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The Hurricane They Almost Named ‘Israel’


While Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on East Coast Jewish communities, another storm eleven years ago made serious political waves in the Jewish world.

It’s not unusual for Jewish organizations to clash with United Nations agencies over issues related to Israel. But in 2001, Jewish groups’ concern for Israel drew them into an unusual battle with the UN over the naming of a hurricane.

When a tropical storm’s winds reach 39 miles per hour, it is given a name, and when it hits 74 mph it is classified as a hurricane. The names are chosen by a 25-person committee of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which meets annually and approves a list of names for upcoming storms.

The list approved in early 2001 included “Adolph” and “Israel.” In retrospect, one might think those choices would have raised some red flags, but committee chair Max Mayfield, director of the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, told a Jerusalem Post reporter at the time: “We have four billion people on the planet, and you are the only person I’ve ever had express a concern about the name Israel.”

Mayfield defended the choice of “Israel” as “a good Spanish name.” He also argued that Adolph is “not the German spelling, and there are a lot of good people with the name Adolph, too.”

Jewish leaders strongly criticized the choice of names.

“I shudder to think how terrible it would be in Muslim countries in the Far East if they found themselves suffering from a storm by that name,” said Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Zuroff said there was “terrible irony” in the use of the name Israel since “the Nazis forced Jewish males who did not have what they considered to be a distinctly Jewish name to add the name Israel as a middle name.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, concurred. “How about Jesus?” Foxman asked. “That’s another good Spanish name. They wouldn’t name a hurricane Jesus, would they?”

As for “Adolph,” Foxman told the Jerusalem Post that “in the lifetime of [Holocaust survivors] still alive, to name anything [Adolph] by an international body is offensive and hideous.”

The WMO’s website acknowledged that naming storms after people is not a universal practice. Storms in Asia, for example, are not given people’s names because “the practice of naming storms, which usually bring destruction, after persons appears to run counter to Oriental sensibilities.”

Thus, in the western North Pacific region, storm names are chosen from lists submitted by 14 affected countries. Most of those names are animals, flowers, or astrological references.

UN officials at first refused to reconsider “Israel” or “Adolph” on the grounds that the committee had no established mechanism for altering lists between annual meetings. In fact, at the time of the controversy, Tropical Storm Adolph was already gathering strength 250 miles southwest of the Mexican coastline.

In response to the protests, however, the WMO soon reversed itself and agreed to change “Israel” to “Ivo.” Ironically, the storm named Ivo, which appeared off the coast of Africa that August, never made it beyond the category of tropical storm and caused no damage.

Likewise, although Adolph did reach hurricane strength, it never made landfall and thus caused no damage either.

Jewish leaders chalked up another victory. But some pundits were less than sympathetic.

“It’s understandable that some Jewish leaders and worrywarts said ‘Oy Vey’ when they learned of a United Nations commission’s decision to name a hurricane ‘Israel,’ ” wrote Jonah Goldberg, contributing editor of National Review.

“I guess it would be better if the United Nations – a notoriously anti-Israel body – hadn’t opened the possibility of headlines such as ‘Israel Wipes Out Thousands in Manila’ or ‘Miami Without Power for Second Day, Thanks to Israel.’ ”

“But come on,” Goldberg continued. “Jews have enough to worry about…. It may be bizarre, stupid and insensitive. But is this the most important battle for Israel or Jews right now? There are actual battles taking place in Israel right now. Wailing and moaning about the politically incorrect name of a hurricane will not change that fact at all…. If the National Director of the ADL can’t find an injustice greater than a misnamed hurricane, he’s not looking hard enough.”

About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.

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