his surname in order to mark his commitment to Zionism and the Hebrew language, he could have called himself Ben-Avigdor. This is what many of his contemporaries did, such as his friend and political collaborator, Israel’s first president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (pronounced “Tsvee”), son of the Ukrainian-Jewish merchant Zvi Shimshelevitz.

But Grin, who changed his name while he was a law student in Constantinople in 1912, wanted something with more Jewish historical resonance. He found it in Ben-Gorion (the “o” after the “G” is apparently the more correct vocalization), which first occurs in “The Jewish War,” the first-century C.E. historian Josephus’s account of the failed revolt of 67–70 C.E. against Rome. In describing preparations for the siege of Jerusalem as the Romans closed in on the city, Josephus writes, “Gathering in the Temple, they [the Jews] appointed additional generals to conduct the war. Yosef ben Gorion and the high priest Ananus were elected to the supreme control of affairs within the city, with special responsibility to raise the height of the walls.”

Seizing on the similarity in sound between Grin and Gorion, the young law student became Ben-Gurion. Yet, in “The Jewish War,” Yosef ben Gurion is a minor figure who is never mentioned again. In all likelihood, David Grin had first heard of him not as an obscure general mentioned by Josephus, but as the supposed author of the 10th-century Hebrew “Yosippon,” an anonymously authored historical chronicle that was enormously popular with Jews of later ages.

And yet, curiously, it was Yosef ben Gorion’s very disappearance from the pages of The Jewish War that was responsible for “Yossipon” being falsely attributed to him!

It’s like this. The author of “Yossipon” depended heavily on a fourth-century Latin history called “Hegessipus,” which was in turn based on Josephus’s “The Jewish War,” and, misunderstanding a scribe’s gloss in his copy of it, he erroneously identified Josephus, whose Hebrew name was Yosef ben Matityahu, with Yosef ben Gorion. The logic behind the error was simple. On the one hand, if Yosef ben Gorion was such an important figure that he was given “supreme control” of fighting the Roman siege of Jerusalem, how could he just disappear afterward? And on the other hand, Josephus himself, so he tells us, was sent from Jerusalem to command Jewish troops fighting the Romans in the Galilee and was responsible for siege fortifications there. What more reasonable conclusion, then, that the two were the same man and that Yosef ben Gorion vanished from Jerusalem because he went to fight in the Galilee? And having been made, this mistake was then further compounded by later Jewish tradition — which, erroneously thinking that “Yossipon,” too, was written by Josephus, made Yosef ben Gorion its author.

It was in this capacity that Yosef ben Gorion’s name was in all likelihood first encountered by David Grin, who decided to appropriate it. It was a name known to Jews by virtue of a mistake made about a mistake — neither of which, however, is quite as egregious as the mistake made in the Boston Globe.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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