What’s in a Name? Or, the Political Significance of Elmer

Page from David McKee's "Elmer's Splash" (Dutch translation) © 1995/2003 Piccolo Amsterdam

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power and impotence of names. About how much we invest in the practice of giving names—to our children, to the places where we live, to the places where other people live. You’ve heard, perhaps, about the controversial proposal to hebraize East Jerusalem neighborhood names. I’m here to tell you that the real argument is not to be found in this story and the storm in its wake.

We need to start much further upstream and concern ourselves with fundamental stories about “us” and “them,” for instance, with the figure of a certain rainbow-colored elephant named, in most cases, Elmer —who is a symbol of accepting difference, and the possibility of identifying with, indeed even becoming (for a day) the other. Well, he’s Elmer in English, the language in which the author David McKee first composed him, and allowing for a slight vowel change, he’s the same in various other languages. He’s Elmar in German, for instance. In Hebrew, however, he is “Bentzi,” short for “Ben Zion,” or son of Zion, and in a quite literal way, the most Zionist name one could possibly give or be given. Not only was the rainbow colored elephant’s name hebraized, it was changed to make him a Hebrew figure, i.e.an exclusively Hebrew, exclusively Israeli, figure. To be “Bentzi,” doesn’t only mean not to be Elmer. It also means to be the kind of being that can only be “in the land of Zion.”

It is noteworthy, indeed, worrisome, disappointing, imprudent and counterproductive that powerful voices within Israeli political culture, including Israel’s Parliament, want to change the narrative. These voices want to undercut Arab claims on East Jerusalem (mind you, not Palestinian, as they deny that there is such a thing as Palestinian). Repugnant as this is, I think the change from Elmer to Bentzi is even more significant.

Why? It seems to . . .

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