What’s in a name? In a racist society, everything

Israel’s racist policies toward Palestinians have worrying historical precedents. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)


Names have always been political. Throughout history different regimes have used naming as a means of racial or religious identification. In Nazi Germany a 1938 law obliged Jews to add Sara or Israel to their names so as to eliminate ethnic confusion. And in my own country, Northern Ireland, even without a law, a name could determine one’s success in life.

Until comparatively recently many Catholic families I know chose Protestant Anglicized names so as their children could have a chance of escaping the discrimination inherent in the sectarian state. It rarely worked however, as there were always other ways one could tell someone’s background. Indeed, even today most of us immediately conduct a sort of scan upon meeting a new acquaintance. If we can’t tell by name then we move on to other questions like, “Where do you live?” or the clincher — in a society where schools are largely segregated — “What school did you go to?” This approach is not always successful but most times we can quite quickly classify who we think our new acquaintance is and how much we can reveal of ourselves to them.

Sad though most of you must think this is, for people of my generation it is an automatic but unfortunate hangover from hundreds of years of mutual suspicion. Thankfully however, never did we have someone convicted for rape on the basis that the woman had mistaken her sexual partner as being of the same religious group as herself. This is what happened in an Israeli court last week.

For those unfamiliar with the case the story goes like this. A young Jewish Israeli woman and a young Palestinian Jerusalemite had consensual sex. Afterwards, the Jewish woman discovered that her partner was in fact not Jewish at all, but horror of horror, a Palestinian. But there was more, the Palestinian had called himself “Dudu,” his nickname, but one most often used by Israeli Jews, and from this the young woman concluded she had been deliberately deceived and in fact raped.

In our society of course, refusal to contemplate a relationship with a person from another ethnic or religious background is described and denounced as racism or bigotry. In Israel it is now protected by law. The court found that indeed the young Jewish woman had in fact been raped, not by force of course, but by name. Finding the Palestinian guilty, district court Judge Zvi Segal stated, “The court is obliged to protect the public interest from sophisticated, smooth-tongued criminals who can deceive innocent victims at an unbearable price — the sanctity of their bodies and souls.”

Sadly, this all has very worrying historical echoes. It hints back to the Apartheid and Jim Crow Laws which presupposed dangerous Blacks waiting to pounce on virginal Whites. It also conjures up the notorious images from the Nazi publication Der Sturmer of supposedly lecherous Jews trying to seduce young Aryan Germans, no doubt also at the unbearable price of the sanctity of their bodies and souls. In part it also shares the Nazi obsession with racial mixing and the naming policy Germany introduced to eliminate any possible confusion in ethnicity. Except perhaps Nazi policy was more honest. In the Nuremberg Laws Germany explicitly outlawed sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews; Israel does no such thing, it merely makes it a crime if sex takes place without the actors being fully aware of each other’s background. Perhaps then Israel should take a leaf of out of Germany’s 1938 naming law: every Muslim to have the name Muhammad attached; every Christian, Jesus. But it won’t do that, after all, that is racist.

Richard Irvine teaches a course at Queen’s University Belfast entitled “The Battle for Palestine” which explores the entire history of the conflict. Irvine has also worked voluntarily in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and taken part in olive planting and harvesting in the West Bank.