The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported a bit of an odd story on Sunday: Mohammed is the most common name for newborn boys in Israel in the last Jewish calendar year, but the official government report said it was Yosef — typically an Israeli Jewish name. The story seemed to hit on delicate issues of identity in Israel, where Arab citizens are a significant minority, and on Israeli anxieties about whether Jews will remain a demographic majority.
It turns out the Population, Immigration, and Border Authority report only counted Hebrew names, not Arabic ones. What’s more, they lumped in some Arabic names with similar Hebrew ones: every baby with the Arabic name Yusef, for instance, got counted as Yosef (they’re spelled the same in Hebrew).
The Israeli government denies any malice. Here’s what government spokesperson Sabine Hadad told Haaretz:
The statistics published were the statistics requested during the past few years by everyone who contacted us to obtain this information, and for that reason the list relating to the most popular Hebrew names was issued. Contrary to the assumptions of the Haaretz newspaper, there is no plot to deliberately hide information. As proof, when your reporter asked to receive the complete list, it was given to him within a few minutes
Essentially, they’re saying there were requests for lists of popular Hebrew names but not Arabic ones.
In the grand scheme of Israeli politics, this isn’t much more than a curio. But still, the fact that a list of baby names can feel controversial illustrates just how unsettled the question of “Israeli” identity is — especially given that birth rates are a critically important issue in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.