Reader Post: What’s in a Name?

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Author: Miriam Harris-Botzum

What’s in a Name?

For the past 50 years, there has been a large segment of the Arab world that refer to themselves as “Palestinians”, and the world at large has accepted this self-designation. I have often objected to the use of this name, and have been called a bigot and worse for doing so. Allow me to explain through an analogy why this choice of name is objectionable.



inuit-hunter-iglooFirst, some factual background: The Inuit are one of the indigenous peoples of North America, and they originated primarily in and around what is now Alaska. For many years, they were known as “Eskimos”, a derogatory name, imposed upon them by colonial settlers from Europe. The name “Eskimo” was still in common use during my childhood, but in recent decades, most of the Inuit have reclaimed their original name.

Now for the story:

Imagine for a moment that the Inuit, or at least many of them, wanted to have their own nation, independent from the US. And suppose they used diplomacy to convince the US government to allow this – to return Alaska to indigenous rule. Unlikely, I grant you, but use your imagination. After this announcement, many Inuit whose families had moved away from Alaska started to return, looking forward to having their own land once again. The US set a timetable to allow for people who wanted to, to move into or out of the nascent country, and for the Inuit to set up a government and prepare to take over governance.

Now, suppose that another group of Alaskan residents, mostly Americans of European descent, maybe some Canadians, maybe even a few descendants of other Native American peoples, decided that THEY deserved a country of their own, and they protested the decision to return Alaska to the Inuit, and threatened to cut off oil production if they didn’t get their way. I’ll call this second group Abars.

Some of these Abars really had lived in Alaska – or rather their families had – for a couple hundred years. Most were much newer to the land, having come to fill job openings in the petroleum industry. A few of them even had a bit of Inuit genes, but no longer identified as Inuit – they had given up the religion, the language, and the culture of the Inuit.

The US government, eager to avoid a conflict, agreed to the Abars’demands, and split Alaska, giving 3/4 of it to the Abars, and leaving just ¼ for the Inuit. Well, the Inuit were unhappy with this decision, but still glad to be getting a piece of their land back, so they went along with the decision. The Abars, however, were still unhappy – they wanted ALL of the land, not just most of it. So they continued to protest, and even resorted to violence. They pressured the government to limit Inuit immigration, while importing more Abars from around the region. They committed several massacres, and forced the surviving Inuit out of a number of towns. The rest of the world seemed oblivious to the situation, until the Inuit fought back, at which point they were condemned for using violence, even though it was in self-defense.

After several years of this escalating violence, the US government offered to FURTHER split the land. They offered the Abars about half of the remaining piece, to go along with the 75% they already held. Once again, the Inuit had no choice but to agree, under threat of having everything taken away. But the Abars themselves turned down the offer, insisting that they get 100% of the land!

The US refused that demand, and not long thereafter, the Inuit declared their independence, and renamed their land Alyeska (the origin of the name Alaska). Whereupon the Abars, and a number of their allies, declared war and tried to take by force what they had failed to gain through diplomacy or extortion. Thankfully, the Inuit survived the war, although they lost some land. During that war, many of the Abars who had lived in what was now Alyeska chose to join the invading armies, or simply chose to leave, rather than live under Inuit rule.

Fast forward a couple of decades. The Abars are still trying to gain control of Alyeska – a land, incidentally, that has thrived under Inuit rule. The Abars who fled, and their descendants, hit upon the brilliant idea to call themselves Eskimos! Heck, everybody knows that the Eskimos were the natives of Alaska. And the Inuit aren’t using that name anymore. So if these Abar refugees adopt the name, maybe they can fool the world into thinking they are the real natives, and get that land for themselves!

Now, you may say to yourself, “If the Inuit aren’t using that name anymore, why should they object to the Abars using it”?

There are two reasons it is offensive and problematic. The lesser reason is that the name itself is considered derogatory towards Inuit. But that is a relatively minor problem. The much bigger problem is that the Abars are using that name to convince the world that THEY, not the Inuit, are the indigenous people. They are pretending that all the historical references to Eskimos were references to the Abars, when in fact they were references to the Inuit. In other words, they are trying to use that name to appropriate Inuit history, in order to take away Inuit land.

I can’t speak for you, but *I* find that highly objectionable.

Now, this was fiction – but it was based on Middle East reality. The Inuit here represent the Jewish people – an indigenous people, who miraculously regained a part of their ancestral lands. The Abars, of course, represent the Arabs – or rather, the Arabs who now identify as “Palestinians”. And just as the Abars in the story adopted the discarded, colonial name of the Inuit in order to appropriate their history and take their land, so the Arab “Palestinians” have adopted the discarded, colonial name that used to belong to the Jews, in order to appropriate OUR history and take OUR land.

If they wanted to call themselves the Mxyzptlk, I wouldn’t object (though the authors of Superman comics might) – they can deem themselves a distinct people, and they can choose a name. But by deliberately choosing OUR old name, they are practicing identity theft.

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