CST Blog

What's in a name?

24 September 2009

One of the dirtiest and  most transparent tactics used against Barack Obama before and after his election as US President, was the simple repetition by some of his opponents of his full name: Barack Hussein Obama. The racist implication, often unstated, was that he was (1) a Muslim and therefore (2) not to be trusted.

This tactic is quite common, especially when people want to signal a message about somebody's identity, and therefore give a clue as the reason for their alleged behaviour, without leaving themselves open to allegations of racism. During the Labour party "cash for honours" scandal, profiles of Lord Levy oftentold readers that his full name is Michael Abraham Levy. Needless to say, it was much less common to be told the middle names of Ruth Turner, Des Smith, Jonathan Powell or any of the other people caught up in the scandal.

At Saturday's Stop the War Coalition Student Conference, the coalition's favourite rapper, Lowkey, added himself to the list of people who think you can infer an awful lot from somebody's name:

[4:38] Personally, I am not surprised by Obama's stance here, he has the same Defence Secretary George Bush had, Robert Gates, he has a Chief of Staff whose name is Rahm Israel Emanuel, I wonder how his masters at AIPAC would feel about a Chief of Staff whose middle name was Palestine.

Richard Ingrams  produced possibly the most infamous version of this name-spotting game, when he declared that he ignores any pro-Israel correspondence that comes from somebody with a Jewish name:

I have developed a habit when confronted by letters to the editor in support of the Israeli government to look at the signature to see if the writer has a Jewish name. If so, I tend not to read it.

He later explained:

A columnist has to sniff out the things that aren't mentioned for one reason or another, and this is one of those things. Everyone is so hypersensitive about it, so the issue is left out of the discussion.

The flaw in Ingrams' strategy for "sniffing out" Jews is that they have a habit of changing their names. This a problem that clearly vexed Tim Llewellyn, the BBC's former Middle East editor:

Mr Llewellyn declared: “The Israelis appear in studios wearing suits. They’ve learned all sorts of tricks. They are wizards at communication; they speak 10 different sorts of English, from American to South African to Canadian.” Good English, he suggested, played better with the presenters than “a Palestinian speaking down a crackly phone-line from dusty Ramallah.” He added that the tone of complaints against those giving the Palestinian viewpoint was “vituperative, pestering and controlling.”

He also denounced broadcasters who invited the “insidious” former US ambassador to the Middle East Denis Ross, without fully identifying him.

Mr Llewellyn said: “What a lovely Anglo-Saxon name! But Denis Ross is not just a Jew, he is a Zionist, a long-time Zionist… and now directs an Israeli-funded think tank in Washington. He is a Zionist propagandist.”

Very cosmopolitan people, the Jews, with their 10 different types of English and their Anglo-Saxon names.

When people do discover somebody's 'real' name, they often present it with triumphalism, as if it brings with it an entirely new understanding of everything that person says and does. This is George Galloway, on Denis MacShane, from Galloway's I'm Not the Only One:

Now I know a lot about Denis MacShane, including the fact that he is not Denis MacShane. His is a family of Roman Catholic refugees from Poland who changed their name to blend in more successfully.

Now, whatever Denis MacShane's family history, he is still the same person, whether he has changed his name or not. But note the phrasing: "he is not Denis MacShane".

As should be clear, the habit of immigrants anglicising their names is not peculiar to Jews. People from all sorts of backgrounds have done it over the years as a way of aiding their integration into British society, particularly in the days before diversity and multiculturalism were embraced by government and mainstream opinion. Some people had professional reasons for adopting names that fell easier on the ears of English speakers: Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas; Israel Baline became Irving Berlin; Yigal Gluckstein became Tony Cliff. Alternatively, many ordinary families who originate from non-English speaking countries will have a family story about how their name was changed for them by a flustered immigration official, on entry to Britain or America. This phenomenon was so commonplace as to be fictionalised in The Godfather, when the central character, entering America as a child immigrant, has his name changed for him in just this manner. But there is something quite nasty and belittling about the tendency to remind immigrants, or even worse, their children, of their original names or their (hidden) middle names, as if to say: you don't belong, you never will, and don't try to deceive us about who and what you really are.

It is no surprise that people who think that Jews should be easily identifiable, lest they enter parts of society where they do not belong, should bemoan the practice of name-changing; but sometimes it can even be difficult for Jews to see through the new identities of their co-religionists, and work out who is a Jew, and who merely likes a bowl of chicken soup. For the last word on this charade of Jew-hiding, Jew-spotting and the dangers of identity-disguising, I will hand over to Allen Konigsberg, better known as Woody Allen:

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