COMMENTARY: What’s in A Name?

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)

(UNDATED) What’s in a name?

Some highly publicized incidents have recently shown that while names always make news, they also reveal the deep divisions existing between religions, races and political groups.

In late February, the physically frail Pope John Paul II arrived at Mount Sinai in the vast wilderness separating Egypt from Israel. John Paul, now in the twilight of his life, wanted to pray at the holy mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments directly from God.

For centuries the Greek Orthodox Church has lovingly maintained St. Catherine’s monastery at the base of Mount Sinai, one of the world’s most remote religious sites. St. Catherine’s abbot, Archbishop Damianos, warmly greeted the pope at the monastery and the two religious leaders embraced. So far so good.

But what happened next showed that the Great Schism of 1054 is still very much alive. In his welcoming remarks, the archbishop called the pope “the president of the Roman Catholic Church.” By deliberately avoiding “Your Holiness,” the term Roman Catholics employ when addressing the pope, the Greek Orthodox leader reminded everyone he does not recognize the spiritual authority of John Paul II.

The archbishop escorted “the president of the Roman Catholic Church” to the monastery chapel, but did not join him in prayer. Instead, Damianos said joint prayer “… is impossible, it is against our canon law.” The Greek Orthodox leader added that Christian unity, an ardent goal of the pope, was perhaps “possible, but it would take a miracle.”

The archbishop makes me wonder if Mount Sinai’s quota of miracles was used up thousands of years ago when Moses encountered God.

In an ironic twist, Orthodox Jewish leaders in Israel, a country the pope will visit at the end of this month, also avoided the title “His Holiness” when referring to John Paul II. Instead, they called him “His Honor,” which is much more respectful than the title the pope received from his fellow Christian at Mount Sinai.

On a completely different front, African-American leaders in Rhode Island are actively campaigning to change the legal name of America’s smallest state. Since the colonial days of the 17th century, the official designation has been “Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations.”

But in the politically correct and highly sensitive America of the 21st century, “Plantations” is an epithet, smacking of slavery and racial persecution. Black leaders point out that New England, including Rhode Island, participated in the infamous slave trade triangle with Africa and the Southern United States. Blacks further charge the traditional self-congratulatory image of a slave-free, abolitionist Rhode Island is a myth, and “Plantations” must be removed from the state’s name because it is offensive.

Rhode Island public officials responded that “Providence Plantations” is simply the British name given to the area long before the term took on negative meaning. “Plantations,” they claim, is part of Rhode Island’s historic heritage and was never meant to condone human slavery.

And finally, there is Yasser Arafat’s continuing effort to remake and rename Jesus, the Jew, into something he never was. Whenever and wherever the PLO leader meets Christian leaders, including the pope, he constantly asserts Jesus was actually “a Palestinian.” Since Bethlehem is now under Palestinian authority, Arafat uses the annual Christmas services in that city as a public platform to posthumously convert Jesus into a Palestinian.

Of course, there is no historical basis for this politically charged claim since the name “Palestine” only came into common usage years after the death of Jesus at the hands of the Romans. Indeed, the Roman conquerors of the land of Israel deliberately renamed the country to insult the Jewish people who by the year 135 had lost four bloody wars against the mighty Roman Empire.

In the biblical battle between David, the Israelite, and Goliath, the Philistine, the latter was slain with a slingshot. However, Goliath’s defeat was avenged centuries later when the Roman victors named the entire land of Israel, “Philistia,” in honor of the Jews’ longtime adversaries. Roman emperors like Vespasian and Hadrian clearly understood the humiliating meaning of such a name.

Arafat is currently following the same insulting path as the brutal Romans when he deceitfully calls Jesus a “Palestinian.” It is a setback to the peace process when religious leaders tolerate Arafat’s duplicity and historical dishonesty. It is particularly upsetting when everyone knows Jesus would be carrying an Israeli passport if he were alive today.

But then, what’s in a name? Obviously a lot.

DEA END RUDIN

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