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Jews Named Yair Aren’t Named After a Terrorist

The Economist makes a bizarre claim about a biblical name

Yair Rosenberg
May 09, 2014

As we’ve seen in the past, wild claims about Israel and Jews are sometimes too salacious to fact-check. The latest issue of The Economist offers one such example. In a May 3 book review entitled “The making of a martyr,” the magazine evaluates an account of the life and death of Avraham “Yair” Stern. Stern headed the eponymous Stern Gang, a Jewish terrorist group in Mandatory Palestine that was condemned by both the British and Jewish groups for its attacks on civilian targets. Understandably, and with justification, the review is not particularly kind to Stern. Less justifiable, however, is how the writer ignorantly impugns thousands of Jews when he turns from history to the contemporary:

Stern still commands a striking hold over many of Israel’s ruling right-wingers, including the successors of the mandate-era Jewish underground who continue to perpetrate attacks on Palestinian civilians. Many still choose his nom de guerre, Yair, for their sons, including Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. One of the most fanatical settlements, Kochav Yair, is named after him.

This passage, which attempts to tar contemporary Jews and Israelis with Stern’s unsavory legacy, contains two major errors. One of them has been corrected. The more egregious one, unfortunately, has not.

First, as the blog CIFWatch has pointed out, Kochav Yair is not actually a settlement. This is not an obscure fact that would have been difficult for The Economist to ascertain; it’s on Google Maps. Kochav Yair is also not a “fanatical” town, let alone “most fanatical,” by any definition of the word. According to the official results from the last Israeli elections, its residents voted predominantly for centrist and left-wing parties. To its credit, The Economist has issued a correction on this.

But even more problematic is the article’s still-uncorrected claim that people named “Yair” who hail from families with right-wing political views–including the Israeli Prime Minister’s own son–are named after Stern. To the untutored Economist reviewer, “Yair” no doubt appears to be an exotic name, such that many of those in Israel who share it must trace it back to Stern. To the more literate, however, “Yair”–which means “will illuminate”–is of course a famous biblical name that has been popular among Jews for centuries. It is one of the few names possessed by multiple characters in the Hebrew Bible. The father of Mordekhai, one of the protagonists of the Purim story, is named “Yair.” So is one of Joseph’s grandsons. Today, the name is shared by everyone from famed biblical scholars, to movie directors, to noted Israeli composers, to non-Jewish baseball players. Likewise, I am named after an ancestor who was murdered in the Holocaust. In all of these cases, the Bible and personal ancestry dictate the choice of name, not some relatively obscure terrorist in Mandatory Palestine, who himself adopted the name from another historical character. While there may be a handful of extreme-right Israelis who took Stern as a namesake, the vast majority of men named “Yair”–from all political backgrounds–bear no connection to him whatsoever.

In other words, The Economist‘s assertion unfairly tars contemporary individuals with the sins of another. That this may not be an innocent overreach is suggested by the way the writer explicitly impugns Yair Netanyahu, without any actual evidence that his parents–both renowned secular bibliophiles–took his name from Stern as opposed to the Torah. The typical reader of The Economist piece will walk away thinking that anyone they meet named “Yair” might be named after a terrorist, with no inkling that this is a common biblical name.

Indeed, Stern’s Wikipedia page has already picked up this falsehood without qualification: “Stern’s nickname, Yair, is still chosen by many Israeli’s [sic] as a name for their sons.” The claim is sourced to The Economist.

UPDATE (5/11): Wikipedia–but not The Economist–has corrected. (Previous version archived here.)

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.