A couple of years ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance when my dog came up in the conversation. I will note, because I believe it’s relevant, that this person is Jewish. When I mentioned her name, his eyes widened and he reacted with shock and even some outrage. How could I name my dog after the Prime Minister of Israel?! He didn’t think it was an insult to Netanyahu–he genuinely disliked the guy and thought that it was highly inappropriate that I had chosen to pay “tribute” to him with the name. (I assured him that had not been my intention.)
As it happens, I don’t think I was aware of Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname when I named Bibi several years ago. We adopted her from Wonder Dog Rescue and she was an owner-surrender named Bugsy. I hated the name but figured she might be used to it and that it might be best to choose something similar-sounding. I thought of the Swedish actress Bibi Andersson, who appeared in numerous Bergman films, including “The Seventh Seal.” The dog seemed to respond to the name, so she was Bugsy no more.
It has been odd, over the past few days, to see “Bibi” crop up so frequently in headlines. There have been numerous Bibi-related puns; the New York Post went with the groanworthy “Bibi King,” while in the run-up to the election, at least one publication opted for “To Bibi or Not To Bibi?” Even Netanyahu himself got in on the punning in this bizarre ad where he arrives at a young couple’s door, telling them he’s there to care for their kids: “You ordered a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter!”
I was curious how the PM ended up with the same moniker as Ms. Andersson (whose given name is Berit); the best explanation I could find was in this article from the Associated Press, which notes that Netanyahu was nicknamed by his brothers when he was a boy. “Despite its macho, militaristic image, the world of Israeli politics is filled with tough characters bearing—and even flaunting—their diminutive childhood nicknames,” explains the AP. “Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is Bogie, former Finance Minister Avraham Shochat is Baiga and another former Cabinet minister, Eliezer Zandberg, is Moody, short for Hamoody, or ‘cutie’… [T]he phenomenon speaks to Israel’s notoriously close-knit, informal nature, where personal boundaries are thin and everyone seems to meddle in everyone else’s business.”
Netanyahu may embrace the nickname now, but according to this 1996 essay from JWeekly, at first, his official spokesman urged the media not to use it. “Mr. Netanyahu’s staff should lighten up, forget about formality and make good use of his moniker,” suggested writer Jonathan S. Tobin. “After all, it’s not every political leader who can get the press to sing, ‘Yessir, he’s their Bibi!'”
Whether you’re pro- or anti-Netanyahu, I think we can all agree on one thing: that’s a truly awful pun.