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Who do you think I am? Immigrant’s first name and their perceived identity

Abstract

The current study focuses on immigrants’ perceived identity—that is, the way immigrants think the locals perceive them—and examines the link between the first name (ethnic or local) they use in everyday social encounters and their local identity and belonging perceptions. The study model was tested on data obtained from an online survey filled out by 837 immigrants who arrived in Israel from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) or Ethiopia as children or adolescents (1.5 generation). The main findings indicate that immigrants expressing a higher sense of belonging to the host society and using a local first name report higher levels of perceived local identity. FSU immigrants reported higher levels of perceived local identity compared to Ethiopian immigrants. However, contrary to our expectations, the first name played a more significant role among Ethiopian immigrants. Possible explanations for our findings lie in the different naming practices related to the two immigrant groups and in the different social and economic position they hold in the host society. Implications of the first name immigrants use in social encounters are discussed.

Introduction

Overview

The first name serves as an identity marker for the individual and for those who interact with him or her (Alford, 1987; Dion, 1983). Naming a child represents an important cultural decision and reflects the identity that parents or other members of the family or community expect for the newborn (Gerhards & Hans, 2009; Girma, 2020; Sue & Telles, 2007). Immigrants with an ethnic first name are automatically identified as “others” in social encounters and may consider changing their name. The immigrant’s decision whether to keep or change the ethnic first name may stem from the desire to minimize labeling and discrimination (Bursell, 2012; Khosravi, 2012), to preserve the affinity to the culture and community of origin, or to better integrate socially, economically, and culturally in the host society (Kim, 2007).

Drawing upon concepts of symbolic interactionism which can be traced back to classical sociological theories as the “looking glass self” (Cooley, 1964), we share the view that individuals develop their identities through interactions with others and through their interpretation of how other people see them (perceived identity). In social encounters, immigrants are singled-out as “others” by various ethnic and cultural markers that make them recognizable (Liu & Kramer, 2019; Tuppat & Gerhards, 2021).

Names serve as prominent markers in social interactions, and therefore naming practices may provide an excellent opportunity to study complex social processes related to identity formation and social perceptions. However, despite the great potential that the study of naming has, this field has not received sufficient academic attention (Sue & Telles, 2007). In this paper, we focused on the first name immigrants use (ethnic or local) in social encounters and examined the link between this decision and their perceived identity.

First names as identity indicators

A person’s first name is given by his or her parents, family members, or religious or social authority, according to the customs of the culture in which he or she lives. Individuals’ first name acts as an identification marker for those who interact with them (Alford, 1987; Dion, 1983; Weitman, 1987). Alongside onomastic studies, focusing on linguistic approaches to names (Kirwin, 2001), psychological and social studies focus on the social context in which names are formed (Gima, 2020; Sabet & Zhang, 2020; Sue & Telles, 2007).

The idea that names, identities, and the self are all intertwined is not new (Thompson, 2006) and may be explained by classical sociological theories. According to the theory of symbolic interactionism (Denzin, 2008; Stryker, 2001), focusing on how individuals interact with one another to create symbolic worlds, an individual’s first name may signal different layers of identity in everyday social encounters. Naming practices may serve as channels to form identities by ascribing a symbolic meaning to them (Grima, 2020). We argue that the first name an individual uses in a social interaction is an important symbolic representation of his or her identity, and that for immigrants, the first name plays a much more significant role.

Immigrants’ first name and acculturation

Within a society, an individual’s first name can designate him or her as a member of a certain ethnic or immigrant group. By adopting ethnic names or alternatively local names that are widespread in the host society, ethnic communities can differentiate or acculturate themselves (Gerhards & Hans, 2009; Sue & Tellers, 2007).

Immigrants’ first name serves as a cultural integration indicator in studies examining cultural, social, and economic assimilation of immigrants. Some of these studies present macro level historical trends of assimilation by analyzing trends of name choices over decades using official statistical data (Abramitzky et al., 2020; Carneiro et al., 2020). Other studies, focusing on immigrants’ parental decision related to naming their children, point to the reasoning behind the parental decision as well as to the implications it has for their children’s integration into the host society. A study exploring the naming patterns of first-generation Ethiopian-Americans in the United States found that Ethiopian–American parents chose names perceived as less problematic for integration, by selecting either Biblical names or ethnic names that are short and easy to pronounce. In addition, as Black immigrants, parents chose names that would enable them to draw symbolic boundaries between their children and African Americans (Grima, 2020). Other studies found that greater exposure to U.S. culture increased the chances of giving an English name to a child, and that parents were more inclined to give English names to their daughters than to their sons (Sue & Telles, 2007). In Germany, it was found that parents’ first-name choices have a clear link to their children’s integration into German society (Gerhards & Hans, 2009).

Whereas many studies have focused on the first name given to immigrant children at birth, fewer studies have focused on the immigrants’ decision whether to use an ethnic first name or a local one and the implications of such a decision. This decision may stem from various reasons. One reason mentioned in the literature is to minimize discrimination. In studies conducted in Germany and Sweden, immigrants with ethnic first names reported significantly more exposure to discrimination compared to immigrants with local or common first names (Bursell, 2012; Khosravi, 2012; Tuppat & Gerhards, 2021). Studies conducted in Sweden and Australia show that changing a foreign name to a local-sounding or neutral name is associated with a significant increase in invitations for job interviews, earnings, and economic integration (Arai & Thoursie, 2009; Bursell, 2012; Chowdhury et al., 2020).

The immigrant’s decision to use a local or ethnic first name may also stem from the desire to preserve the affinity to the culture of origin or alternatively from the desire to assimilate into the new culture (Ainciburu & Buttazzi, 2019; Kim, 2007). Based on Berry’s (2001) acculturation model, we can argue that immigrants who use a local first name in everyday social encounters act in line with the assimilation pattern, whereas immigrants who use their ethnic first name act in line with the pattern of separation. These polar opposites on the assimilation-separation dimension are termed Cultural Preference and are tested while examining relevant parameters in both origin and destination cultures (Carlson & Guler, 2018).

The current study focused on the immigrant’s decision to use an ethnic first name or a local name in everyday encounters and the implications of this decision for his or her sense of belonging to the host society and identity as reflected by others. We chose to focus on immigrants arriving at the host country as children or adolescents, classified in the migration literature as 1.5 generation (Rumbaut, 2004). The 1.5 generation immigrants differ from first- and second-generation immigrants in that they are generally more immersed in the host society culture than the first generation. However, unlike the second generation, they frequently have to re-negotiate their identities in relation to others in the host society (Amit, 2018; Dolberg & Amit, 2022; Li, 2021).

Sense of belonging and perceived identity

The question of identity and belonging is central in the process of immigrants’ integration into a new society. Immigrants’ identity can be defined as how they perceive themselves in relation to groups or social categories in the host society or in the country of origin (Tajfel, 1982). When people are confused about where they belong, as in the case of immigrants, the question of identification becomes more acute (Bauman, 1996). As identity is the result of the encounter with otherness (Burgat, 2003), a sense of belonging can be re-defined as the willingness to become involved with the other, and the concern with achieving competence in cultures (Ossewaarde, 2007).

For many years, new immigrants have been expected to let go of previous social identities, while they develop a sense of local identity and belonging to their new society. However, immigrants do not shed their former identity or cultural attachment with their home country (Lerner et al., 2007). Many immigrants build transnational networks that cross national borders, allowing multiculturalism, hybrid identities, and mixed cultural formats to emerge and thrive (Clarke et al., 2007).

The importance of identity representation can be traced back in the classical sociological theory of “looking glass-self” presented by Cooley in 1902 (1964). According to this theory, individuals’ identities are formed through social interactions, and the image of an individual is reflected in others’ reactions to him or her—that is, in his or her perceived identity. Thus, we know who we are by understanding how others see us. This central notion is apparent in other social theories in the field of sociology and communication (Liu & Kramer, 2019).

Several studies have addressed the concept of perceived identity in the context of migration (Amit, 2012; Heilbrunn et al., 2016; Perkins et al., 2014). In an Israeli study predicting local identity, it was found that the most significant factor was Israeli identity as perceived by others, indicating that the more the immigrants feel that native-born Israelis define them as Israeli, the more Israeli they feel (Amit, 2012). Another Israeli study comparing FSU and Ethiopian immigrants found an inconsistency between the Ethiopian immigrants’ self-definitions (mostly Jewish) and their perceptions of how the majority group perceives them (mainly Ethiopian). This inconsistency shows that many Ethiopian immigrants feel that the Israeli majority population is still not ready to accept them as part of society. The findings regarding FSU immigrants were more consistent: The majority of FSU immigrants who identify as Israelis believe that the majority group perceives them as such (Heilbrunn et al., 2016).

Migration studies addressing the concept of perceived identity and “otherness” in intercultural encounters have ignored a key identifying marker in these encounters—the immigrant’s first name. Immigrants are singled out as “others” based on both phenotypic and cultural markers (Liu & Kramer, 2019). Whereas phenotype markers stress physical dissimilarities such as skin color, cultural markers are represented by linguistic gaps and cultural values (Hecht et al., 2005). The immigrants’ first name can serve as a prominent cultural marker that manifests “otherness” in social encounters. Our study aimed to predict immigrants’ perceived identity by their sense of belonging to the host society and the first name they use in everyday social encounters (ethnic or local name). Before presenting our predicting model in more detail, we provide general background about the Israeli case and our study groups.

The Israeli case

The Israeli population is ethnically diverse, and around 35% of Israelis are foreign-born immigrants.Footnote 1 As a “returning diaspora,” Israel welcomes immigrants descended from Jewish ancestry and grants them citizenship upon arrival (Semyonov & Lewin-Epstein, 2003). This study focused on two distinct immigrant groups descended from Jewish ancestry: immigrants from the FSU and Ethiopia.

The FSU immigrants are Israel’s largest immigrant group, with more than one million arriving after the collapse of the FSU in 1989. Their immigration was primarily prompted by economic and political uncertainties in their home countries (Remennick, 2013). The FSU immigrant population is characterized by high human capital and strong professional credentials. However, in order to integrate into the local job market, many of these immigrants were forced to downgrade their employment status (Gorodzeisky & Semyonov, 2011), among other things due to poor social and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 2018) as immigrants in Israel. Previous studies have highlighted the importance FSU immigrants ascribe to their Russian culture and identity (e.g., Prashizky & Remennick, 2016; Remennick, 2003, 2013). The sense of belonging to Israeli society was found to be lower among FSU immigrants compared to French immigrants, and it was explained by differences in the levels of religiosity and in the motivation to immigrate between the groups (Amit & Bar-Lev, 2015). The significant role of identity and immigration motives as determinants of the sense of belonging to the host society among FSU immigrants has been found in other Israeli studies as well (Amit, 2018; Raijman & Geffen, 2018).

Approximately 150,000 people of Ethiopian descent, both foreign and Israeli-born, currently reside in Israel (CBS, 2021). Most Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel during the 1980s and 1990s in two major migration waves out of religious and personal insecurity motives. The Ethiopian community in Israel is characterized by relatively low human capital: many of the newly arrived immigrants lacked formal schooling and had little acquaintance with modern educational and job norms (Shabtay, 2001). Ethiopian immigrants are the least integrated community of all immigrant groups in Israel in terms of education and economic standing (Amit & Chachashvili-Bolotin, 2018). Racial prejudice may have hampered their integration as they are a visible black minority. However, in studies comparing the sense of Israeli identity between different immigrant groups in Israel, the Ethiopian immigrants expressed high levels of Israeli identity compared to FSU immigrants, mainly due to their level of religiosity (Amit, 2012). A recent study on 1.5 generation Ethiopian immigrants presented this generational group as socially and politically active, struggling for the right of their minority to be included in the collective space (Sharaby, 2021).

In order to address naming practices among immigrants in the Israeli context, a short presentation of Israel’s integration policy is needed. In the first decades following the establishment of the State of Israel, Israel followed a strict assimilation policy in line with the “melting pot” model, which exerted pressure on immigrants to change foreign first and last names to Hebrew names (Landman, 2016; Stahl, 1994). Often, the names were changed forcibly (Matras, 2008). Over the years, the implementation of the “melting pot” model has become less meticulous (Landman, 2016; Zilberg et al., 1995). However, it has been found that the Israeli public view was less tolerant than the official policy, and there is still an expectation of assimilation posed by native-born Israelis (Elias et al., 2000; Horowitz et al., 1998; Lissitsa et al., 2002). In addition, over the years, formal and informal pressure to change names has been applied mainly on immigrants from weak and vulnerable groups such as Ethiopian immigrants (Landman, 2016; Stahl, 2001). In the words of Stahl (2001), “The pressures still exist, but have lost some of their aggression” (p. 173).

Changing the first names of immigrants in Israel is common, and contrary to what is customary in some countries, there is no legal restriction on changing a first name (Nadav et al., 2008; Stahl, 2001). In a report based on an analysis of data from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, Krenzler (2004) presents the names chosen by FSU parents for their children as an expression of changes in cultural orientation and a distinction between immigrants who are Jewish and non-Jewish. In a recent book by Landman (2021), the Israeli parents’ considerations related to choosing their child’s name are presented. However, the immigrants’ own decision to use an ethnic or Israeli first name and the implications of such a decision are less explored in the Israeli context.

Of note, nowadays, the vast majority of the first names of the Jews in Israel are Hebrew names, including biblical and modern Hebrew names (Demsky, 2018; Walsh & Yakhnich, 2021). On the other hand, young immigrants with Jewish origins who have arrived in Israel in the last decades, in most cases had first names that were common in their communities in the countries of origin: Ethiopian Jews usually named their children with names that had personal, familial, and community meaning (Walsh & Yakhnich, 2021), and FSU Jews tended to use Russian names identified with the family or the Jewish community (Lawson & Glushkovskaya, 1994). Therefore, in most cases, the first names of the immigrants who arrived in Israel in recent decades are different from the names used in Israel.

The literature on changing the first names of immigrants arriving in Israel from the FSU and Ethiopia in recent decades is scarce. Most of it is based on qualitative research with a small sample of immigrants, and some of the information comes from cultural heritage websites, internal community papers, online immigrants’ communities, and fine literature (Moore-Gilbert, 2014; Prashizky & Remennick, 2022; Walsh & Yakhnich, 2021). These sources show that the names of most Ethiopian immigrants were officially changed to Hebrew names by immigration authorities upon immigration to Israel (Walsh & Yakhnich, 2021), whereas many young FSU immigrants were ashamed of their foreign name, and chose to change it, encouraged by their social environment (Gvion, 2011; Moore-Gilbert, 2014; Prashizky & Remennick, 2022). To the best of our knowledge, no Israeli study has examined the immigrants’ own decision to use an ethnic or Israeli first name in everyday social encounters on a large sample, using a quantitative method and while controlling for identity and socio-economic variables.

The present study

In our research model, the main dependent variable was the immigrants’ perceived identity. Our proposed model was based on predicting this variable by the immigrant’s sense of belonging and the first name they use in everyday social encounters (ethnic or local name). Our hypotheses were as follows: Immigrants’ sense of belonging to the host society (henceforth, sense of local belonging) will be positively linked to the sense of perceived Israeli identity (H1), whereas immigrants holding an ethnic first name will report lower levels of perceived Israeli identity (H2). FSU immigrants will report lower levels of sense of local belonging compared to Ethiopian immigrants (H3; Amit, 2012; Amit & Bar-Lev, 2015). However, compared to Ethiopian immigrants, who are a visible minority, FSU immigrants will report higher levels of perceived local (Israeli) identity (H4). Due to this visible difference between the two immigrant groups, the Israeli first name will play a more significant role for FSU immigrants (H5) (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

The research general predicting model

Method

Sample

This study was based on an online survey addressed to immigrant respondents, who immigrated to Israel aged 18 or less. Respondents were recruited using a non-random sampling method, a suited method to address this specific immigrant group.Footnote 2 Out of 1582 participants who started filling out the online survey, 1178 completed it. After selecting immigrants from the FSU or Ethiopia who arrived in Israel since 1989 and were aged 18 or less upon arrival, our final sample included 837 respondents: 728 FSU immigrants and 109 Ethiopian immigrants. As specified in the introduction, the population of Ethiopian immigrants in Israel is significantly smaller than the population of FSU immigrants, and thus it was more difficult to recruit respondents from this group.

The sample was obtained from immigrant social networks and websites (e.g., Facebook groups of immigrants in Israel, social networks of immigrant social activists). A link to the survey in Hebrew was available on these websites for a month in 2020, and immigrants randomly responded to the survey. The survey was anonymous, and respondents expressed their consent to answer it. Although using online surveys has certain disadvantages in terms of response rate and representation, it also has advantages in terms of the study setting and study population, especially when targeting a unique population (Nayak & Narayn, 2019). In our case, this sampling method was the most suited one for our specific study population, 1.5 generation immigrants belonging to two distinct origin groups, and for our research questions.

The average age of immigrants in the final sample was 36.82 years (SD = 5.16) and about 80 percent were women. The over-representation of women in surveys (mail and online surveys) is noted in previous studies (Smith, 2008). In addition, studies on changing ethnic first names among immigrants indicate that the changing dynamics are more apparent among women than among men (Gerhards & Hans, 2009; Sue & Telles, 2007), suggesting that women will show more interest in a survey dealing with the issue of changing immigrants’ names. The average age at migration was about 8.3 years (SD = 4.4), and on average, the immigrants in our sample were in Israel for 28.5 years (SD = 3.5).

Variables

The online survey was comprised of closed-ended questions on a broad variety of topics, and included socio-demographic items, items related to naming practices, and items related to social and cultural aspects, including perceived identity and sense of belonging.

The main dependent variable in our study was perceived Israeli identity. This variable was based on the following question: “To what extent do native-born Israelis perceive you as an Israeli?” and answers to this question were rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (to a great extent). This question was used in previous studies (Amit, 2012).

Two additional explanatory variables were sense of local belonging and first name. The Sense of Local Belonging index constructed by Amit and Bar-Lev (2015) comprises three variables rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 5 (to a great extent): Israeli identity, feeling at home, and tendency to stay in Israel. Reported Cronbach’s alpha reliability coefficient for this index (Amit & Bar-Lev, 2015) was high (R = 0.79), and was found to be high in the present study (R = 0.72).

First name—A dichotomous variable was created: using an ethnic or mixed name (1) vs. using an Israeli local name exclusively (0) in everyday social encounters.

The independent variables were as follows:

Economic status Answer on a 1–5 Likert scale to the question: “Is your financial situation better or worse compared to other people in Israel?”.

Education The highest obtained formal education on a scale of 1–7, ranging from “no formal education” to third academic degree.

Migration age Age at migration.

Ethnicity (group) Distinction between the two major groups: FSU immigrants (0) and Ethiopian immigrants (1).

In addition, age and gender were accounted for as independent variables.

Furthermore, apart from the variables entered in our main model, the survey included items related to naming practices. The respondents were asked a number of questions such as the nature of their original first name (ethnic, Hebrew, other), whether anyone had suggested they change their ethnic name, and if so, when and who. We asked the respondents who kept their original names (i.e., have ethnic or mixed names) why they chose to keep their names.

Analysis method

To evaluate the predicted model, we employed Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) with AMOS 5 software (Byrne, 2001). We examined the measurement model first, then the structural model, following Anderson and Garbing’s (1988) “two–step” technique. The structural model provides maximum likelihood estimates of all identified model parameters, and evaluates the degree to which the model reproduces the observed variance–covariance matrix in terms of a chi–squared goodness–of–fit statistic (Bollen & Long, 1993). This method enabled us to test the fit of the correlation matrix (Byrne, 2001; Dion, 2008). Our main general model suggests that immigrants’ background variables (age, gender, economic status, education level, age at migration, and ethnicity) explain immigrants’ sense of local belonging and the tendency to use an ethnic or Israeli local first name. The immigrants’ sense of local belonging and the tendency to use an ethnic or Israeli local first name, in turn, explain their perceived Israeli identity.

Findings

The descriptive findings obtained from the survey, presented in Table 1, show that the two immigrant groups in our study significantly differ in many of their characteristics. FSU immigrants were about 3 years older than Ethiopian immigrants. On average, FSU immigrants in our sample arrived in Israel when they were more than 8 years old and were in Israel for about 28.5 years, whereas Ethiopian immigrants were less than 7 years old upon arrival and were in Israel for about 27.5 years. The study also identified significant differences between the groups in socioeconomic variables: FSU immigrants were more educated and with a higher economic status compared to Ethiopian immigrants. However, the study found no significant difference between the groups in the percentage of males participating in the survey.

Table 1 Characteristics of FSU and Ethiopian immigrants

The descriptive findings related to naming practices indicate that only two respondents out of the entire sample answered that their local Hebrew name was their original name, and both were FSU immigrants. Most FSU immigrants (58.0%) and Ethiopian immigrants (82.6%) indicated that a name change has been suggested to them after immigrating to Israel. This difference was found to be significant (χ2(1) = 24.158, p < 0.001). A quarter (24.7%) of the FSU immigrants and half of the Ethiopian immigrants (46.7%) indicated that someone suggested they change their name immediately after their immigration; 16.9% of FSU immigrants and 22.9% of Ethiopian immigrants during their first year in Israel; and 25.9% of FSU immigrants and 30.2% of Ethiopian immigrants during their school years. Regarding the person who first suggested the name change (respondents could mark more than one answer), 14.5% of FSU immigrants and 19.2% of Ethiopian immigrants indicated that it was a representative of immigrant reception institutions; 28.8% of FSU immigrants and 61.4% of Ethiopian immigrants indicated it was a representative of the educational system. A substantial percentage of the FSU immigrants felt that the suggestion to change their first name was “a general non-binding proposal” (34.1%), whereas many of the Ethiopian immigrants felt it was “a proposal that included an attempt to persuade” (25.6%), or “a clear and decisive demand” (13.3%). Thus, Ethiopian immigrants perceived the proposal to change their name more as a demand than a suggestion compared to FSU immigrants (χ2(1) = 6.801, p < 0.05). The main reason for keeping the original first names among FSU immigrants was that they liked their name (33.5%), whereas among Ethiopian immigrants the main reason was that their name had a special emotional or familial significance (37.6%).

The differences between the groups in their subjective identity perceptions present a complex picture. There was no significant difference between the groups in their sense of belonging to Israel or in the first name they use (ethnic/Israeli). However, when examining the questions composing the sense of belonging index, it appears that the index components operate in opposite directions for the two groups of immigrants. Ethiopian immigrants felt more at home in Israel than FSU immigrants and were planning to stay in Israel to a greater extent. However, Ethiopian immigrants felt less Israeli than FSU immigrants. In addition, FSU immigrants expressed significantly higher levels of perceived Israeli identity compared to Ethiopian immigrants. This last finding indicates that in comparison to FSU immigrants, Ethiopian immigrants felt that native Israelis perceive them as less Israelis.

The correlations between the central research variables are presented in Table 2. Perceived Israeli identity was positively correlated with sense of belonging (r = 0.41, p < 0.01). Thus, in general, immigrants who thought that native Israelis perceive them as Israelis expressed higher levels of belonging to Israel. Perceived Israeli identity was also positively correlated with education level (r = 0.10, p < 0.01) and economic status (r = 0.18, p < 0.01), and negatively correlated with age at migration (r = − 0.14, p < 0.01). Thus, immigrants with higher levels of education and economic status, and who immigrated at an earlier age, thought that native Israelis perceive them as Israelis to a greater extent. The study found no significant correlation between sense of belonging, age at migration, and education level.

Table 2 Correlations between central research variables

We used Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) to further understand the factors explaining immigrants’ perceived Israeli identity. Our model suggests immigrants’ perceived Israeli identity can be predicted by the immigrants’ sense of belonging and the first name they use in everyday social encounters (ethnic or local name). The results indicate that the model fits the data well: the fit indices exceed 0.90, and the RMSEA is significant (p = 0.04). The standardized coefficients of the model are presented in Table 3 and in Fig. 2.

Table 3 Results from the SEM model—Standardized coefficients of the model predicting perceived Israeli identity
Fig. 2
figure 2

Predicting perceived Israeli identity by sense of local belonging and first name- Graphic results from the SEM model (trimmed model)

The significant results (trimmed model) are presented in Fig. 2 with specification of the main statistical measures: regression weights and multiple correlation coefficients. In general, the model predicts 31 percent of the variance of immigrants’ perceived Israeli identity. Sense of belonging and first name, the mediator variables in the model, significantly predicted immigrants’ perceived Israeli identity (β = 0.42 and β = − 0.07, respectively). Thus, our model confirms hypotheses H1 and H2. The background variables predicted 6 percent of immigrants’ sense of belonging and only 2 percent of the immigrants’ first name. Gender did not have any correlation = with perceived Israeli identity according to the model. The immigrants’ sense of belonging was positively explained by age (β = 0.24) and economic status (β = 0.10), and negatively explained by migration age (β = − 0.08). We expected that FSU immigrants would report lower levels of sense of belonging compared to Ethiopian immigrants (H3), but this link was not significant. Using an ethnic first name was negatively explained by age (β = − 0.11) and immigrant group (β = − 0.07), thus, surprisingly, older immigrants and Ethiopian immigrants were more likely to use Israeli names than ethnic names, compared to younger immigrants and FSU immigrants, respectively. Therefore, contrary to our hypothesis (H5), the Israeli first name does not play a more significant role for FSU immigrants.

We found direct positive links between the background variables of immigrant group, migration age, education, and economic status and the dependent variable—perceived Israeli identity. These links indicate that, as expected in our hypothesis (H4), FSU immigrants expressed higher levels of perceived Israeli identity while Ethiopian immigrants expressed lower levels (β = − 0.23). Immigrants arriving in Israel at an older age expressed lower levels of perceived Israeli identity (β = − 0.21) and a lower level of sense of belonging (β = − 0.08). Both education level and economic status had a positive direct link to perceived Israeli identity (β = 0.06 and β = 0.08, respectively).

Discussion

This study focused on the first name immigrants use (ethnic or local) in social encounters and examined the relation of this decision to their perceived local identity, that is, to their interpretation of how the locals see them. The general model tested in the study identifies factors related to immigrants’ local sense of belonging and their tendency to use an ethnic or local first name in everyday social encounters, which in turn explains their perceived local identity. The model was tested on Ethiopian and FSU immigrants who arrived in Israel as children or adolescents (1.5 generation).

While the concepts of identity and belonging are central in the migration field, the concept of perceived identity, which is based on classical sociological theories (Cooley, 1964), has received less attention from migration scholars. The few migration studies addressing this concept point to the significant link between perceived identity and local self-identity, alongside differences in this relation between immigrant groups (Amit, 2012; Heilbrunn et al., 2016; Perkins et al., 2014). Our findings reinforce what emerges from this literature. In accordance with our first hypothesis (H1), we found that the immigrants’ sense of local belonging positively predicts the sense of perceived Israeli identity. In addition, we found differences between the two immigrant groups in their perceived local identity: FSU immigrants express higher levels of perceived Israeli identity compared to Ethiopian immigrants. Thus, although Ethiopian immigrants feel Israeli, they believe that locals do not see them that way. Their sense of otherness can be attributed to being a visible minority (Heilbrunn et al., 2016).

Previous migration studies addressing the concept of perceived identity have overlooked a key identifying marker in social encounters—the immigrant’s first name. In line with our second research hypothesis (H2), we found that immigrants using an ethnic first name in everyday social encounters report lower levels of perceived Israeli identity, compared to immigrants who use a local one. Studies examining name change among immigrants in different countries have found that using a local or a common first name was associated with less exposure to discrimination (Bursell, 2012; Khosravi, 2012; Tuppat & Gerhards, 2021). Differences in the attitude of the environment to a local first name versus an ethnic first name were found even when only the immigrant’s last name was ethnic. Chinese immigrants in Australia with a “white” first name and a Chinese last name were invited for more job interviews than immigrants with a Chinese first name and last name (Chowdhury et al., 2020). Hence, using a local first name leads to a different perception of the immigrant by the locals, and as our study found, it is reflected in the immigrants’ perceived local identity.

In our model, the two factors together, sense of local belonging and first name, explained a significant part of the variance of the immigrants’ perceived local identity (31%). The main contribution of the present study is in adding and identifying the link between an immigrant’s first name and his or her perceived identity, and pointing to one’s first name as a significant social marker. Therefore, whether immigrants use an ethnic first name or a local name may have implications for the immigrants’ interpretation of their otherness. In addition to the literature examining the issue in the context of discrimination and stigma (Bursell, 2012; Chowdhury et al., 2020; Khosravi, 2012; Tuppat & Gerhards, 2021), the present study shows that the use of a local or ethnic first name may be linked to the way immigrants think they are perceived by locals in all areas of life. Moreover, adopting a local name may convey a message of motivation for integration to locals (Chowdhury et al., 2020). According to our study, immigrants sense that the locals understand this message.

The present study compared two immigrant groups: FSU and Ethiopian immigrants. Based on previous studies where Ethiopian immigrants expressed higher levels of Israeli identity compared to FSU immigrants, mainly due to their level of religiosity (Amit, 2012), we hypothesized that FSU immigrants would report lower levels of sense of belonging to Israel compared to Ethiopian immigrants (H3). This hypothesis was only partially supported. The sense of local belonging index included several factors: Israeli identity, feeling at home in Israel, and plans to stay in Israel (Amit & Bar-Lev, 2015). When comparing these factors in the univariate model, it was found that although the Israeli identity of FSU immigrants was significantly higher than that of Ethiopian immigrants, Ethiopian immigrants felt more at home in Israel and expressed higher levels of intentions to stay in Israel than FSU immigrants. The intention of FSU immigrants to leave Israel although they feel Israelis was found in previous studies and was explained by their lower religious affiliation (Amit, 2018). Ethiopian immigrants are more connected to their religious identity and as a less educated and skilled group, are faced with less economic opportunity abroad, thus are less inclined to leave Israel.

Yet, when comparing the overall index of sense of local belonging as well as the link between the immigrant group to the index in the multivariate model, no significant difference was found between the groups. A possible explanation is that there has been a change in the integration of FSU immigrants in Israel and in their sense of Israeli identity. Of note, the current study focused on 1.5 generation immigrants, who spent most of their years in Israel. Since the average age of the respondents who immigrated from the FSU was 37.20 (SD = 4.99), and their average age of immigration was 8.60 (SD = 4.40), it is plausible that over the years, their Israeli identity has strengthened, as can also be seen in recent qualitative studies (Dolberg & Amit, 2022; Remennick & Prashizky, 2018; Prashizky, 2019).

Based on previous studies (Amit, 2012; Amit & Bar-Lev, 2015), our fourth hypothesis was that FSU immigrants would report higher levels of perceived Israeli identity compared to Ethiopian immigrants, who are a visible minority. This hypothesis was supported. That is, while ethnic group was not linked to sense of local belonging, it had a significant link to perceived Israeli identity. The respondents who immigrated from Ethiopia have also lived in Israel for many years, their average age was 34.32 (SD = 5.57), and their average age of immigration was 6.79 (SD = 3.88). Yet, being a visible minority, it seems that time since their migration did not play a meaningful enough role in their perceived identity.

Due to this visible difference between the two immigrant groups, we expected the Israeli first name to play a more meaningful role for FSU immigrants (H5), as using a local name can more easily conceal the otherness of FSU immigrants. However, contrary to our hypothesis, no significant difference between the groups was detected in the univariate analysis, and according to the multivariate model, Ethiopian immigrants are more likely to use Israeli names than ethnic names. This finding may be explained by the Israeli naming practices and their consequences. More formal and informal pressure to change first names was put on Ethiopian immigrants than on FSU immigrants, as Ethiopian immigrants come from a weaker and smaller community (Landman, 2016; Stahl, 2001). Thus, many Ethiopian immigrants grew up with an Israeli local name and probably found it more difficult, even technically, to change their name later on in life. In order to better understand the naming practices and the name change dynamics in each immigrant group, a complementary study using qualitative research methods is needed.

Another unexpected finding was that using an ethnic first name was negatively explained by age, thus, older respondents tended to use Israeli names more than the younger ones. This finding can also be explained by the changing dynamics of naming practices in Israel. The study respondents immigrated to Israel between the ages of 0 and 18 (1.5 generation) since the beginning of the 1990s. Hence, our sample included adult immigrants who immigrated in the early 1990s and younger ones who immigrated in recent years. The findings can be seen as an expression of the change that has taken place in Israel in terms of the pressure on immigrants to integrate. While in the early 1990s pressure was still exerted for rapid integration, including symbolic expressions such as the change of first name, this pressure has decreased over the years (Landman, 2016).

As our study is the first to address the relation between the first name immigrants use in everyday social encounters and their perceived local identity, it may be defined as an exploratory study. The use of a quantitative research method on a large sample while applying structural equation modeling allowed us to test variables explaining the intriguing social indicator, perceived identity, and thus to reinforce a theoretical model which is grounded solidly in the well-established tradition of sociological theory (symbolic interactionism). Our study pointed out a significant and complex relation between the first name immigrants use, their country of origin, their sense of local belonging, and their perceived local identity.

Our findings may have implications for practitioners working with immigrants as well as for policy makers. Our main dependent variable was perceived local identity, that is, the way immigrants believe they are perceived by the locals. Specifically, our study examined the way adult immigrants, who arrived as children and adolescents (1.5 generation), perceive the attitudes towards them from the surrounding Israeli society. This social indicator represents the immigrant’s perception of otherness but also places the responsibility on the locals and their attitudes toward immigrants. As apparent from the findings, the immigrants’ perceived local identity is more strongly attached to the immigrants’ sense of local belonging than to the name he or she uses in social encounters. The findings also indicate that for visible and racial minorities (in our case, for Ethiopian immigrants), using a local name does not necessarily lower the sense of otherness, and is not strongly linked to the sense of local belonging. Thus, forcing or even just encouraging immigrants to use a local first name, an informal practice common in several migration countries, may not affect their sense of national belonging.

This study has several limitations. The first limitation concerns the significantly higher rate of women in the sample. Previous research has found that in general women are overrepresented in surveys (Smith, 2008). Furthermore, studies on changing ethnic first names among immigrants show that the changing dynamics are more noticeable for women than for men, due to relative conservatism in giving and changing boys’ names (Gerhards & Hans, 2009; Rossi, 1965; Sue & Telles, 2007). Nevertheless, the overrepresentation of women was apparent for both FSU and Ethiopian immigrants in our study. Future studies should try and obtain a more gender representative sample. Another limitation concerns the binary definition of the first name the immigrant uses regularly as either local or ethnic (or mixed). We understand there may be other combinations of naming such as shortening names, informally using a local name similar to the original name, using an international name that does not ring as an ethnic name, etc. These complex dynamics can be examined more thoroughly in a qualitative study using in depth interviews to better understand the meanings of name change for the immigrant.

Despite its limitations, the study has several major contributions: First, the study focused on the concept of perceived identity, specifically perceived local identity, an issue that has received less attention in the study of migration. Second, perceived local identity was found to be correlated to variables which have not been tested before: sense of local belonging and the immigrant’s first name, while taking into account differences between groups of immigrants. The main contribution lies in research attention to the immigrants’ first name (ethnic or local) as a significant marker of the immigrants’ perceived identity. As the current study raises this relation for the first time, further research is needed, in Israel and other migration countries, on the implications of first names for immigrants’ identity perceptions.

Availability of data and materials

The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Notes

  1. Around 75% of Israel's current population, of nine million people, are of Jewish ancestry, 20% are Arabs, and 5% are categorized as “others” (CBS, 2021).

  2. There is no official data set related to our research. Based on the sample restrictions (immigration under the age of 18 and after 1989) we have calculated that the oldest can be around age 50 and the youngest older than 18. In our sample, the age range is 18–49 (FSU 22–49; Ethiopian 18–48) and the average age is mid-30 s.

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KA leaded the writing of this article and was in charge of the data analysis. PD was in charge of the administration of the online survey and the data collection. All authors contributed in writing the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Karin Amit.

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Amit, K., Dolberg, P. Who do you think I am? Immigrant’s first name and their perceived identity. CMS 11, 6 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40878-023-00328-1

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