For all practical purposes, Israelite is synonymous with Jew or Hebrew.

The term Israelite comes from the name Israel, which was conferred upon Jacob, grandson of Abraham, and father of the 12 Tribes, after his victory over the angel of Esau, with whom he “struggled” on the banks of the River Jabbok.1 It can be interpreted to mean “prevailer over mighty [angels],” “prince of G‑d,” or “upright one of G‑d.”

It is also the root of the (less common) name Jeshurun,2 which is similar to Israel in the original Hebrew.

From a historical perspective, the designation “Hebrew” (Ivri) has been in use since the time of Abraham, and “Israelite” followed when the progeny of Jacob developed into a nation.

Conversely, “Jew” (Yehudi) was popularized in the era of the Persian exile—at which point the Israelites not under Judean rule had become steeped in idolatry and exiled forever—and all the remaining Israelites (even those not from the Tribe of Judah) were known as Jews.

It is only in recent years that Jew surpassed Israelite (and Hebrew) as the preferred English designation for members of the tribe, but it is still the primary name for our people in some other languages.

Jacob was thus named because he was born “grasping the heel (ekev) of Esau.” The name also means “subvert” or “block.” Thus Jacob denotes the Jew who is grappling with challenges and struggling to reconcile his spiritual heritage with his material milieu. Israel, in contrast, has won the battle. He sees that there is truly nothing but G‑d, and anything that appears to contradict Him is but a mirage placed there by Him for us to overcome.

More on the difference between Jacob and Israel